Who’s the Greatest Baseball Commissioner of All Time? The Answer May Surprise You

BY DENNIS RICHARDSON


1 July 2021


ORLANDO, FL – Though it has been almost 19 years now, the image remains vivid in my mind. Then-Major League Baseball Commissioner Allan “Bud” Selig is huddling with the umpires near a dugout during a stoppage in play at the 2002 All-Star Game on an early-July night in Milwaukee.


It is closing on midnight in what has been a long evening, what with all of the superfluous pre-game festivities and the game itself plodding along. At this moment, Selig is a picture of frustration and helplessness as the umpires inform him that, with the game tied 7-7 after 11 innings, both managers have run out of pitchers. There simply is no one left to pitch, for either side.


As the restless, sell-out crowd rains down boos and chants of, “Let them play. Let them play,” Selig has no choice but to declare a tie and end the game. It is a first in MLB history.


This was supposed to be Selig’s shining moment. An opportunity for Milwaukee and baseball to pay homage to this hometown hero, a former auto dealership owner who bought the Seattle Pilots out of bankruptcy and brought Major League Baseball back to this Wisconsin city. It also was a chance to showcase Miller Park (now American Family Field), the Brewers’ new, retractable-roof stadium for which Selig had spent so many years lobbying. But what should have been a night of triumph instead ended as a fiasco.


Whenever I think about that image I ask myself, “This is the guy that many baseball experts consider the best commissioner in baseball history?” The man who critics derisively called “Bud Lite”? The man who, when he went before the TV cameras, always seemed to have a worried expression on his face, like a homeowner who wonders if his paycheck will arrive in time to cover the check he just wrote for his mortgage? The man whose public persona was as bland as those conservative gray suits he wore?


There have been 10 baseball commissioners since the office was founded in 1920, beginning with Kennesaw Mountain Landis right up through current office holder Rob Manfred. Those 10, in chronological order: Landis, Al “Happy” Chandler, Ford Frick, William Eckert, Bowie Kuhn, Peter Uebberoth, Paul Giamatti, Fay Vincent, Selig, and Manfred.


Landis had the longest official tenure – 24 years – and Giamatti the shortest – five months in office. The commissioners came from widely different backgrounds: a congressman, an army general, an auto dealership owner, a university president, a securities negotiator, an attorney, a businessman, and a former sportswriter.


Bumbler or Business Visionary?

Pinpointing where Selig ranks among the 10 evokes strong responses from both sides. One either loathes Selig, considering him a feckless bumbler incapable of leading, and who was reluctant and slow to act; or loves him, seeing him as a business visionary who oversaw unprecedented growth in the sport, and was wrongly perceived as too slow-acting because he led by building a consensus instead of delivering my-way-or-no-way ultimatums.


To his many critics, that 2002 All-Star Game is a snapshot of Selig’s years as baseball commissioner – a man in a rumpled suit standing helplessly by while the game cried out for someone to take charge. To Selig’s advocates, the correct picture is of him announcing new Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) in 1997, 2003, 2007, and 2012.


“His legacy is that he oversaw a period of tremendous change and did it in his own style, the pace of which, oftentimes, frustrated people, because he wanted to get everybody on board,” David Montgomery, CEO of the Phillies at that time, told Tyler Kepner, in a 2015 New York Times story. “That was key. The pace of his decisions reflected the fact that he didn’t want to jam something down the throats of people who were against that change. It took longer, but there was greater buy-in….”


Selig served six years as “acting” commissioner after owners unceremoniously ousted Vincent in a “no-confidence” vote in 1988. Selig then stayed on for an additional 22 years as the official commissioner, a job that he said he never wanted, before retiring after the 2014 season. That makes him the longest-serving commissioner in baseball history.


His tenure was filled with big misses -- from the silly (the “This Time It Counts” All-Star Game promotion in which the outcome of the exhibition game determined home-field advantage in that season’s World Series) to the serious (canceling a World Series, and the steroids and Performance Enhancing Drugs issue). But also, there were some big hits – such as, almost two decades of labor peace, adoption of revenue sharing among teams, drug testing, and creation of the World Baseball Classic.


Former right-hander Dave Stewart, who pitched for five teams over 16 seasons and later served as general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, once called the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, “the most embarrassing moment in Major League Baseball history.” Certainly, it was the low point in Selig’s tenure as commissioner.


The Series cancellation resulted from a players’ strike that centered around the issue of a salary cap as part of a new CBA. The owners insisted that any revenue-sharing proposal among teams (which the players favored as a means for making more clubs competitive) be tied to a salary cap. But, the players union was dead set against any type of cap. Both sides refused to budge.


