Let me set the stage for you here. A couple of days ago, I wrote about the Just Go Away Club and nominated charter members. One of the comments, from David Egbert, to that rant suggested that Bud Selig should be in the club. I said we would have to agree to disagree on that individual because I think Bud Selig is the BEST baseball commish ever. David Egbert inquired what Selig had done that was of any value other than to make the already rich owners even richer. So, here we are…
Here in the Washington DC area, there used to be a guy who did a sports call-in radio show every night long before sports radio was a format. Ken Beatrice used to say that he would give you his opinion and tell you why he held that opinion; if you disagreed with him, he wanted you to explain why you held your different opinion. I will channel Ken Beatrice here and tell you why I think Bud Selig is the BEST MLB commish ever.
Let me be clear; I am not suggesting that Bud Selig is a great human being who deserves recognition as such the world over. Nor am I suggesting that he is a great leader/manager who could achieve world-class results with any other organization. My assertion is that he was the best baseball commissioner ever and nothing more. That is important because getting over the hurdle of being better than the eight gentlemen who preceded him is not difficult. In fact, that figurative “hurdle” might not be much higher than a “limbo bar”.
“How low can you go…?”
Starting at the beginning in 1920, the first MLB Commissioner was Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Landis got the job after the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919 where the Chicago White Sox players purposely lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds at the behest of gamblers. That was merely the tipping point; players in the early days of baseball threw games more than once in a while. In fact, the Black Sox scandal came to light when a grand jury in Illinois was investigating gambling on baseball games as a result of allegations of the fixed game between the Cubs and the Phillies in 1920. Landis took over and ruled baseball with an iron fist from 1920 until 1944. He indeed cracked down on gambling as far as public perception was concerned by banning 8 members of the White Sox and refusing to reinstate any of them even after they were found not guilty in a court of law.
What the baseball historians often fail to mention is that there is plenty of evidence that Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker conspired to fix games and then bet on those games proximal to the time of the Black Sox scandal – and Landis found out about it but did nothing to ban two of the most famous players in the history of the game. When Pete Rose was banned from baseball 70 years later, here is what Shirley Povich wrote in the Washington Post:
“It is to be recalled that Landis’ reputation suffered in 1927 when he surprisingly took no action against Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker despite solid evidence that they not only bet on baseball games – Rose’s sin – but actually were involved in fixing a game, the ultimate baseball sin.
“When Landis chickened out on that one, it was startling because was he not the very model of a no-nonsense commissioner before whom all baseball trembled?”
So, perhaps we might agree that Landis’ tough stance on gambling might not have been nearly as tough nor as comprehensive as baseball historians might want to pretend it is. Reining in gambling is the best thing that he did for baseball and perhaps that was only a minor achievement. Then, there is a large negative on Landis’ record. Many writers characterize him as a racist and assert that he delayed the integration of baseball perhaps for as long as 10 years. Bill Veeck’s autobiography Veeck As In Wreck states categorically that Landis blocked him from buying the Phillies in 1942 after Veeck told Landis that he had deals arranged with Negro League players to come and play for the Phillies.
[Aside: The guy who bought the Phillies in lieu of Veeck was William D. Cox who lasted a year as the team owner and was found to be wagering on Phillies’ games. To prevent baseball integration Landis arranged for the Phillies to be sold to a guy who would gamble on baseball. Ok, then…]
The bottom line on Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis is that he attacked gambling in baseball – albeit likely with selective prosecutions – and he impeded the integration of the game. Yes, the game grew in popularity during his tenure – but that is true for most of the MLB commissioners.
The next person in the office was “Happy” Chandler; he served from 1945 to 1951. Two important things happened on his watch; he was the motive force for one of them:
The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson and Chandler approved the contract – meaning that he did not stand in the way of baseball’s integration. His acquiescence to that contract was an important and positive step for baseball, but let us not confuse Chandler’s role in the saga with that of the Brooklyn Dodgers and its management.
Chandler was the prime mover in establishing the first pension fund for baseball players. Chandler sold radio broadcast rights to the World Series – a first for MLB – and put the money from that deal into the players’ pension fund.
The bottom line on “Happy” Chandler is that he did not stop the Brooklyn Dodgers from integrating MLB and that he got the ball rolling on a pension for the players. Chandler may have only been in the job for 6 years but his accomplishments put him way higher on the totem pole than Judge Landis in my opinion.
The next person in the office was Ford Frick; he served as commissioner from 1951 to 1965. Three “milestone events’ happened during his tenure:
MLB expanded from 16 teams to 20 teams and the season expanded from 154 games to 162 games.
