SAN DIEGO — The big story on the first full day of baseball’s winter meetings on Monday was Stephen Strasburg becoming the richest pitcher in major league history. Strasburg reached an agreement to stay with the Washington Nationals for seven years and $245 million. If he had wanted to sign elsewhere, perhaps with his hometown San Diego Padres, he could have done that. But now he is back with the team he just led to a title, and he probably will never pitch for anyone else.
This is the world that Marvin Miller — and perhaps he alone — envisioned decades ago. Miller, the first executive director of the players’ association, was finally elected to the Hall of Fame on Sunday night, posthumously, by a 16-person panel of executives, historians and former players who also elected the former catcher Ted Simmons. The game has not withered because of the free agency rights players gained under Miller; it has thrived.
“There was some anxiety at first, because there was this stigma about unionizing athletes — who did they think they were?” said Jim Kaat, the former pitcher, by phone on Monday. “What Marvin did, gradually, was show us our value and give us more self-esteem.”
It is hard to imagine that player mind-set now, in an era when Gerrit Cole wears a cap with his agent’s logo minutes after his Houston Astros lose Game 7 of the World Series to forecast his coming bonanza on the open market. But in 1966, when the players elected Miller to lead their union, they had been trained to think of themselves as easily replaceable.
“Players had been told for so long that they were irrelevant, and the game was bigger than them, and they didn’t appreciate how special their talent was,” Gene Orza, the former general counsel and chief operating officer for the union, said on Monday. “They had been beaten up by teams for 100 years — you should be lucky you’re playing this game and happy with what we’re paying you — that they were not proud. The first thing Marvin had to do was let them know how important and unique they really were.”
By empowering players to speak up at meetings, and nudging them along with sensible arguments emphasizing their collective power, Miller created a colossus. Teams could still keep their players, but they would have to pay them what their talents demanded.
The dawn of free agency in the mid-1970s hardly destroyed the concept of teams retaining their stars. Consider all the one-team Hall of Famers who played almost entirely in the free-agent era: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Chipper Jones, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Kirby Puckett, Jim Rice, Cal Ripken, Mariano Rivera, Mike Schmidt, Alan Trammell, Robin Yount.
And when stars did change teams in the early days of free agency, it was often quite good for the game. The Phillies had never won the World Series before they signed Pete Rose away from the Reds. The Astros had never reached the playoffs before luring Nolan Ryan from the Angels; neither had the Padres before signing Steve Garvey. Ten different teams won the World Series from 1978 through 1987.
“The ‘Golden Era’ stuff we were force-fed just wasn’t true,” said Jeff Katz, the author of “Split Season,” about the strike-interrupted 1981 season. “The competitive balance the owners swore would never happen actually happened immediately.”
Katz is the former mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y., where he still lives, and said there would be a “subversive greatness” to having Miller’s plaque in the same room as those of some of his bitter adversaries, like the former commissioners Bowie Kuhn and Bud Selig, who owned the Milwaukee Brewers. Miller’s plaque, Katz noted, will have an especially prominent spot because his neighbor on the wall will be Derek Jeter, the former Yankees captain who is sure to be elected by the writers next month.
“People are going to see Marvin Miller next to Derek Jeter, and people are going to wonder why,” Katz said. “So they’re going to read about him and learn about him, and it elevates the story in ways that are good for the sport, good for the players and reminds people why the fight was a righteous fight.”
Miller’s path to Cooperstown did not come without one last battle. He was rejected six times by various compositions of the veterans committee, and in 2008 he made a formal request to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America — whose Historical Oversight Committee composes the ballot — to stop considering him.
“The anti-union bias of the powers who control the Hall has consistently prevented recognition of the historic significance of the changes to baseball brought about by collective bargaining,” Miller wrote then, but he continued to be nominated, even after his death in 2012.
Orza, who spoke with Miller’s daughter, Susan, on Monday, said Miller’s two children had no plans to represent him at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown next July.
“Before he passed away,” Orza said, “Marvin sat them down and said, ‘If by some strange combination of events the Hall of Fame should come calling, I don’t want you to have anything to do with it.’”
To Orza, the Hall of Fame gains more than Miller by electing him. By formally recognizing him at last, the Hall’s plaque gallery will more accurately tell the game’s history.
Outside of that room, though, his influence has long been undeniable. We see it most acutely every off-season, when teams find new avenues to make themselves better and world-class players decide how to maximize their earning power.
“Look at the players today: They’re living in mansions and making millions,” Kaat said. “Marvin was the right man at the right time to get us to stick together, make little gains, and show us what we could do.”