When an Aug. 12 players-imposed deadline for reaching a deal passed without an agreement, the players walked out. The strike would last 232 days, until April 2, 1995. It wiped out 900 games, including the entire postseason and the ’94 World Series. Selig remains the only commissioner to cancel a World Series.


Series Cancellation ‘Heartbreaking’

“I was heartbroken,” Selig told ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian of the night (Sept 12,1994) baseball called off the Series. “I remember saying to myself that night, My God, we've been through World War I, World War II, we've been through Vietnam, Korea, everything, and somehow…we lost a World Series. It was shattering to me.”


Then, Selig further alienated fans and the players association by allowing owners to consider starting the 1995 season fielding teams made up of sub-par, non-union players, a plan that had produced disastrous results in spring training.


Fans were genuinely upset, and many swore off baseball, having little patience for another squabble between rich players and even wealthier owners over how to divvy up billions of dollars in revenue. Many baseball experts say that Selig and baseball were fortunate that some guy name Cal Ripken, Jr., came along and in 1995 brought fans back to ballparks with his pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak – “Cal saved us,” Selig has said on several occasions – and three years later when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled to see who’d be the first to break Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in a season.


By then, though, in the eyes of Bud’s critics, the second Selig calamity – The Steroid Era -- was well under way.


The Steroid Era generally is considered to have run from the late 1980s until the early 2000s, which means it ran through the heart of the Selig administration.


Whispers that players were using steroids and PEDs started in the early 1980s. They were not considered illegal, though, until 1991 when Vincent prohibited their use. His decree, though, had little impact because it contained no penalties.


The use of steroids exploded after the players returned from the strike in 1995. Suddenly, bulked up players were shattering cherished homerun records, and even light-hitting middle infielders were hitting home runs in bunches.


Motivated by a congressional hearing in 2002 and threats to intervene unless the league cleaned up its act, baseball finally began testing for steroids and PEDs in 2003, and started assessing penalties for violators two years later.


“Typical Bud,” critics said of the league waiting until 12 years after Vincent’s decree to act. To this day, they ask, “What took you so long?” and “Why didn’t you do more?” They argue that Selig acted only when he felt it might tarnish his legacy.


In fairness, Selig pushed for drug testing as part a new CBA in 2004, but it was tabled by the players’ strike. He could not unilaterally impose testing and penalties because such moves had to be negotiated under the CBA, and neither side

appeared in a hurry to tackle the issue. The owners were accused of turning a blind eye because they were happy that fans were returning to the ballparks, excited by all the home runs. Meanwhile, the players union was against drug testing as a matter of principle, worried about how the tests would be administered and that owners would use positive tests as an excuse to dump unwanted contracts.


“After ’94, (Selig) very wisely recognized that you can’t take on the union, that you have to make incremental, five percent adjustments in your dealings with them,” Vincent told Kepner. “It’s going to take a long time to get things where you want them, but the alternative – confrontation with the union – is totally unsupportable.”


After years of persuasion, Selig finally got enough support to institute testing and penalties, which were considered the toughest in sports, for steroids and PEDs.


Busch Stadium III in St. Louis is one of 18 major-league ballparks built during Bud Selig’s tenure as baseball commissioner (Photo: Kirk Thornton/Unsplash.com)

Substance Over Style

While critics describe Selig as too slow to act, his supporters will tell you that making demands was not his style. One of his chief talents was bringing sides together and brokering deals. His style was to lobby, convince, even cajole until he got the support he needed.


That support led to an unheard list of achievements during Selig’s years, impressive for a sport notoriously slow to change. Among his hits:


* Baseball revenue exploded under Selig, from $1.2 billion a year in 1992 to $9 billion in 2015. Plus, 18 stadiums were built during his years as commissioner, many of them constructed with considerable taxpayer dollars, and which have been a financial boon to owners.


* Expansion of postseason play, from four teams in 1993 to the current 10.


* Adoption of a revenue-sharing plan. Selig convinced owners of large-market clubs like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox that giving money to small-market teams like Kansas City and Pittsburgh in the form revenue sharing actually was beneficial to the long-range viability of the big-market teams and the league in general.


* Addition of four expansion teams (Miami and Colorado in 1993, and Tampa Bay and Arizona in 1998).


* Creation of the World Baseball Classic, a World Cup-style tournament that includes teams from every continent. The event, held every four years, is hugely popular outside of the United States.


* Creation of interleague play, Jackie Robinson Day, instant replay, MLB Network TV, and mlb.com.


* The adoption of a three-division format for each league.


* Consolidation of the two leagues. Prior to 2000, the American and National leagues operated as separate entities. Selig brought them under one umbrella, as he did the two umpire groups – which had worked exclusively with one league or the other.


