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The Man Who Set Ballplayers Free

Major League Baseball has finally got what it’s wanted. Marvin Miller is dead. The labor negotiator treated the league as his personal punching bag, and for that he was despised by owners and retired players jealous of the amounts of money made by modern athletes.

With no other way to punish him, baseball, through the efforts of its secretive and unaccountable veterans committee, has stonewalled Miller’s entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame. For an institution designated as the holy collector of baseball history, the banishment of Miller, and its complete disregard for the rampant use of performance enhancing drugs, is not only disgraceful but puts into serious question the credibility of the Hall.

Baseball’s Mt. Rushmore has only room for four heads and those belong to Babe Ruth who created offensive baseball, Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, who created opportunities, and Marvin Miller (with a nod toward Curt Flood) who created fairness in employment.

And not just financially. Like Rickey and Robinson, Miller helped to make the game truly American in its best ideals. He helped free workers from an unfair labor system that restricted movement, illegally controlled salaries and prevented players from freely marketing their skills on the open market, a right all workers enjoy.

Many fans won’t like to hear it, angered as they are over high ticket prices, but Miller is a legend of organized labor and should be celebrated for his efforts to bring fairness to employment. He was baseball’s Jack Hall, a tireless worker for those he represented and who made as many enemies as friends in the process. Hall was called a communist agitator. Miller was accused of ruining baseball. Neither is true.

Miller represented the battle for workers rights on the biggest stage imaginable – Major League Baseball. We may like to decry the wages professional athletes make, yet the conditions players were forced to work under were decidedly un-American.

The reserve clause tied players to their clubs for the duration of their careers. At the time, players had one option, take manage-ment’s offer. If not, they were blackballed, effectively preventing them from making a living in their chosen profession. They were the original gays in the military, only with more flattering uniforms.

Like plantation workers decades before, Major League Baseball players were suppressed by an entrenched system of power that enjoyed the legal protection of cronyism. Where Hawaii had the Big Five, baseball had owners whose coziness with political power brokers protected the profits of the few, rather than the rights of the many. In some ways, the fight continues.

Members of Congress, sticking to some romanticized notion of baseball as a mystical link to their childhood days of mirth and wonderment, still allow MLB teams to bypass antitrust laws that are designed to foster fair competition. No other professional sport is provided these benefits.

That baseball enjoys such protections and that current players have not beaten down the doors for Miller’s enshrinement comes as no surprise. Americans in general look at unions with great contempt, either being too young or too ignorant to recognize the rights their predecessors secured for them and the violence they sometimes encountered in the fight for those rights. Baseball players are no different.

They’ve gotten theirs, so who gives a damn if Flood’s career was ruined in his fight to end the reserve clause? Inaction and disinterest have replaced concern and effort.

Miller’s worthiness is unquestioned. What remains a mystery is whether baseball will allow his enshrinement now that its leaders don’t have to face the humiliation of handing the game’s biggest trophy to their most bitter rival.