Bud Selig’s 22 years as baseball commissioner end with this waning annum, so report cards on his tenure are apt. Mine has him doing well, perhaps for reasons you might not expect.
Although it’s tough to sneak up on people amid the glare and blare that continually surround our major team sports, that’s pretty much what Selig did. A car dealer among billionaires, operating from the hinterlands base of Milwaukee, he quietly set an indelible mark on the National Pastime.
He came on the baseball scene as the political equivalent of a one-issue crusader, hiding behind the potted palms in hotel lobbies (a much-repeated description first used in my front-page Wall Street Journal profile of him years ago) to badger team owners into permitting the Major League game to return to his native city after the absence created by the 1965 exodus of the Braves. He succeeded in 1970 with the transfer and renaming of the Seattle Pilots, under an investment group he headed, then set about embedding himself into the game’s governance.
Baseball may be a billion-dollar business but its ownership-level functioning most resembles that of a local Rotary Club, where those willing to do the scut work eventually get the top jobs. From the outset Selig raised his hand for every committee assignment available so that by 1992, when he and his fellow owners had had enough of Fay Vincent, he was the logical candidate to succeed him. Characteristically, he sidled into the office instead of storming in, allowing the word “interim” to precede his title for six years, but by the time it was removed there was no doubt who was running the show.
Although it was little commented upon at the time, the fact that a team owner was named to head a major U.S. sport was nothing short of revolutionary, and marked a sea change in our sporting perceptions. From the advent of the post in 1920, when the jurist Kenesaw Mountain Landis was brought in to cleanse baseball of the Black Sox scandal, commissioners were viewed as having tsar-like powers. That may have been true of the flinty Landis, whose reign ended only with his death in 1944, but it hasn’t been since.
Indeed, what John Helyar called “commissioneritis” in his wonderful 1994 book “Lords of the Realm”—the illusion that those who held the job could exceed the dictates of their owner-employers—is what brought down three of the four men who preceded Selig during the players’-union era (Bowie Kuhn, Peter Ueberroth and Vincent). The fourth –- former Yale U. president A. Bart Giamatti—might have been bit, too, had he lived beyond his 13-month term. Wealth does not bow to intellect, so clashes were predictable.
Selig’s ascent not only set the public straight on the notion that the baseball commissioner is an owners’ man, it also calmed the internal ownership strife that contributed to the seven strikes or lockouts that interrupted play between 1972 and 1990, keeping the sport continually riled. It took the granddaddy of all stoppages—the eight-month, 1994-95 lockout that wiped out the 1994 World Series on his watch—to finally clear the air, but the 20 years of labor peace that have followed is among his biggest achievements.
Keeping in line the rich, egotistical men who own baseball franchises is widely likened to herding cats. Selig has done it through the often-claimed but rarely followed practice of leading from behind. Rumpled, modest and sometimes clueless-appearing, and journalistically derided as “Bud Lite” early in his commissionership, Selig has been an indefatigable worker of the phones, hashing out and building consensus for his goals before revealing them publicly. Thus, the major on-field innovations of his rule, including inter-league play, post-season expansion and making All-Star-Game outcomes determine World Series home-field advantage, slid into being with barely a ripple. So, too, have the measures to expand TV and on-line income that have fueled Major League Baseball’s overall revenue growth to a reported $9 billion this year from $1.2 billion the year Selig became commissioner. Like the movie gangster Hyman Roth, he’s always made money for his partners.
Selig’s greatest accomplishment-- revenue sharing-- is one that couldn’t have happened without his patient politicking. Introduced in 1996, and solidified in the game’s 2011 labor agreement, it provides that teams put about one-third of their local revenues (mostly TV-rights income) into a pot that’s split equally among the 30 teams. That plus the game’s payroll-based “luxury tax” have given an annual revenue boost of some $30 million to the smallest-market teams.
Coupled with the provision that recipients spend the money on payroll or player development (instead of the owners merely pocketing it), revenue sharing has gone far to narrow the haves-havenots gap that rankled Bud in his days as a small-market club owner. It’s at least partly why the likes of the Kansas City Royals, Oakland A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates have been playoff teams of late while, this year at least, the big-payroll New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox watched the post season on TV.
Alas, however, there was one big downside to Selig’s tenure: the blind eye he turned toward steroid use in baseball from the early 1990s to the overdue advent of meaningful drug testing in 2005. I call that span baseball’s HITS era, for Heads In The Sand.
Selig says that players’ union resistance to testing contributed to the lag, as did a lack of clear understanding of the problem among team executives. The first part of that assertion is correct, the last is not; from the time a steroids-laced dietary supplement was spied on an open shelf in Mark McGwire’s St. Louis Cardinals’ locker in 1998, no one could claim ignorance.
More than any other American sport baseball depends on comparisons with the past to illuminate its present. The steroids blight put an eternal asterisk on the game’s records for 15 years, an entire playing generation. Without that misstep Selig’s commissionership would rate an “A,” the initial of his square first name, Allan. With it he gets a “B,” as in Bud.