Marvin Miller wanted no part of the Hall of Fame

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SAN DIEGO — I pretend to be a bomb-throwing radical sometimes, but I’m not one in ways that really matter.

The things I argue for are things I passionately believe in, but my passion is, for the most part, limited to my words. I’ve never been arrested for a cause. I’ve never risked anything I truly hold dear for a principle that did not also benefit me personally in some way. I still respect a lot of institutions that, objectively I should not, at least if I wanted to remain true to my intellectual convictions. I’m like most people of privilege in this respect. I just happen to have the password to a website with a pretty big reach so I’m louder than most.

I say this in order to explain my happiness that Marvin Miller was elected to the Hall of Fame last night. It’s a happiness born of my 40-some year love of baseball and belief that the Baseball Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of baseball achievement. A happiness that I feel viscerally whenever someone I admire is elected even if I have philosophical objections to the Hall of Fame and to many of the things Major League Baseball does as an institution  A happiness I felt last night when Hall fo Fame President Tim Mead announced Miller’s name.

It’s not a happiness Miller would’ve felt. I interviewed him once, not too long before he died. By then he had already been on the Hall of Fame ballot a couple of times only to be rejected. He’d been asked about it many times by many people already, but I still felt the need to ask him about his feelings with all of that. Miller didn’t mince words. He was opposed to being inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was not the sort of opposition born of resignation you sometimes hear from guys who hang around on the ballot without getting in for a long time. It wasn’t a defense mechanism. He wasn’t saying “ah, she’s not that pretty anyway” to the girl who wouldn’t go out with him.

No, Miller opposed it because he knew — and he was right — that the Hall of Fame was a creature of Major League Baseball and its leaders. It’s legally separate — it’s its own institution — but Bud Selig sat on both the board of the Hall and in the Commissioner’s chair at the time and then as now the Hall does what Major League Baseball wants. The board today includes a lot of former players, but it also includes Commissioner Manfred, Jerry Reinsdorf — arguably the most anti-labor owner in the past 50 years — and many other team owners and business executives. These are not people who are friends of labor or the principles to which Miller devoted his life’s work.

Today Murray Chass — who knew Miller well and was the top of the baseball business beat when Miller walked the Earth — writes about Miller’s feelings about it. You should read it all, but know that Miller called his candidacy for the Hall of Fame, “an insult to baseball fans, historians, sports writers and especially to those baseball players who sacrificed and brought the game into the 21st century.” He called the whole thing “a farce.” His son, Peter Miller, wrote to Chass yesterday after hearing of Miller’s election. He reiterated how little his father cared about the Hall, saying that Miller’s greatest accomplishment was not one suitable for personal honor but, rather, it was his securing free agency for baseball players. He added, “Marvin Miller’s portrait in a public national institution, the National Portrait Gallery, presents this achievement in the most appropriate historical context.”

They’re right to be skeptical of the Hall of Fame election.

As soon as an iconoclastic figure like Miller is put in a museum — especially a museum run by those against whom they fought — their legacy ceases to be vital and begins to become sanitized. It’s made non-threatening. It’s put under the “protection” of those institutions and those people with which he did battle. It happened to civil rights leaders, it happens to political leaders, and it happens to sports and entertainment figures as well.

Until Miller died — and for some time after — there were people, many still in the game, some of whom will be sitting behind whoever delivers’ Miller’s acceptance speech in July, who cursed his name and work. Now they’ll praise him. But they’ll do it in the way that one only praises a threat or an adversary after the battle is over. When it’s safe. And when they can control the terms of the praising and the terms of his legacy. When they can buff out the parts that they would prefer people not remember. When they can frame the struggle as something in the long-distant past which, in their conception, has no bearing on that which is occurring today.

As I said at the outset: I’m not a radical. I’m not any sort of leader. I can’t begin to relate to Miller and his work on the level he and others more invested in the fight did and do. And, yes, I still have respect for a lot of institutions that, maybe, I shouldn’t. As such, I still can’t not be happy that Miller is going into the Hall.

But let’s not pretend that this is “what Marvin wanted.” Let’s not pretend that Miller’s ghost — to the extent it still haunts baseball, and dammit, I like to think it does — is looking down on that stage in Cooperstown in July, smiling.