This article was written by Ron Kaplan
This article was published in Summer 2009 Baseball Research Journal
In the Best Interests of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig
by Andrew Zimbalist
John Wiley and Sons (2007)
$14.95, paperback. 250 pages. Photos, notes
Allan H. “Bud” Selig has nominally been in charge of the national pastime longer than any commissioner since Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Needless to say, the game has expanded beyond what the sixteen original owners could ever have imagined. Such success has been a blessing and a curse, and the complexities for those in the game’s highest office have grown exponentially.
Andrew Zimbalist—his previous sports titles include Baseball and Billions: A Probing Look Inside the Big Business of Our National Pastime; May the Best Team Win: Baseball Economics and Public Policy; and National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer—presents a generally withering look at the nine men who have held the august office. He titles two chapters “The Undistinguished Middle I” and “II,” which might strike some readers as overly harsh. Only half the book actually deals with Selig’s background and administration; the rest is a brief history of those who came before him.
Landis, who held the office from 1921 until his death in 1944, was appointed by baseball owners desperate for leadership following the Black Sox scandal. He certainly had his faults: vain, despotic, racist, and generally ruling the game with an iron, if sometimes uneven, hand. After Landis “cleaned up” the game to the owners’ initial satisfaction, his successors were faced with the challenges that progress and history wrought.
Albert B. “Happy” Chandler (1945–51), who took office following Landis’s death, witnessed the most significant event in the game—the breaking of the color line—against the popular consensus of the owners. He continued to battle with them over various issues, including television contracts and the continued association by some baseball personnel with gamblers and similar unsavory characters. The post- war years brought other problems, including the incursion by different forms of entertainment as well as “white flight” to the suburbs. Chandler, tired of the constant conflicts with the owners, resigned in the middle of the 1951 season.
Ford Frick (1951–65) was “a lowly sports journalist” before becoming the National League’s public-relations representative and then its president. Zimbalist characterizes him as “a man who was singularly unprepared to take the office to a new level.” Yet he was forced by circumstances to sit in office during tumultuous times. As a difficult economy continued into the mid-1950s, the Philadelphia Athletics, St. Louis Browns, and Boston Braves relocated to Kansas City, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, respectively. The threat of a new major league led to expansion in the early 1960s, which led to Frick’s claim to infamy when he dictated that Roger Maris’s home-run record would bear the burden of a special notation in the record book. (In light of the recent revelations about performance-enhancing drugs, many sports pundits are taking another look at such a designation.)
General William Eckert (1965–68), snidely referred to by an owner as “the unknown soldier,” followed Frick during a relatively calm period. Not that he had much of a chance to make a mark, even if he had had a basic knowledge of the game (which he did not); he was dismissed less than halfway into his term.
Bowie Kuhn (1969–84) seemed to be the baseball man the owners had hoped for, but he battled Charles Finley over the sale of three of his top players for top dollar. Kuhn voided the transaction, invoking the “best interest” clause. He oversaw another round of expansion and the passage of free agency from theory to reality. Kuhn also took time to ban two of the game’s all- time icons—Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle—because of their employment by casinos. He was not extended a new contract when his second term expired.
Although he brought a freshness to the office that was heretofore unknown, Peter Ueberroth (1984–89) couldn’t seem to apply the magic from his accomplishments in the 1984 Olympics to baseball. It was on his watch that owners engaged in collusive actions to keep free-agent signings on the cheap.
Bart Giamatti (1989) might have been the ideal candidate for the office because of his brilliance, love for, and knowledge of the game. But he died of a broken heart, forced to banish Pete Rose for his gambling sins. Giamatti had been commissioner for less than six months.
Fay Vincent (1989–92), Giamatti’s right-hand man and close friend, did a commendable job as his successor, particularly during the 1989 “Earthquake” Series between the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants. But he stood up to the owners one time too many.
In fact, Zimbalist offers, that was the case with almost every commissioner: butting heads against the group that was essentially his employer. Evidently they wanted a firm and wise leader, but not if he constantly ruled against their interests.
Selig came with his own set of limitations, although Zimbalist does give him credit for his passion and knowledge. He was instrumental in securing a franchise for Milwaukee—welcoming a bankrupt Pilots team following their sole season in Seattle—after his beloved Braves had relocated to Atlanta. Selig eventually became an owner of the Brewers, a major conflict-of- interest issue, when he assumed the post first of acting commissioner and then commissioner proper.
A particular issue relating to his conflict of interest was contraction. While head of the Brewers, Selig had accepted a loan from Minnesota Twins’ owner Carl Pohlad, which was in itself a violation of the rules. When it came time to select teams that would be considered for contraction, the Twins were named as a possible candidate, which would have made an aging Pohlad quite happy.
Selig has “guided” baseball through the most turmoil in the long history of the game, including a devastating work stoppage and, most recently, the shadow of performance-enhancing drugs and its impact on the perception of ethics and the national pastime. (This last item is not addressed in the book, which was originally published in 2006. No doubt the assertion that Selig turned a blind eye while some of baseball’s highest-profile players “juiced” will be addressed in future books.)
Was Selig’s “reign” revolutionary? To be sure, there were many changes: escalating salaries, increased attendance, and the resurgence of the minor leagues, among other things. Were they Selig’s doings, or would they have happened regardless of who sat in the commissioner’s chair? If the reader believes the latter, then Zimbalist’s premise doesn’t fit.
In the Best Interests is full of the inner workings of the game, aspects the average fan has little knowledge of or interest in. But for those interested in the history of baseball’s smoke-filled rooms, Zimbalist offers a concise, if unflattering, rendering of the office and the men who held it.
RON KAPLAN is the sports and features editor for the New Jersey Jewish News. His freelance work has appeared in publications including Mental Floss, Baseball America, Irish America, ForeWord Magazine, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He hosts Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf (http://rksbaseballbookshelf.wordpress.com), a blog about baseball literature and other media.