When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record in 1961, Frick ruled that Maris’ record would have an asterisk on it because he played in more games in a season than had Ruth.
Like Bud Selig, Frick had his own “All-Star Game” problem. In the late 50s, fans of the Cincinnati Reds stuffed the ballot box to the point that the starting lineup for the NL All Stars would have had 8 position players from the Reds on the field. Frick unilaterally made two changes to the starting lineup for that game and then took All-Star voting away from the fans.
The bottom line on Ford Frick is that he adhered to the first part of the Hippocratic Oath:
He did no harm…
The next person in the office was General William Eckert; he served as commissioner from 1965 to 1968. Candidly, the only thing I can remember about Eckert’s tenure as commissioner was a controversy about whether he should have canceled all MLB games subsequent to the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy.
The bottom line on General Eckert is that he did no harm because he really did not do much at all.
The next person in the office was Bowie Kuhn; he served as commissioner from 1968 to 1984. Let me just say that Kuhn’s actions hit some high notes and some low notes. There were plenty of labor issues during his tenure in office; and fundamentally, MLB lost just about every confrontation with the MLBPA and Marvin Miller. He did suspend players for using illegal drugs – such as cocaine. Kuhn was the first commissioner to suspend Steve Howe for alcohol/drug abuse; Howe would go on to be suspended seven different times for the same issues.
Kuhn banned Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from baseball because they were “greeters” at casinos; that was too close to “gambling” for Kuhn’s taste. Juxtapose that with his 3-month suspension of Denny McLain who was involved in a bookmaking enterprise and you see that he did not have a sense of balance there. McLain was an active player at the time; Mays had been retired for 6 years when he was suspended and Mantle had been out of the game for 15 years when his suspension went down.
Other “milestone events” in Kuhn’s tenure included:
He voided the sale of star players by Charlie Finley of the A’s to the Yankees and Red Sox for about $5M. He said that the transaction was not in the best interest of baseball.
He also ruled that Jim Bouton’s book, Ball Four, was not in the best interest of baseball and he demanded that Bouton take the book off the market and repudiate its contents. Obviously, he did not get his way on that issue…
The first World Series game played at night happened during his term of office.
He gave the US citizens who had been held hostage in Iran lifetime baseball passes upon their safe return to the US in 1981.
The bottom line on Bowie Kuhn is that he was better as a commissioner than the bumbling goof that many sportswriters hung on him as an image.
The next person in the office was Peter Uberroth; he served as commissioner from 1984 to 1989. On the plus side:
He averted a strike by MLB umpires
He reinstated Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays into baseball’s good graces.
He started the idea of MLB sponsored products thereby creating a new revenue stream for the game as companies bid to be the Official Whatever of MLB.
On the negative side, there is one word:
Whether or not collusion to keep free agent salaries artificially low in the mid-80s was his idea, he went along with it and participated in it. Deservedly so, the owners had to pay about $300M in penalties as a result.
The bottom line on Peter Uberroth is that he found a way to increase revenues for the teams and MLB but he also cost owners a whole lot of money due to collusion. Oh, by the way, if José Canseco is to be believed, baseball’s “Steroid Era” began on Uberroth’s watch.
The next person in the office was Bart Giamatti; he served as commissioner from 1988 to 1989. He died after being on the job for only about 5 months. His singular accomplishment continuing the investigation of Pete Rose for his gambling habits. Rose’s banishment from the game happened while Giamatti was in the office and some folks believe there was an agreement between Rose and Giamatti regarding Rose’s ultimate reinstatement to the game. If such a “deal” really existed, it went to the grave with Bart Giamatti.
The bottom line on Bart Giamatti is that he was not on the job long enough to do much of anything – either positive or negative.
The next person in the office was Faye Vincent; he served as commissioner from 1989 to 1992; he had been the deputy commissioner under his friend Bart Giamatti. Here are some of the highlights of his tenure:
He banned Pete Rose from baseball for life. There are some who question his objectivity in that matter given that he was the one who selected John Dowd to do the investigation and he was active in placing stories in the press that put that report in a favorable light and put Pete Rose in a most unfavorable light.
He also banned Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner from baseball.
The owners locked the players out of Spring Training one year.
He removed the asterisk from Roger Maris’ homerun record in 1961 saying that the record book should list Maris and Ruth side-by-side with annotation that these accomplishments happened in seasons of different length.
He set in motion baseball’s 1993 expansion establishing the Colorado and Florida franchises.
He tried to mandate a realignment of the National League that violated the bylaws of the National League. That engendered a suit against the commissioner by at least one National League team and possibly a second one (My recollection on that point is not sharp.).
