It has been said on more than one occasion that the list of baseball's most significant men is as follows: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Marvin Miller. The first two were living legends whose stories have been ingrained into the memories of schoolchildren everywhere, and grow more significant with each passing generation.
The third man never played the game, never managed in it and never owned a team. He is unknown to most fans, and even to the modern players who owe him so much. One longtime coach and former big leaguer was talking about Miller this spring when he fairly spat the words, "Most of these kids have no idea who Marvin Miller is." The coach's disgust was palpable, and understandable: No man in the past six decades has brought about more changes to baseball than Miller.
And while Ruth and Robinson have long since passed away, Miller is still going, though not quite strong. Now 92 years old, he said he is doing "reasonably good" when reached on Tuesday at his apartment on New York City's Upper East Side, where he and a team of friends and nurses have been tending to his wife, Terry, who came home from the hospital last week after a stroke. Despite his advanced age, Miller remains as sharp and opinionated as ever. He still has very strong feelings about the union that he led for 16 years from 1966 through 1982 and helped grow into the most powerful union in sports (and perhaps the nation), the owners he battled on a constant basis to secure basic rights for his members and, especially, the drug scandal that has consumed the recent debates about the union and its retiring executive director (and Miller's successor), Donald Fehr.
"The problems [for the union] have grown worse," said Miller. "I think that Don has faced some problems that I never had to. When I say that, people immediately jump on the drugs and steroids question, but that's not it at all. All during the time of my tenure, I always had a significant number of players who had played major league baseball before there was a union. And the point is these were people who knew first-hand what the union had done. They knew the value put on their services and their lifestyles had all changed for the better because of the union, knew how bad the conditions were before the union.
"Don's tenure, after a short while, had not a single member who played one day of major league baseball before the union. That's a tremendous handicap, because people have a tendency to think the conditions we find were always like that. That's a hard obstacle to overcome, to explain that nothing could be further from the truth. Major league baseball before the union had the most exploitative situation known in the United States in the whole 20th century. Explaining that it wasn't always this good is difficult. He handled that very well."
It is clear from his comments that one thing Miller does not think Fehr has handled particularly well has been the game's Steroid Era. "I would not have allowed for so-called universal testing," Miller says. "I am aware the Constitution of the United States does not prohibit private management from doing such testing, but I do know that the founders of this country wrote that the government can't do that. And by court decisions, state and local cannot do this. You cannot test everybody in sight. What you have to do is handle it on an individual basis. You need probable cause for believing this person may be guilty and therefore want permission from the court to test. I would have stood my ground on that. I hasten to add that this is not entirely a criticism of the union leadership. Because I am aware of the situation among the players. They have wives, older brothers, parents, neighbors, friends and a lot of them are just plain uniformed people affected by the propaganda. [Those people say] 'Why should you be stained with this testing when you're innocent?' "
Miller also had criticism for former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who headed baseball's investigation into drug use in the sport and produced the famous Mitchell Report in December of 2007. "We may not know the names of those that took the anonymous [survey] test [in 2003] except those that have been leaked out purposefully," Miller says. "But what we do know are the dozens and dozens of names that Senator Mitchell put in his report that these are users, mostly on the basis of inadequate evidence. I'm very disappointed in Mitchell. He was once a prosecutor and he shows no knowledge of what due process means. None. No opportunity to confront their accusers, no opportunity to cross-examine. He ought to know better. He should be ashamed of himself."
Miller expressed skepticism for the scientific legitimacy of the impact of steroids, and said, "I think the union was not acting wisely when it agreed to random testing and universal testing without any kind of a showing that they were guilty of using. People don't understand, they call it a privacy issue. Well, it is in a sense, but that's really not the issue. It goes so much further than that. There is no scientific evidence that these things do the things people say they do. There ought to have been, long before this, some really scientific tests. When I talk to some people about this they retreat into the health issue. Players are role models. Well, yes and no. What the propagandists have done is to confuse young people that they could become great stars like these and all you have to do -- and it's so easy, no work involved -- is just find yourself a pusher who's got some steroids and you've got it made. On the health issue, which Congress loves to retreat into [by saying] 'Hey, this is dangerous stuff that causes death,' go find me a single autopsy that authenticates that. Maybe they do cause real harm and death, but no one has demonstrated it yet."
Steroids were not an issue for Miller during his time as union chief. "I never even heard the word steroids in my time," Miller says. "Amphetamines were the bane of some people's existence, and obviously cocaine. I was aware that there were people using those, absolutely. The amphetamines used to be supplied by the trainers, who were employed by the owners, in open bowls for whoever wanted to take a scoop of them. Not only were there no regulations, it was being supplied by the owners' employees. The first time I saw that in spring training I couldn't believe my eyes. I thought they were jelly beans."
Asked what should be done about baseball's performance-enhancing drug problem, Miller said, "I want to make it clear I don't know what the truth is and I don't pretend to know. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say the media and the Congress have become the greatest drug pushers we have. That is if you tell a relatively immature young person with athletic potential that just swallowing a pill or having an injection you can turn an average athlete into a superstar, a celebrity who makes millions of dollars, you just never could have a greater incentive to have young people grab onto any kind of drug that fits the performance-enhancing definition."
As for what he would do if he were still in charge, Miller said, "I don't know. You can't solve all these problems. I haven't thought about it except in one sense. I'm a great believer in the scientific method of finding out facts. I don't believe you rely on rumors. I would suggest one possible thing to do: With money raised both from the union and management side, hire some scientists with a mandate to put on a scientific test to deal with these things that are allegedly being used, to determine two things. One, the health implications of using, but on a scientific basis, and two, whether or not they improve your performance as an athlete. I think it's worth the time. And effort."
On the subject of Michael Weiner, Fehr's likely successor, Miller said, "I've met him a number of times, but I don't know him well at all. My impression of him is that he's bright, he has handled his assignments well. Been with the union 21 years, that's quite a background for the job. As Don said yesterday when he was talking to the staff, a new director will have some changes in mind, Don didn't know what they were, but he was confident [Weiner] has the ability and intelligence to do things well. I agree with that."
As for making an effort to speak with the new union leadership, Miller said, "It depends. If he asks for some advice on a particular problem, of course. But it's really not my style to intervene."
For all his willingness to engage the owners on controversial issues -- a combativeness that led to victory after victory over management that some feel is what is keeping him out of the Hall of Fame -- Miller could be very friendly with the men with whom he was dueling. Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers, who moved Miller's boyhood team out of Brooklyn, was one such example, and another is George Steinbrenner, who used to invite Miller to Yankee Stadium for World Series games.
These days, Miller mostly watches his baseball on television, but he did get an invitation on Monday, when he was asked to go to MLBPA headquarters in midtown Manhattan for Fehr's farewell announcement to his staff. Miller joked that anyone who didn't recognize him in person might recognize him as the man whose portrait still hangs on the walls of the union's office. Even there, Miller is not known by all, but he laughs when asked about the impact he had on the game and the high regard in which he is held, almost universally, more than a quarter century after he stepped down as union leader. "I'd be lying if I didn't say that's very gratifying," he said. "I'm happy about that."