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Best Interests of the Game

March, 1995


A Brief History of Baseball’s Commissioner

In 1903 with the consolidation of the National and American Leagues into the unified Major Leagues there was formed a three member governing body. It was called the National Commission and it consisted of the president of each league and one owner. It worked for fifteen years.

In the wake of the fixing of the 1919 World Series known as the Black Sox scandal, Major League Baseball’s owners, not surprisingly, sought outside help to manage their public image. In what proved to be the first in a long line of regretful decisions the owners settled on former federal district court judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He was brought in to help restore public confidence in the game and in so doing he set a precedent fostering three generations of owner incompetence. While Landis and most of the seven men who followed him were elected unanimously to their position, they invariably incurred the wrath of their "employer" in the subsequent attendance to the completion of their duties. The owners wanted someone to run the game - but they didn’t want that person to control it.

Landis, of course, felt otherwise. He ruled for 23 years with an iron fist; His mandate coming from Article I of the Major League agreement. It gave the first commissioner "broad and unfettered" powers to act in "the best interests of baseball." He was to deal with anything detrimental to the game and he did so in his own inimitable way. The owners who hired him while happy at first and quite proud of themselves soon began to sour at what they considered his meddling in player transactions. It took them 11 years to do so, but in 1932 they finally voted to limit his powers in this area.

When he died in 1944 the owners hired on folksy Kentucky Senator A.B. "Happy" Chandler. At that time they also restricted his "detrimental to baseball" authority permitting themselves to criticize the commissioner and even go to court to challenge his rulings. They wanted a Washington insider and goodwill ambassador. What they got in return was a reprimand that they did not own the game. It belonged to all America, he said. After instituting a minimum player wage and a limit on salary cuts, "Happy" Chandler lost a vote of no confidence during the Winter of 1950. He resigned.

Former sportswriter (and ghostwriter for Babe Ruth) Ford Frick was the perfect owners’ commissioner for the somnolent 1950s. He served two (2) seven year terms and stayed out of the leagues’ business. A lot like Gumby, you could mold him and make him any way you wanted. By the mid 1960s, however things had changed dramatically. The player’s association was flexing its collective muscle, ownership was getting more bullish, and America was headlong into its first major build-up in the Vietnam War. Not surprisingly, the owners’ choice for their next commissioner reflected all that. Retired Air Force lieutenant general William D. "Spike" Eckert was brought in, propped up by the owners, and then fired less than four years later. Known around baseball as the "Unknown Soldier," the best that could be said about him was that he didn’t have a clue.

For the next 15 years baseball was overseen by Bowie Kuhn, a lawyer whose former firm had represented the National League. He was charged with the task of restructuring the game and developing a business plan. To that end he sought the further centralization of his office’s powers. The owners’ response was to remove the players relations council (PRC) from his jurisdiction, take over that sensitive area themselves, and proceed to give control away to the players year by year. After having served longer than anyone but Landis, but not the chief executive the owners wanted, Kuhn failed to get the required majority votes from either league and gave way in 1983.

Peter Ueberroth, fresh from his success as head of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, was hired on in 1984. A self-styled CEO, he took control of the operation from top to bottom. It was the "Reagan years" and Ueberroth typified that demeanor better than anyone. At twice Kuhn’s salary he set about his business. He negotiated a $1.2 Billion TV contract that lined every team’s pockets, presided over three consecutive years of owners collusion to limit players salaries, and opted out after one term. He could have stayed on. The owners got richer while he was there and enamored. In the end his legacy was the exponential inflation of players’ salaries. When the TV contract was not renewed, the owners pleaded future poverty but by this time the horse was already out of the barn and wasn’t about to go back all by itself.

With the money in hand, the owners had no qualms about promoting A. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale University and the National League to succeed Ueberroth. They voted him in unanimously and his term was the first where the commissioner was foremost a fan. His brief term was highlighted by one of the classic confrontations in American sports history. Pete Rose had achieved the highest position an uneducated person in America could achieve: That of a professional athlete (or perhaps rock star). He was also accused of betting on baseball. Bart Giamatti had achieved the highest position an educated person in America could achieve: That of the keeper and holder of a sacred public trust. In the land of baseball he was the law. It was inevitable the two would clash; And that the commissioner would win. If nothing else, America believes that it values education. Giamatti died suddenly less than a week after the decision and although he served only 154 days (ironically the number of games in a season from 1903-1960), he did so with greater distinction than anyone before him.

Francis T. "Fay" Vincent , formerly President of Columbia Pictures, and later VP of Coca-Cola’s entertainment division, was the first deputy commissioner of baseball. Mr. Giamatti had brought him on in that role and he had served as the point man during the Rose litigation. Now with his friend’s untimely death, Vincent was elected commissioner unanimously in September, 1989. For Fay Vincent the role of the commissioner was preserving the integrity of the game for all its stakeholders: Owners, players, fans, and communities alike. After the owners locked the players out in the Spring of 1990, Vincent brought both sides together and got it settled. The owners being less pleased with the result than the players, asked him to act with more restraint in any future labor negotiations . He demurred and that was that. Issues over National League realignment and the commissioner’s role in settling club differences led to a court injunction limiting Vincent’s power. The hard line owners pushed for resignation. In September, 1992, after a lengthy public war of words, Vincent resigned having failed to receive a vote of confidence.

After more than 70 years of failed attempts to self-govern through elected and appointed surrogates, Major League Baseball’s team owners have elevated one of their own to stand in. Allan H. (Bud) Selig, sportsman, entrepreneur, and used car salesman is now also the acting commissioner. He’s been on the job less than two and a half years and already has presided over the longest and most embittered labor morass the game has ever seen. He has managed to do what none of his seven predecessors could ever have done. He canceled the World Series for the first time in 90 years.

In the long term, he said at the time, it was in the best interests of the game.

Since this was written, Selig has been elected Baseball’s 9th Commissioner.