August 2, 2021

Fraudulent History 101

December 9, 2010 by · 8 Comments 

So Marvin Miller got screwed again this week in the Hall of Fame balloting. Who didn’t see that coming? Miller certainly saw it coming, undoubtedly the reason why he requested that his name be kept off future Veterans Committee ballots after being snubbed in 2008. That time around, the committee was heavily stacked against him, loaded with executives who had been bested by Miller in labor negotiations and exacted their revenge by shutting him out. This time, the new composition of the committee gave Miller a chance, but he still fell a tantalizing one vote short.

Miller issued a blistering statement that put a lot of things into focus. Here is part of what he said: “Many years ago those who control the Hall decided to rewrite history instead of recording it. The aim was to eradicate the history of the tremendous impact of the players’ union on the progress and development of the game as a competitive sport, as entertainment, and as an industry. The union was the moving force in bringing Major League Baseball from the 19th century to the 21st century. . . .That is a difficult record to eradicate–and the Hall has failed to do it. A long time ago, it became apparent that the Hall sought to bury me long before my time, as a metaphor for burying the union and eradicating its real influence. Its failure is exemplified by the fact that I and the union of players have received far more support, publicity, and appreciation from countless fans, players, writers, scholars, experts in labor management relations, than if the Hall had not embarked on its futile and fraudulent attempt to rewrite history.”

There was more, but that’s the gist of it. I’d like to bypass the personal issues here and focus on the history itself, starting with Miller’s assertion about taking baseball from the 19th century to the 21st. I think he’s understating it; I’d say he took baseball forward from the 17th century. That’s when thousands of people moved to the United States as indentured servants, just a step or two above slavery. There was a time limit to the servitude of indentured servants, but the people who had contracted them could transfer their work obligation to someone else. It wasn’t outright ownership like slavery, but the servant had no say in whom he would be working for from one day to the next.

That’s what the reserve clause in baseball did. Created in 1879, by the mid-1880s the reserve clause was a tool the owners used to make money by selling players’ services to other teams. The player had no choice but to report to his new team–or be blacklisted entirely from the professional sport. More than 80 years later, when Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause, he was blasted by owners (and sympathetic writers) for daring to defy an owner who was paying him $90,000 a year. Flood replied that “a well-paid slave is a slave nonetheless.” Actually, he was an exception–by being well-paid. Most of his teammates and fellow major leaguers were poorly paid slaves.

When Marvin Miller was hired to run the players’ union in 1966, the minimum salary was $6,000, roughly what it had been for decades. Miller was vilified by owners and the press as a Communist or, worse, the pawn of “The Mob.” They raised the specter of Jimmy Hoffa coming into clubhouses to dictate policy and strategy. The players hired Miller primarily because they had doubts about management’s ability to administer the players’ pension plan. But he realized right away that the players had been brainwashed for decades to believe that the owners were benevolent sportsmen who must love baseball because they weren’t making any money from it. It took another 40 years for owners to admit that they’ve been making a fortune all along and to stop stonewalling the players’ union during negotiations by poor-mouthing themselves.

I had the good fortune to interview Marvin Miller in 1992. He and his wife graciously hosted me at their Manhattan apartment, where Miller and I talked for two hours. I got a first-hand lesson in why owners thought he brainwashed the players. A union rabble-rouser is generally portrayed as some combination of agitated, strident, angry, bullying, fast-talking, and overbearing. Miller was none of these things. He was calm, soft-spoken, and patient. As the players’ representative, he was outraged at the conditions he discovered, indignant about how badly the players were treated, and confident in taking the moral high ground on their behalf. Those were the qualities that enabled him to outlast the owners every time. He knew he was right and knew that the owners’ self-interest would prevent them from remaining unified in the long run.

Of course, Miller is best-known for overturning the reserve clause, which existed for nearly one century and was considered the backbone of the baseball business. Here’s where his statement about “eradicating” history applies. Unless you were around at the time, you have no idea how tenaciously management clung to the notion of the reserve clause as essential. Time and again, the owners and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declared that if the reserve clause disappeared, baseball would go out of business. It was that simple. A milder statement of this conviction appeared in Kuhn’s book Hardball: “There was no doubt in my mind that the game’s integrity and public confidence were at stake in the potential destruction of the reserve system.” The key argument advanced was that if players became free agents and could sign wherever they wanted, the “rich” clubs would buy up all the best players and destroy the notion of competitive balance (that’s what Kuhn meant by “the game’s integrity”).

