The book: “Marvin Miller, Baseball Revolutionary”
The author: By Robert F. Burk
The vital statistics: University of Illinois Press, 336 pages, $35
Find it: At Amazon.com, at BarnesandNoble.com, at Powells.com
The pitch: “If Albert Spaulding had been the architect of baseball’s first durable cartel, Babe Ruth had converted the game into a marquee attraction to the masses, Branch Rickey had both pioneered the farm system of talent accumulation and spearheaded management acceptance of racial integration, and Jackie Robinson had changed the literal face of the game …” Burk writes succinctly in the preface.
“Marvin Miller had been the man who, more than any other individual, had wrenched the national pastime – for better and worse – into a modern industry with modern labor management relations. … On any Mount Rushmore of the sport, unquestionably he belonged.”
Just not in Baseball’s beloved Hall of Fame.
Not yet. And if it happens, not in his lifetime.
So how do we best view, and possibly judge, the man who brought structure, smarts and progress to the game, tipped the balance of power and created something of a mess with all the trappings that come with new fame and personal importance?
Do it with a book like this, one that purposefully explains Miller’s upbringing and experiences, treats him with respect and honesty and, while the author admits to some biases in favor of Miller, explains all sides and ramifications of his actions.
It’s the story of American labor, just on a more public scale, that has most American’s hearts and minds invested in its outcome. It’s believeing, as Miller did, that the MLB players at the time 50 years ago were “the most exploited group of workers I had ever seen—more exploited than the grape pickers of Cesar Chavez.”
The dichotomy of Miller’s legacy may be more clearly explained in Chapter 16, called “Lightning Rod,” where the public’s view of Miller could be best illustrated in the way that someone like Bob Costas choose to frame it.
On one hand, upon the 83-year-old Miller’s induction into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2000, Costas remarked that he had “keen intelligence and unshakeable honesty” and called him “one of the significant figures in baseball history.” He even noted that fans blaming Miller for “every pain-in-the-ass .250 hitter (now) making six million dollars a year” is like “blaming Alexander Graham Bell for call waiting.”
Note, there is no real praise there. Because not long after, Costas used his own book, “Fair Ball: A Fan’s Case For Baseball,” to perhaps market himself as a commission-in-training and to attack Miller. He then appeared with him on Charlie Rose’s show and amped up the argument. Miller accused Costas of towing baseball management’s line, acting unprofessional and not as an impartial journalist. Costas came unglued and accused Miller of being “constitutionally incapable of letting go of the wars he had already fought and won” and claiming Miller “will remain in his encampment, railing at the heretics.”
The public surely sided with Costas. As if Miller really cared.
As the media continues to wrestle with how to shape Miller’s legacy to date, this is a book that will pull things back into a calmer perspective, written “not necessarily” as Miller or his wife, Terry, would have done, but a “biography neither authorized nor ghost-written.” Now that Miller is gone, it’s easier to be impressed with how he did things aside from what he actually did.
Burk, a history professor at Muskingum University in Ohio and author of two books that deal with the relationship of players, owners and the game before and after 1920, puts his baseball business knowledge to work and has given it a human narrative rather than just a soundbite that many have become accustomed to seeing or hearing.
Take, for instance, Miller’s upbringing in Brooklyn as a Dodgers fan, with Dazzy Vance as his hero. He delivered the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on his paper route. His disability (a right arm crippled from birth) gave him a stubbornness, his Jewish faith provided a blueprint on how to move forward with struggle, and parents who both were beneficiaries of union jobs during the Depression taught him valuable lessons before he even entered St. John’s two years before he was supposed to finish high school.
His work in the Welfare Department gave him more perspective as well about social injustices and discrimination. He was shaped by the 1936 book by Robert Briffault called “Reasons for Anger,” allowing him to have a calm and rational demeanor that was very pragmatic when it came to negotiating.
Now we know what Miller was getting at, and why he even had to battle the naive Major League Baseball Players Association back in 1966 just to take him on at a time when the Dodgers couldn’t get Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale to end a spring training holdout. There’s even a reference to a Herald Examiner story where the Angels’ Buck Rodgers and Jimmy Piersall had attacked his nomination, the result of a smear campaign against Miller.
A poignant moment is detailed after the 1966 All-Star Game, when the Dodgers’ Maury Wills happened to sit next to Miller on the flight home and confessed that “the black and Latino ballplayers are especially eager to support this union … Discrimination is not dead.”
On the flip side, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley is quoted as saying about Miller during the first sniff of a confrontation between players and owners: “Tell that Jewish boy to go back to Brooklyn.” And Angels owner Gene Autry threatened to shut down his team and return to his singing days after the threat of a 1969 strike came up.
Burk takes us through the whole Curt Flood chal-
lenge to the reserve clause, where he sat out the 1970 season. But also noted is that in 1969, the Yankees’ Al Downing (who would become a Dodgers starting pitcher in 1971, and 20-game winner as it turned out) wanted to play without a contract and test the ruling but Miller advised him not to because the Yankees still held “the whip hand” and could just release him based on his past performance. He eventually signed but was traded to Oakland. This causes us to recall that Downing was among those who sat up front during Flood’s funeral in L.A. back in January, 1997 at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.
Even if Miller really was indifferent to public opinion, one of the last things he said before his death in 2012 to writer Allan Barra was in regards to the Hall of Fame, whose special committee voters, no matter how much they were realigned, continued to leave him short of induction: “If they vote me in after I’m gone, please let everyone know it is against my wishes and tell them that if I was alive I would turn it down.”
“But was it what Miller truly wanted?” Burk recalls Barra asking in the obit of Miller that Barra had written. “His reputation for blunt honesty argued so. But was it pride talking instead of rational consideration?”
A decade earlier, when his induction seemed a little more certain, Burk found a reference to an ESPN.com story, where Miller was asked what words his thought his plaque should contain.
“He was the leader of the first true union in the history of the game, and working closing with the players, he helped form the structure of what had been termed one of the strongest and best unions in the country. And contrary to certain beliefs, the arrival of the players union coincided with, and was instrumental in, the greatest prosperity and expansion the game has ever seen.”
For now, that’s what we’ll have to live with.
More to know:
== From a Keith Olbermann ESPN tribute to Miller in 2013: “In 1966 to get the Dodgers to pay Sandy Koufax just $125,000, Koufax and Don Drysdale had to threaten to sit out the whole season and become actors. And Marvin Miller changed all that. You could argue that the pendulum that Marvin Miller unleashed in his artificial restraint has swung too far to the other side. You’d be wrong. Who signed a $6 billion television contract? Clayton Kershaw, or the new Dodgers’ owners?”
== Miller did get to write his own version of things, back in 1991 (three years after he left the MLBPA), in a book called “A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sport and Business of Baseball.” A review of it from Publishers Weekly included: “The author is not modest in paying tribute to himself, but he is also generous in his comments about the ball players who made sacrifices for their union. A top sports book.”
== Tributes upon Miller’s 2012 passing on the website ThanksMarvin.com
== Coming later this summer: “Split Season: 1981: Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball,” by Jeff Katz