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Baseball's hardest hitter never suited up for a game

Unless the rules on induction are changed, the only way Marvin Miller will get into the Baseball Hall of Fame is by buying a ticket at the door.

There's room in the hall for commissioners, league executives, and team owners - none of whom ever suited up for a game - but not for labor leaders.

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Maybe that's just as well. Mr. Miller never batted .300, or even .000, for that matter. He holds no pitching records, owns no gold gloves or World Series rings.

And yet there isn't another man in recent history who has had a greater impact on the game than this soft-spoken executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Even his critics concede that what he has done for the cause of the players in his 16 years as their leader is little short of phenomenal, comparing favorably with the other major achievements of the labor movement he so admires.

In that time, the players have won the right of free agency from team owners, not to mention improved pensions and benefits and the right to seek binding arbitration when they and their employers can't agree on salary terms. Meanwhile , player salaries have risen on the average of 1,200 percent. The $100,000 -a-year player was the exception when Miller came to the association; today's brightest stars are in the $1 million-a-year bracket.

Such astronomical salaries, he has said, are not deserved. But he is an economist by trade and judges that a player is worth whatever his employer is willing to pay.

It was Miller who led the players on their 50-day strike that took the starch out of last season, not to mention the dimly remembered 1972 walkout that delayed opening day by a week and a half. And before he retires, possibly as soon as the start of next season, he has at least one more target in his sights: He wants the players to be partners in the broadcasting rights to their services on the field, along with the owners.

If the effort is successful, the financial structure of the game will almost certainly be shaken to the core. Television revenues in baseball - running upward of $100 million a year - are not as lucrative as in pro football, but teams depend heavily on them. None can pay its bills anymore solely on the basis of gate receipts, so the owners have come out fighting.

The matter will likely come to a head over the next several months because the current contract between the major leagues and the television and radio networks expires after the 1983 season.

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Not surprisingly, Miller's accomplishments have earned him the boundless appreciation of the players. Ace relief pitcher Rollie Fingers of the Milwaukee Brewers once said he was worth his weight in gold.

Among nonplayers he seems to inspire a wider range of reactions, from curiosity to grudging respect to outright enmity.

Sport magazine, a popular monthly, recently deemed him ''the most powerful man in baseball.'' On the other hand, columnist Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal and the weekly Sporting News not long ago neared the end of a lengthy denunciation by writing: ''I'm not even certain Marvin realizes that baseball was once a game.''

Miller remains virtually unmoved by all of this, however. He is a man with a mission, and that mission is made no easier by either the esteem or the slings and arrows of those in the news media.

''I try to maintain a certain integrity in my relationships with other people - whether it is the membership that I represent, or the press, or with management,'' he says. ''I think that's important. I think I'm honest. I believe it is true that I have never lied.''

But he greatly fears this integrity has been lost on management, which in his years at the helm of the players' association he claims ''has learned nothing.''

''If I were a different sort of person and enjoyed conflict for conflict's sake, I'd have to rejoice in that,'' Miller says. ''But I would feel much more satisfied if I could honestly note a growing maturity on the part of the owners in labor relations policy as I have clearly seen in the players.''

''The owners,'' he declares, ''are in kindergarten.''

Whatever a powerful union boss is supposed to look like, Marvin Miller somehow doesn't fit the mold. He is not a large man; the Dave Winfields, Dave Parkers, and Steve Carltons of the game tower over him. He dresses nattily, but often casually - in, say, a well-tailored, checked suit with an open-necked knit sport shirt. He is gracious, cultured, articulate. He likes to laugh.

Nor does his headquarters resemble those of the great AFL-CIO unions. No proud seal adorns the door - only a thin plastic nameplate. Admittance to its suite on the 26th floor of a bank building in midtown Manhattan is by pushing a buzzer and waiting for someone to come and open up. Behind the door is a staff of six people, two of them in clerical positions. There isn't a computer terminal in the place.

Miller's office is a large room with windows on two sides, commanding a fine view of other tall buildings across the street. It is comfortable but hardly elegant. Back issues of Sports Illustrated magazine lie in a loose pile at one corner of his desk. The only other obvious connection with professional baseball is a Los Angeles Dodgers paper-clip holder near his telephone. Miller followed the team avidly as a boy growing up in Brooklyn and can still recite Dodger lineups and players' batting averages of the past.

Perhaps in tribute, the late Dodger chieftain, Walter O'Malley, used to send Miller Christmas cards, something he says he can remember no other team owner doing.