In fact, there was only a myth of competitive balance. From 1921-1968, a 48-year span leading up to the “playoff era,” the Yankees won 29 American League pennants (60%). In the National League, the Cardinals, Giants, and Dodgers combined to win 33 pennants (69%). What kind of competitive balance was that? In the last ten years, nine different franchises have won the World Series, and 14 franchises have made the World Series (with only the Yankees appearing more than twice). That is competitive balance, and it exists because there is no longer a reserve clause.

Miller’s 15-year tenure as executive director of the MLBPA (and post-retirement advisor/guru status with subsequent union leaders) was not just about making the players rich or creating a lucrative pension plan well beyond the dreams of the men who hired him. No issue was too small for him when a principle or the welfare of players was involved. When I interviewed him, for instance, he told me that he continually had to remind the owners that “the players are your only assets.” Take Royals Stadium, which opened in 1970 and was designated as the site for that year’s All-Star Game. Miller learned that the “warning track” at the new park was not a cinder or dirt section but rather a part of the outfield Astroturf painted a different color! He brought this dangerous situation to the attention of Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, whose response was “well, outfielders pretty much know where the fences are.” Miller had to point out that an outfielder chasing a long fly ball is looking up at the ball, not down to see where the Astroturf changes color. Kauffman refused to do anything about it–until Miller threatened to have the players boycott the All-Star Game. Only then did Kauffman put in a warning track that the players could feel as they ran toward the wall. Same thing with padded walls, an innovation he had to fight for. I would’ve thought that the first time Pete Reiser ran into a wall back in the 1940s and received last rites on the field, owners would’ve padded the walls. But no. It wasn’t until Miller came along that players were protected from running into concrete walls and chain-link fences. It was the right thing to do, and he plugged away until it was done.

Let’s cut to the chase: is it accurate to say that the Hall of Fame has embarked on a “futile and fraudulent attempt to rewrite history”? Yes. Has it done so by excluding Miller from the ranks of inductees? I don’t think so. The first time Miller came up for election, the majority of voters were living Hall of Famers, and that was the most shocking failure of an electorate to enshrine Miller. If the players who benefited so greatly from his work didn’t overwhelmingly elect him, that was strong evidence of Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson’s statement after this week’s election that this is a reminder of just how tough it is to get elected. Yes, the Hall of Fame stacked the deck against Miller in 2008. I don’t think that was the case this year. Miller needed 12 votes out of 16. There were eight players and four writers on the committee. There is no rational reason why he shouldn’t have gotten all 12 of those votes. The one person who (no doubt) joined the four executives in refusing to vote for Miller is the asshole who should be strung up. I don’t think you can pin this one on the Hall of Fame.

However, I don’t think Miller was simply referring to his own non-election as this “fraudulent attempt to rewrite history”. I think he was referring to the 2008 election of Bowie Kuhn to the Hall of Fame (by the same management-loaded voting body that gave Miller his lowest percentage of votes), an election viewed by a large portion of the Hall of Fame staff as the biggest joke since Morgan Bulkeley was elected back in 1937 because he was a one-year figurehead president of the National League.

One of my duties as a Hall of Fame library researcher was to copy-edit and critique proposed plaque text for newly elected Hall of Famers. I pointed out several inaccuracies in the proposed text for Kuhn, who was apparently being immortalized for things he didn’t do. I am chagrined to report that my suggested changes were not adopted, and the inaccuracies remain on the plaque that is hanging in the main gallery of the Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown.

When the person who wrote the original text described Kuhn’s administration as “proactive and inventive,” I wrote a note in the margin asking for some clarification of what those adjectives meant when applied to Kuhn, and requested some specific examples of what was meant. I’m still waiting for a response apart from the fact that those vague adjectives made it onto the final plaque. If you read a book like John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm, you get a portrait of Kuhn as a man who fought progress and innovation on almost every front. He led the battle against the reserve clause and kept his head firmly planted in the sand on nearly every issue involving the balance of power between the owners and players. This was perfectly understandable: he was hired by the owners and owed his power to Walter O’Malley and the other owners who actually ran the game.

Let’s look at some of the other statements on Kuhn’s plaque. The one I fought the hardest to delete was the claim that Kuhn “extended postseason with creation of the league championship series.” That simply is not so. Kuhn’s tenure as commissioner began in February, 1969. The expansion from 20 to 24 teams occurred in 1969, as did the institution of divisional play and the second tier of playoffs, the LCS, which preceded the World Series. The Hall of Fame would like us to believe that Kuhn created all of this in the two months between the date when he took office and the start of the 1969. That’s bullshit. Expansion was okayed two years before that, the expansion draft occurred in 1968, and the playoff system was solidly in place before the owners turned to Kuhn as a one-year compromise commissioner when they couldn’t elect anyone else. Kuhn had nothing to do with the creation of the LCS.

