SBJ/September 28 - October 4, 1998/No Topic Name
Tenacity is key for new Brewers boss
Published September 28, 1998
Amid the memorabilia that brighten Wendy Selig-Prieb's office the autographed baseballs and bobbing-head dolls, the photograph signed by Henry Aaron and the lithograph signed by Robin Yount hangs a black-and-white poster of Ken Sanders, a journeyman who pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers in their first three seasons and then wandered on.
In the photo, Sanders stands in uniform alongside his three children. Beneath them is an inscription: "Those of us who play the game know that baseball is a precious and enduring gift passed down from one generation to the next."
Wendy Selig-Prieb, president of the Milwaukee Brewers the team that her father bought in the winter of 1970, when she was 9 years old read it and paused.
"Yeah, that does apply to me,'' she said. "It sure does."
Bud Selig, who fought a tumultuous battle to bring baseball back to Milwaukee through the late 1960s, passed his passion for the game to his daughters, driving them to Chicago for Cubs games after the Braves abandoned their town.
When he beat the odds by luring the Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee in 1970, he allowed his youngest daughter, Wendy, to immerse herself in the team each summer. She rode to work with him before games and stayed for hours after they'd ended, keeping score and collecting autographs.
Her favorite player, Marty Pattin, wore No. 33, so when he pitched she religiously made the pilgrimage to Row 33 of the lower grandstand, convinced it brought him luck.
Along with those wide-eyed childish pursuits came a growing understanding of the other side of baseball, the side her father dealt with each day.
"While I was a kid and grew up a fan, I think something that distinguished my childhood is that I wasn't just coming out here with my family for some entertainment," Selig-Prieb said. "This was my father's primary business."
Today, as she contemplates the Brewers' $32 million payroll and the fact that it will increase substantially in the coming years thanks to revenue streams from a new ballpark, Selig-Prieb, the only female chief executive in baseball, is struck by her earliest memories of baseball's financial side.
She recalls her father's brow furrowing with worry as he contemplated the salary of first baseman George "Boomer" Scott, who drove in 107 runs in 1973 and thus was able to command what then was a princely sum. "I remember when George Scott was the first $100,000 ballplayer the Brewers ever had," she said. "By today's standards, that doesn't sound like much. But I remember my father saying, 'I don't know how we're going to generate the revenue to keep up with this.' To me, as a kid, $100,000 ...I couldn't even comprehend it. What did a pack of gum cost back then? Ten cents?
"It helped me, because my father not only taught me about the game, he taught me about the business side. As a kid, I was exposed both to the business side and to other people in the game."
Only a handful of those personal ties have stood through the game's shift from family ownership to corporate control. Only 11 of the 30 current ownership groups were in play before 1990. Still, Selig-Prieb said her early exposure to the game's power structure has served her well. "I have a real comfort in the industry," she said. "Whether with owners, players or front office, it all seems very comfortable to me because I've been around it so long."
Bill Bartholomay, chairman of the board of the Atlanta Braves, remembers Wendy Selig-Prieb from the Braves' days in Milwaukee when Selig ran the club's business operations. It was Bartholomay who at the last owners' meetings introduced the motion that control of the Brewers be passed from one Selig generation to the next.
"I didn't have to say much; I just asked for acclamation," said Bartholomay, who has remained a close family friend. "She's earned her stripes. She knows her legal positions, and she knows this business. It was a natural flow into the role she has now."
Selig-Prieb's rise into baseball's ownership circle began when, after receiving her undergraduate degree from Tufts University, she spent a year as the Brewers' vice president of broadcasting. She worked for two years in baseball's commissioner's office in New York and then went to law school at Marquette. After two years in corporate practice, she returned to the Brewers as general counsel in 1990.
The timing landed Selig-Prieb on the forefront of a labor struggle that soon would implode. She served on baseball's legal team during negotiations that crippled, and later resurrected, the game.
"She earned a great deal of respect during those difficult times,'' Bartholomay said. "She got a lot more accomplished than most of the people we had at the bargaining table. She was very calm, but very strong."
Calm and strong are words that others use to describe Selig-Prieb. Bartholomay calls her "her father's daughter," pointing to the tenacity that she showed while leading the Brewers' plea for a new ballpark, an endeavor that once seemed so doomed that it inspired a "Dewey Defeats Truman"-style headline in the local newspaper when a vote on funding dragged into the night.
When Selig-Prieb and her cohorts emerged from the meetings minutes before the sun rose the next morning, the Brewers had their ballpark.
"When I think about my father, the thing that for me distinguishes him is his tenacity and perseverance," said Selig-Prieb, who has a copy of the newspaper declaring that the Brewers had lost their battle hanging on her office wall. "If my father doesn't want to hear the word no, you can say it as loud as you want you can spell it but he won't hear it. That's a talent.
"I hope I got at least a little of his tenacity and perseverance because it's what I admire most about him."
As she speaks of what she inherited from her father, Selig-Prieb can't help wondering what traits she'll pass along.
Once again, the president of the Milwaukee Brewers has a daughter who goes to baseball games. Natalie Prieb was born on May 25. Her father, Laurel Prieb, is the Brewers' vice president of corporate affairs.
"A lot of times people talk about how difficult it is to balance family and career,'' Selig-Prieb said. "You get asked the question more as a woman. And it's viewed differently in sports. It's a lot of nights. A lot of weekends. A lot of time. From my experiences as a kid, it was a great thing. If my father had been selling medical supplies, I don't know that I would've been so interested in going to work with him. I loved it because I got to hang around the ballpark. He had an automobile dealership too. I liked being there. It was OK. But it was nothing like being at the ballpark.
"I hope it will be for Natalie like it was for me a lot of fun, but also a real family experience."