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Still Waiting on Cooperstown, Marvin Miller Gets a Fitting Induction Elsewhere

Marvin Miller might not ever end up in the Hall of Fame, but another institution has chosen to honor the innovative former leader of the players' union.
Marvin Miller

This Hall of Fame season, like several before it, has invited baseball to reckon with the question of Marvin Miller. This is not so much a question about him—Miller’s influence is too obvious to be much debated—as it is a question about the Hall, what it means for the institution to exist without him and what sort of baseball history can be written around him. (Given that Miller’s work as the first director of the players’ union created the very structure of the modern game, it seems fair to say that the answer is a peculiarly partial one.)

Yet Miller has been put on the ballot four times for the Veterans Committee, twice for the Expansion Era Committee, and now twice for the Modern Baseball Era Committee, and he’s been passed over each time. (Before his death in 2012, he said that he did not wish to be listed on future ballots; he’s still been included on three ballots posthumously.) This year, however, there’s a new foil to the Hall’s question of Marvin Miller, as he’s just been enshrined in another grand institution of Americana: The National Portrait Gallery.

The Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, holds portraits of iconic Americans; each year, an exhibit is curated of the most prominent recent additions, with a selection unveiled at a gala every November. The 25 portraits in this year’s class include actor Morgan Freeman, Olympic track star Wilma Rudolph, Nobel Prize winner Frances Arnold, and Amazon C.E.O Jeff Bezos. And, of course, Miller.

The qualifications for the National Portrait Gallery are at once more and less difficult to reach than those of the Baseball Hall of Fame; more so in the sense that the gallery’s “paramount concern” is the person’s impact on national history and culture, a naturally hard standard to meet, and less so in the sense that there is one paramount concern, rather than the electoral preferences of a fluid set of sportswriters and committee members. While Miller has not satisfied the latter, there wasn’t a question about his ability to meet the former. (He’s not alone in that; Pete Rose is in the Gallery’s collection, too, painted by Andy Warhol.)

The Gallery’s efforts for Miller started a few years ago when its director handed a pair of prospective subjects to its senior curator of photographs.

“One was Madeleine Albright, and the other was Marvin Miller,” recalls Ann Shumard, the senior curator. “So you can see we’re looking in a lot of different directions simultaneously.”

(Albright made it in the portrait class of 2017, along with Francis Scott Key and Rita Moreno.)

While little evaluation was needed for the merits of the addition—“There’s no question that Marvin Miller’s impact on professional sports was profound,” says Shumard—plenty was required to find the exact picture. The Gallery considers portraiture in all different media, from paint to print to photo, and effort is devoted to find not just a portrait of someone but the portrait. A person can be on the “wish list” for years while the perfect art is tracked down, Shumard says.

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In Miller’s case, the answer was a photo taken by Ray Fisher of the Miami Herald in 1973. It shows him at a ball field, turned to face the camera, as a sleepy spring training scene plays out behind him. He’s in a boldly checkered dress shirt, cigarette in hand, with his trademark mustache visible. (When Miller first became executive director of the MLBPA, Robin Roberts suggested that he shave, as players didn’t have facial hair at the time: “Robbie, this is 1966,” Miller later recalled saying. “I’m not going to shave a mustache I’ve had since I was seventeen because of some management hang-up.”) In the picture, he’s smiling, if only slightly.

Right away, Shumard knew that this was the photo. But it didn’t surface from the Gallery’s research. Instead, it was Miller’s son, Peter, who found the picture while looking through old albums in the process of moving houses. He’d been contacted after the Gallery struggled to find just what it wanted in sports media archives or elsewhere; Peter initially didn’t think that he had anything suitable, until he stumbled across this one months later. Then he knew: This was it. It shows his father as he remembers him. “Tough as nails,” he says. “But at the same time, very compassionate, very concerned, and very interested in seeking ordinary justice and freedom for the people he represented. And you see them in the background.”

For the Gallery, the photo offered perfect context.

“Sure, you could have Marvin Miller behind a desk, maybe with a wall behind him that references baseball,” Shumard says. “But this just shows a level of engagement with the sport that really speaks to what he did.”

The photo shows Miller on his annual tour of spring training. He was elected MLBPA executive director on the first of those tours, in 1966, when he left his job with the steelworkers’ union to visit every major league camp, introducing himself and explaining to players why they needed a serious union director at all. (The MLBPA did exist at the time, but it was not formally recognized as a union and had never tried to collectively bargain any sort of agreement.) By 1973, when the photo was taken, Miller had negotiated professional sports’ first CBA, led players on their first strike, established an image licensing program for them, won the ability to settle grievances via arbitration, and redone the pension agreement. He was two years away from and seeing the end of the reserve clause and the start of free agency. By the time he retired in 1983, he’d remade the idea of what it meant to be a professional baseball player, with a system that still forms the game’s economic foundation, even in the face of threats to the contrary.

The Gallery had considered one other picture: Miller in conversation with Bowie Kuhn. It would’ve been an easy choice, as Kuhn’s time as commissioner lined up almost exactly with Miller’s as executive director of MLBPA. Almost all of Miller’s achievements came against, and were actively resisted by, Kuhn. Naturally, the two were not fans of one another. Miller described their relationship in his book: “Kuhn has written that despite all his friendly approaches to me, I did not reciprocate. There’s a bit of truth in this. Bowie’s approaches through the years were invariably for one of two purposes. He literally wanted to spy, albeit clumsily, to see if he could obtain ‘advance information’ of what was about to happen. In those instances I did not ‘reciprocate’ because I had no need to indulge in such foolishness. Bowie’s other intention was usually to pick my brains. There was scant possibility of reciprocity in that department.” (Kuhn shared his perception of Miller on the very first page of his book: “…the zealotry of Marvin Miller, the association’s leader, and his hatred of ownership, provoked the darkest foreboding.”)

The Gallery acquired the picture with Kuhn, too, and may display it at a later time. But the photo from spring training was the ultimate choice to showcase Miller: with the players that he represented, rather than the management that he fought against, in front of the game that he loved.

Kuhn, it’s worth noting, is in the Hall of Fame. (He and Miller were on the same ballot in 2008, but Kuhn alone made it in: “At last, Bowie Kuhn beat Marvin Miller at something,” wrote the Associated Press.)

But Peter, Miller’s son, thinks the National Portrait Gallery is a far better setting for him: “It seemed to me like a really fitting memorial, not only to him personally, but to what he stood for in terms of his life work.” It’s a public institution with free admission, rather than a private one, where Miller is part of a history not just of sports or of labor, but of America. He is not disembodied on a plaque. He’s watching baseball.