Another statement of purported fact which I protested was the assertion that Kuhn “tripled major league attendance” during his tenure (1969-1984). That simply isn’t true. In 1962, the first year when there were 20 major league teams, MLB attendance totaled 22,519,278. That’s a little over 1.1 million per team. Attendance in the 1960s peaked at a little over 25 million in 1966, and in 1968, the last year before Kuhn became commissioner, it was 23,102,745. That was still less than 1.2 million per team.

The highest attendance during Kuhn’s tenure was 45,540,302, in 1983. In his final year, 1984, attendance was 44,742,863. These figures are less than twice the figures from 1968, so how this translates into tripling attendance is beyond me. Moreover, by the 1980s the majors had expanded from 20 to 26 teams. The average attendance in 1984 was roughly 1.7 million per team. That’s barely a 50% increase over 1968. That’s way further from tripling attendance (or 300%, for those of you keeping score at home) than the total figure. But that’s what his plaque in Cooperstown says he did. Huh?

In fact, it was Kuhn’s poor business record which caused owners to oust him in 1984. As Expos owner Charles Bronfman put it (quoted in Helyar’s book), “the economics of the industry were in bad shape and Bowie wouldn’t do anything to help. As salaries started to escalate, you had to improve revenue streams.” Gee, it sounds as though MLB needed a commissioner who was “proactive and inventive” to come in and save the day, because Kuhn was neither of those things. So they hired Peter Ueberroth, who proved to be proactive and inventive by instituting the collusion policy which later cost MLB some $280 million in lawsuits. But that’s another story.

I’m far from the first observer to point out that Bowie Kuhn being in the Hall of Fame while Marvin Miller is not, is the biggest travesty of recent baseball history. It’s that simple, and it definitely constitutes fraudulent history. Nobody has had a bigger influence on the past 40 years of baseball than Miller. What Branch Rickey did for African-American ballplayers, Miller did for all ballplayers. He freed them. He liberated them over the strident protests of Kuhn and the owners that he would kill baseball by doing so. Say what you want about the balance of power possibly tipping too far in the players’ favor in recent years. Maybe it’s 60-40% in favor of the players today, and that might or might not be a good thing. Before Miller took over, it was 100-0% in favor of the owners, an evil only he was patient and shrewd enough to overcome. For that, he should’ve been elected 20 years ago.

Gabriel Schechter grew up within ten miles of the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, is a lifelong Reds fan, and once attended games in Los Angeles and San Diego on the same day. From 2002-2010 he was a Research Associate at the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and is the author of Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw’s Giants; Unhittable: Baseball’s Greatest Pitching Seasons; and This BAD Day in Yankees History, as well as the blog Never Too Much Baseball.


8 Responses to “Fraudulent History 101”
  1. Jon Pessah says:

    Forget the executives who voted against him. They are minded and vindictive. But what about the players or the writers? Rejecting Marvin Miller turns Cooperstown into a theme park instead of a museum.

  2. Fred Taylor says:

    It gets a little old hearing pampered and forever overpaid major-league baseball players compared with “indentured servants”, i.e., slaves. They were overpaid in 1940 and they are way, way overpaid today thanks to Miller, Stinebrenner, .et .al.
    In a more equitable system owners AND players would make much less money and the surfeit would be distributed to the fans in the form of reduced ticket prices, parking fees and concession prices so that more of us could actually afford to go to a major league game.

  3. Mr. Taylor:

    I don’t know what your profession is, but for the sake of argument let’s say you’re a pharmacist and you work for CVS in St. Louis. You’ve gotten a lot of professional training and education, and you’re very good at what you do. Tomorrow morning you get a phone call from CVS, and they tell you, “Fred, you’re needed in the store in Seattle.” You say, “whoa, I like it here. My kids go to a great school, my wife likes her job, I don’t want to go to Seattle. It rains too much there.” And the voice at the other end says, “well, you’ve already been transferred to Seattle. If you don’t want to go, YOU CAN NEVER BE A PHARMACIST AGAIN — ANYWHERE!”

    How the hell would you feel?

    That’s how baseball players felt for nearly 100 years.

  4. Fred Taylor says:

    Mr Schechter
    If I was being paid well (like the majority of major league players were in 1940) and I wanted to continue to be paid well, I would pack my bags for Seattle.
    Where is the logic of paying jocks millions of dollars when they could easily get by on, say, what the President of the United States makes ($400,000 per annum).
    The present insanity will not change, of course, but it is people like Miller that got it to where it is. Should he be in the Hall of Fame? I’ll give him that, but I don’t agree that what he done was such a great thing.
    Fred Taylor

  5. Mr. Taylor:

    I agree with much of what you’ve said, especially the point in your first post about how, in an ideal world, the players would be paid much less (but still plenty to get by on) so that fans like us wouldn’t be subject to such outrageous prices for tickets, parking, and concessions that we could go to more games. It’s the fans who pay for everything, and until we start boycotting games, the insanity will continue. I’m with you on that.

