SBJ/19980629/This Weeks Issue

Owners ready to order: They’ll have a Bud

But can Selig handle a job that has evolved from dictator to CEO, complete with board of directors?

Bowie Kuhn, who managed to serve for 16 seasons as baseball commissioner – twice as long as the combined tenure of the three men who have held the job since he was forced out – has a clear view of what it will take to drag baseball into the next century.

“The next commissioner has to be a guy who understands and loves sports,” said Kuhn, an attorney who now practices law near Jacksonville. “He’s got to be capable of working effectively with a very entrenched union. He’s got to be able to lead the owners by consensus, by directing – and often by utilizing some of both. He’s got to have skin as thick as an elephant or a rhinoceros, whichever is thicker.

“And he better have one fine sense of humor.”

The commissioner's role has changed along with baseball

Kenesaw Mountain Landis
Served: 1920-44
Previously: Federal judge
Sketch: Baseball’s first commissioner created an office with clout that since has been eroded, ushering the game through the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Nobody was too powerful a target for Landis. He suspended Babe Ruth for barnstorming. He won when the Browns sued him for freeing one of their minor leaguers. Owners never again allowed a commissioner to wield such power. 

Albert “Happy” Chandler
Served: 1945-51
Previously: U.S. senator
Sketch: Best known for serving when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, but isn’t widely credited for playing a significant role. He negotiated baseball’s first national television deal, collecting $1 million a year for six years from Gillette for rights to the World Series. 

Ford C. Frick
Served: 1951-65
Previously: Sportswriter, then NL president
Sketch: Presided during a period known for both glory and pain. The glamour of the ‘50s gave way to upheaval , with the Dodgers, Giants, Braves, Senators, Browns and A’s all departing for new markets under Frick’s watch. He mended some fences with baseball’s first round of expansion. All credited with defending baseball’s antitrust exemption against congressional attack. 

William Eckert
Served: 1965-68
Previously: Retired Air Force lieutenant general
Sketch: No notable contributions to speak of. Fired with almost four years left in his term. 

Bowie Kuhn
Served: 1969-84
Previously: NL counsel
Sketch: Though attendance and revenue grew substantially while Kuhn was in office, he’s still remembered more as a passenger than a pilot. He presided at a time when baseball’s players union gained its power. Though he beat Curt Flood in court, he lost to Andy Messersmith. The latter case eventually opened the door to unfettered free agency.

Peter Ueberroth
Served: 1984-99
Previously: Headed 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organization Committee.
Sketch: The marketing manager’s commissioner. Presided over MLB’s first successful licensing and merchandising efforts and landed big money from CBS and ESPN. However, he also was in office when owners were hit with a $280 million fine for collusion.

A. Bartlett Giamatti
Served: 1989
Previously: Yale president and NL president
Sketch: Remembered for his lifetime ban of Pete Rose from baseball. A purist’s favorite who wore his love for the game on his sleeve. Fatal heart attack ended his term after only 154 days. 

Fay Vincent
Served: 1989-92
Previously: Giamatti’s deputy commissioner; executive at Coca-Cola and Columbia Pictures.
Sketch: Managed to steer owners clear of labor war in 1990, a move that may have eventually cost him his job. Wouldn’t roll over for his bosses, trying instead to operate in what he saw as baseball’s best interest. Vincent resigned under pressure. Not the sort of commissioner that ‘90s owners were looking for.

Bud Selig
Served: 1992-
Previously: Milwaukee Brewers owner.
Sketch: His push for an expanded playoff field and interleague play showed vision that runs contrary to his old-guard image. But he’ll remain inexorably linked to one of the game’s darker moments – the cancellation of the ’94 World Series because of labor strife.

Kuhn isn’t sure whether acting commissioner Bud Selig, the smart-money choice to achieve permanent status in the coming months, if not weeks, will fit that description – not so much because of Selig’s nature or background, but because of the undefined parameters of the job.

Though Kuhn isn’t high on the idea of owner as commissioner, he concedes that the dilemma is more one of appearance than substance. Most owners agree that Selig, CEO of the Milwaukee Brewers’ ownership group, has done well to steer clear of appearances of conflict in his five years as management poobah. Putting the Brewers in a blind trust will satisfy his brethren’s concern.