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who is hired by the owners and whom Miller has called ''a rank amateur,'' nonetheless also remembers him at Christmastime and, Miller says, it would be perfect etiquette to invite both of them to the same dinner party.

He says the dispute over who owns broadcasting rights dates back many years and has always been ''finessed'' in collective bargaining negotiations. Last December, however, the players decided they wanted it resolved once and for all.

''So, in Janurary, we advised the owners' player relations committee that we'd like to sit down and talk about it,'' he says. ''The meeting was held in February, at which time they simply listened to what we had to say, and we got no response - other than to say at the end that, of course, they would need time to talk with the owners.''

In March, at the start of spring training, another inconclusive meeting was held at Orlando, Fla. Again, the owners said they needed time.

In April, he goes on, amusement beginning to creep into his voice, the negotiator for the owners, Ray Grebey, called to say ''they would need more time - until the end of May.

''As we got close to the end of May, (Grebey) called to say they needed more time, that the owners would be meeting in Chicago on June 14. On the morning of June 14, he telephoned from Chicago to say they were suing us, that owners had no intention of discussing the matter.''

''I've left out two things,'' he concludes. ''One is that we were well aware of what they were doing; we were not born yesterday. The other thing is that when we got to the end of May we decided that it was in everybody's best interest to notify the television people about this dispute.''

As the matter stands, the owners' suit (which seeks a permanent injunction establishing the major league clubs as sole owners of all broadcasting rights) is pending before a federal court in Chicago - a fact Miller finds incredible, because every one of the parties to the dispute is based in New York. The players' association has asked that the case be moved here, but that request has been denied so far.

''The television matter will be carried through to whatever completion the courts can make of it,'' Miller says. But he warns that that will hardly be the end of the confrontational relationship between the players' association and the owners. The union has accused the owners of conspiracy to keep contracts for free agents to no more than three years in violation of the basic agreement over which the players struck last year. There is a large backlog of other grievances that have yet to be heard, and the basic agreement between the two parties runs out in 1984.

''What this clearly means is an open conflict once this agreement expires,'' he says. ''There is just no question about it.''

Miller did not come by his skills casually. He majored in economics at New York University and subsequently worked in the US Treasury Department, at the National War Labor Board, with the machinists' union, and - finally - the United Steel Workers of America, where he rose to the position of assistant to the president. In 1966 he accepted a 21/2-year contract to lead the players' association and has been there ever since.

Contrary to what some baseball fans may think, Miller denies that he has no intention of stopping until he and the union have taken all the joy out of the game.

''It's absurd,'' he says. ''No organization in its right mind would take that as a policy position. Why? So that franchises should fail? So there should be less jobs for the members?''

In fact, he maintains that the public may actually be more behind him than is commonly assumed.

''Sure, if you pick up a publication like the Sporting News and you look at the letters to the editor during a crisis, they'll run 100 to 1 anti. I'm not satisfied with that subjective selection.''

And, no, he argues, the game has not suffered because of the union's actions. Since he was hired, there are more baseball franchises (from 20 to 26), greater attendance, and much, much more revenue from TV and radio broadcasts.

''By whatever element of popularity you want to use, baseball is in a far better position than it was before. So this business of 'You're out to ruin the game,' that's not the way to go about it. The results are exactly the opposite.''

When his schedule permits, Miller buys a ticket and goes to a Yankees or Mets game in New York. But his life isn't completely wrapped up in baseball. He is good at tennis, would like to take up the piano seriously, and reads voraciously - often the same books his wife brings home from the library for herself. He and Mrs. Miller particularly enjoy dining out with friends and going to the theater, on as well as off Broadway. And he'd like to write a book about his experiences.

For all his influence with the players, Miller nevertheless denies he has more than a mutually respectful relationship with them. He says he receives many unsolicited testimonials - usually from retiring veterans or those recently retired - but declines to share them, on the basis of confidentiality.

''It's hard to describe what other people feel for you,'' he maintains. ''I'm clearly not of the generation that the players are. But players have always been kind of informal; they usually are with most people. I've been on a first-name basis with them from the beginning.''

A search committee of 10 players has been at work since December to find a successor to Miller, and there is, he says, no shortage of applicants. The committee will likely not begin narrowing the field until after the World Series. But if the process works smoothly, he expects to be retired by not later than the middle of next year.

''I'd like to be remembered as somebody who made a positive contribution to the players, their organization, and to the game,'' Marvin Miller declares. ''[ Someone] who made a contribution to unionism, playing a part in building an effective, honest organization. That's good enough.''

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