    I hope you’ll take the time to read something I wrote last year on that subject, titled “Paying To Watch Out-Takes” — here’s the link:

    I do disagree with your statement that players in 1940 (or in any year before the 1970s) were generally overpaid or even well-paid. Yes, they made more money than the average US factory worker or clerk. But when you consider that most players toiled for very poor wages in the minor leagues for years before reaching the majors, that the average major league career lasts only 4-5 years (meaning that the player has only that period of time to “make hay”), and that major leaguers represent the top 1-2% of their profession, they simply were not paid that well. Compared to other high-skill professions where people have to work their way up through the ranks to reach the upper echelon, their opportunity to make big money was minimal.

    Okay, maybe you’d make that move to Seattle. A year later, they’d move you to Des Moines, and two months after you got to Des Moines you’d be moving again — with your family, with your kids changing schools, etc. — to Atlanta. Then the year after that, you’d be on the move again, to Minnesota or New Mexico or wherever they felt like sending you. Suppose, meanwhile, that your income was based not merely on showing up for work every day, but on the amount of sales you made. Suppose further that when you got to Seattle, you found that instead of spending your eight-hour shift making sales, as you did in St. Louis, you’d be spending five or six hours a day stocking shelves, prevented from making sales and thereby reducing your income (the equivalent of going from being the starting second baseman to becoming a utility infielder). Now you’d want to get out of Seattle and go someplace else where your talents would be rewarded — but you couldn’t do that either! Seattle now owned your services and could use you any way they wanted, and if that meant you’d only make 60% as much next year, that would be your problem, not theirs.

    It isn’t as simple as making “X” amount of dollars. As I wrote in the “Paying To Watch Out-Takes” column, I believe everyone would be better off if nobody besides the player knew how much money he made. I don’t think it’s anybody’s business. I know I’d be happier if I didn’t know how much Oliver Perez was making, and I suspect you’d be happier, too. Once, when Branch Rickey gave Carl Erskine a going-over in contract negotiations before signing him for much less than he was worth, he advised Erskine not to tell the press. “Don’t worry,” Erskine told him, “I’m embarrassed by it, too.”

    Gabriel Schechter

  6. Steve Ryan says:

    I enjoyed the article. The problem I have is the process for baseball awards in general. Hall-of-Fame, MVP, Gold Gloves or Manager of the Year?

    Bowie Kuhn in, Marvin Miller out. Bartolo Colon even has a Cy Young, which is probably equal to Derek Jeter having how many Gold Gloves? Ron Gardenhire wins Manager of the Year?

    In May 2011 my wife is taking me to the Hall of Fame as a present for finally completing my college degree, which at 45 is more of a Lifetime Achievement Award. I love baseball and we will take in a few baseball games as we travel from Chattanooga to Cooperstown. The players are well paid and I contribute to that as a fan. I subscribe to a few services so I contribute to the sportswriters as well. As a consumer, I consume baseball. But really, the All-Star Game, the Awards and the Hall of Fame are like sideshows to the circus that is baseball and the games will always be in the center ring.

  7. The powers that be in baseball have been on the front line of the revisionist history movement since at least the Mills Commission in 1908. The HOF itself, in beautiful, bucolic Cooperstown, is built on a lie as nothing happened in Cooperstown which warranted the HOF to be placed there. Hoboken or even Cincinnati would have been better choices.

    So, exaggerating Bowie Kuhn’s contributions to baseball or devaluing Marvin Miller’s just adds more crap to the pile.

    As far as Mr. Taylor’s comments, two things…

    The first is that salaries are based on what the market will bear. Are players, or anyone else who entertains us overpaid? Well, based on what we pay excellent teachers, even excellent doctors, you’re damned right they’re overpaid. If you have a problem with those salaries, don’t go to the games. When more people think like you and stadia are routinely one-third filled AND the owners open their books, then the issue of overpaid players and exorbitant ticket prices will be seriously discussed.

    The second is that the Reserve Clause was in place to protect the owners from themselves. Look what happened when free agency came along. I don’t think any player went into contract negotiations with a gun. They got paid fair and square.

  8. big o says:

    i’m happy that you wrote this article ,
    and , i’m glad that i read it .

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