The bottom line on Faye Vincent is that he seemed preoccupied with the Pete Rose matter to the point where other bad stuff happened to baseball on his watch. In addition to the less-than-positive labor relationship that continued while he was in the office, recall that the baseball “Steroid Era” spread rapidly and took root in the game while he was in power.
OK, now we come to Bud Selig who has been in the job from 1992 until 2014 – and counting. He does not have tough acts to follow. On his watch:
Baseball began Interleague Play. This is something fans had wanted to see happen for many years. Perhaps the concept has worn thin over the past several years, but at the time, it was a welcome innovation.
MLB introduced the idea of wild card playoff teams and lately added a second wild card team to the baseball playoffs. While these changes to the game are not universally popular, I think they extend fan interest in the regular season deeper into September.
There is revenue sharing in MLB. It does not exist to the same extent as it does in the NFL, but it has been expanded during Bud Selig’s term of office. If baseball is to have free agency and no salary cap, then revenue sharing between big-market teams and small-market teams is essential to the survival of the small-market teams – and by extension to the major leagues themselves.
Baseball lost the 1994 World Series not because of any direct action taken by Bud Selig. Donald Fehr led the players to walk off the job in August 1994 even though there was a negotiated CBA in place that ran through the end of the 1994 season. The World Series “was lost” because the players refused to play.
Since that walkout and the subsequent labor negotiations that led to a CBA in 1995, baseball has had exactly ZERO work stoppages. The current CBA runs through the 2016 season; at that time there will have been 21 consecutive years of labor peace and continued baseball during Bud Selig’s tenure.
When Bud Selig took over MLB, the revenue for the sport was about $1.6B; today MLB takes in about $7.4B annually. That is an impressive rate of growth.
In 2013, 8 teams in MLB drew more than 3 million fans to their home games; 14 other teams drew between 2 million and 3 million fans to their home games; the bottom 8 teams in attendance all drew more than 1.5 million fans to their home games. Total attendance for MLB games in 2013 was 74,026,885. The game is economically healthy.
It was Bud Selig who first tried to get some control on baseball’s “Steroid Era”. Recall it was Donald Fehr and MLBPA that fought PED testing at every stage of the way and it took some grandstanding tongue-lashing by Congressthings to get Donald Fehr to accede to any testing at all. Selig could have acted sooner on this matter; that is for sure. Nevertheless, in the end, it was Selig and baseball ownership that forced the issue of PED drug testing.
The linking of the winner of the All-Star Game to the home field advantage in the World Series was Bud Selig’s futile attempt to make the All-Star Game into something that mattered even a little bit. It was a bad idea at the time; it remains a bad idea.
The World Baseball Classic may not be of huge interest to US fans whose focus at that point in the season is on Spring Training. However, it must be a pretty big deal in other parts of the world because 28 national teams competed in the last WBC.
There is one ongoing baseball issue where Bud Selig has not shown a lot of leadership has to do with the Blue Ribbon Commission he appointed to figure out how the SF Giants and the Oakland A’s can co-exist with the A’s getting a new ballpark. Selig appointed a Blue Ribbon Panel about 3 years ago to study the problem and figure out a way to get the A’s out of the squalor of their current home (remember, the sewage system backs up periodically) without doing great damage to the Giants’ franchise. I stipulate that this is not an easy problem; but after 3 years, one would have expected some movement on the matter and a set of recommendations. What has come from the Blue Ribbon Panel has been ZILCH.
I do not know this for certain, but it would appear to me as if Selig is kicking the can down the road here and looking to leave this messy issue for his successor. If my inkling is correct here, that would certainly not be an example of competent leadership on the part of Bud Selig.
The bottom line on Bud Selig is that he grew the game significantly; he was part of the various processes that will lead to 21 years of labor peace; he led MLB and the MLBPA to PED testing; he increased revenue sharing; and sadly, he linked the All-Star Game to the World Series in a ham-handed fashion.
Yes, Bud Selig made the owners richer than they were; that was a big part of his job description and he did just that. However, compare his accomplishments to his predecessors. Remember, I am not trying to demonstrate that Bud Selig would be a wonderful choice as UN Ambassador or a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. I also do not want to suggest that he be on the fast-track for canonization; that recommendation is reserved for my long-suffering wife. I think that he has accomplished a greater number of positive things as the MLB commissioner than anyone else who has had the job over the past 90+ years.
I doubt that I have changed David Egbert’s mind on this subject. However, I hope that I have explained here why I hold the opinion that I do. Ken Beatrice has been retired from sports radio for more than a decade now but he would appreciate what I have tried to do.
But don’t get me wrong, I Iove sports………