But that won’t address weightier issues: whether Selig can narrow gaps between owners and the union; whether his appointment will alienate consumers who associate him with canceling the World Series; and whether as a man with undeniable ties to a club, he’ll be willing to centralize power, as have previous commissioners.

“Whether he can serve effecti vely depends on some things that are imponderable right now,” Kuhn said. “What kind of power will he have? How much power will he insist upon?

“Right now, he’s got a collegial job. He consults the other owners and they make a decision together. As commissioner, you don’t have to consult. You have power. We don’t know yet how he’ll use it, whether he’ll use it, or, in reality, whether that power will continue to exist as it has before.”

The concept of an autonomous commissioner is unique to baseball. While David Stern, Paul Tagliabue and Gary Bettman all are viewed as master marketers entrusted with the care of their owners’ best interests, the baseball commissioner typically – although not always accurately – has been viewed as guardian of the game’s best interests.

The first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was drafted by owners to restore the trust that was broken when members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series. Landis, a federal judge, ruled mightily, banning players for life for gambling, suspending Babe Ruth for barnstorming and using the broad “best interest” powers of his office to take on owners, one of whom sued him and lost.

Since Landis, the powers of the office have eroded. Albert “Happy” Chandler, William Eckert, Fay Vincent and even Kuhn eventually were forced out at least in part because they jousted with owners who banded to block their re-election. As the stakes have risen, owners have grown more suspicious and less tolerant of centralized power.

“The job is a lot different than it ever was,” said Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris, who as head of the search committee has opposed hiring from within ownership. “People talk about the judge being commissioner. But we didn’t have radio and TV then. That alone makes a load of difference.”

Though McMorris commends Selig’s work, he is concerned about the way Selig is perceived publicly – as the man who canceled the World Series – and about his relationship with the union.

The owners moved toward softening those concerns and redefining the role of the commissioner when they hired Paul Beeston, former president of the Toronto Blue Jays, as chief operating officer last year, setting the stage for adoption of a model taken from corporate America: a savvy, hands-on manager of day-to-day operations (Beeston) complemented by a ceremonial commissioner who speaks for a powerful board of directors.

The shift has come largely because the face of ownership has changed radically in recent years, moving away from families whose bloodlines intertwined with baseball’s, toward media conglomerates more interested in the business’ future than the sport’s past.

Nearly two-thirds of baseball’s ownership groups – 19 out of 30 – bought in since 1990, with four entering by way of expansion and the others buying existing teams. Five of the other 11 came in during the 1980s.

Much has been made of Selig’s link to the canceled World Series. But 10 of the current ownership groups weren’t in place to see it.

“That’s an important point,” Kuhn said. “They don’t have as much of an understanding of the history of the game. And the new owners probably don’t have as much respect for tradition either.”

Most owners – both the new, who have never known a commissioner, and the old, who have squabbled with one or two – are attracted to the idea of one of their own representing their interests.

“Today, with the players being represented by agents and unions, the role of the commissioner has to be different than what it was,” said Anaheim Angels President Tony Tavares, clearly a new-breed guy. “The commissioner represents ownership. It’s that way in the other major sports, and it’s accepted. Everyone understands that David Stern represents the [NBA] owners.”

Baseball owners have grown comfortable with Selig as their representative and Beeston running operations.

“Bud has earned the trust and confidence of a lot of people,” McMorris said. “In Bud, they know what they’ve got. In the future, with somebody they don’t know, there’s uncertainty. Quite a few people involved here don’t want to take that risk.”

Especially not after what they’ve seen in the last two years. Selig pitched them on interleague play and it has been a success. He was willing to spark realignment by shifting his own club and it has been a boon to the Brewers. The addition of Beeston to lead MLB’s offices smoothed relations with both the union and the networks.

“In my position, having someone with a background in ownership is a dream come true,” said Detroit Tigers CEO John McHale Jr. “This is somebody who understands our problems, who’s had his hands on the wheel. You add Paul Beeston and, wow, to have two such people – so long as you take care of those few concerns [of conflict of interest], why would you want to change?”

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