* Selig’s biggest achievement, though, was the labor peace between owners and the players association over his final 19 years in office. Given the acrimony and deep-seated mistrust between the two sides, that is no small feat. In a 23-year period from 1971 through 1994, there had been eight work stoppages. Beginning in 1995, under Selig’s stewardship, the owners and players union crafted four successive labor agreements without a lockout or strike.


A Tale of Two Administrations

So, Selig’s tenure can be divided into two parts. The 1994 players’ strike and The Steroid Era, clearly black marks against him, defined his first 10 years in office. On the other hand, the ensuing seasons were characterized by unprecedented growth in a sport famously resistant to change. It’s those latter accomplishments that helped propel Selig to the top spot among baseball’s commissioners.


Two years after his retirement, Selig became the fifth commissioner elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame (joining Landis, Frick, Chandler, and Kuhn). Selig received 15 of 16 votes from the veterans’ committee.


As for the other commissioners, here’s how I rate them behind Selig, from two through 10:


2. Ford Frick (1951-1965)

Only Frick comes close to Selig in terms of impact on the game. MLB’s landscape changed significantly under this former sportswriter and high school English teacher, growing from a league with teams heavily concentrated in the Northeast to a coast-to-coast circuit. He oversaw baseball’s first expansion, by four teams in 1961 (Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators) and ’62 (New York Mets and Houston Astros). Also, six teams relocated during his tenure (1953, the Boston Braves to Milwaukee; 1954, the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore; 1955, the Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City; 1958, the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles and the New York Giants to San Francisco; and 1961, the Washington Senators to Minnesota). Plus, Frick negotiated several lucrative television contracts, and established the first Player Draft, in 1965.


Frick’s decision, though, to list Roger Maris’ and Babe Ruth’s season-record home run totals side by side -- in order to protect the hallowed mark by Ruth -- is a huge black mark against Frick.


3. Al “Happy” Chandler (1945-1951)

The former U.S. Senator and governor of Kentucky used revenue from baseball’s radio broadcasting contract for the 1947 World Series to establish a pension fund for retired players, which undoubtedly made him a hit with the players. Plus, he oversaw the integration of the game. He approved Jackie Robinson’s contract in 1947, effectively breaking the game’s color barrier.


But, Chandler also threatened a five-year ban on any major-league player who signed a contract with the fledging Mexican League, which was offering to pay players three times what they were making in MLB.


4. Fay Vincent (1989-92)

The former entertainment lawyer and securities negotiator succeeded Bart Giamatti as MLB’s eighth commissioner. Most notably, Vincent was the first commissioner, in 1991, to come out and declare the use of steroids to be illegal.


Vincent also ended rules that listed records for 154- and 162-game seasons, thus ending the asterisk behind Roger Maris’ name. Plus, Vincent started the movement toward league expansion in 1993.


On the downside, Vincent changed the definition of no-hitters, requiring a pitcher to throw at least nine innings and complete the game in order to be credited with a no-hitter.

5. Kennesaw Mountain Landis (1920-1944)

While Landis was instrumental in developing the All-Star Game, first played in 1933, the main task for MLB’s first commissioner was to restore the game’s image following the infamous Black Sox scandal. He banned eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, including the legendary “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, who were accused of trying to throw the World Series.


But Landis also virtually eliminated exhibition games between whites and blacks, barring MLB players from playing in those barnstorming tours. Plus, he was criticized for doing little to integrate baseball when presented the opportunity.


6. Rob Manfred (2015-Present)

Revenues continue to skyrocket and team valuations continue to soar during his tenure. Also, as we noted in an April 21 story, Manfred made the bold decision to move the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta, in protest of the Georgia legislature passing laws that restrict voting access for that state’s citizens.


While Selig’s successor gets credit for helping baseball complete the World Series during a difficult, pandemic-truncated 2020 season, he gets black marks for failing to help owners and the players union reach a compromise on the number of games to be played, and then mandating a 60-game schedule favored by owners.


Still, Manfred’s legacy is yet to be determined, and will be greatly impacted by how the league handles the current problem of pitchers doctoring baseballs with illegal foreign substances, and the negotiations for a new CBA at the end of this season.


7. Bowie Kuhn (1969-84)

Lot of changes happened during his tenure: adoption of the Designated Hitter by the American League; expansion of the leagues by four teams – Kansas City Royals, and Seattle Pilots (now Milwaukee Brewers) in the American League, and the San Diego Padres, and Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals) in the National League; each league switching to a two-division format; the Milwaukee Braves move to Atlanta; and the first World Series game played at night.


This former lawyer probably is best known, though, for his opposition to Curt Flood’s challenge to MLB’s reserve clause in the early 1970s. The 1973 and ’81 strikes also occurred during Kuhn’s watch.


His election into the Hall of Fame is puzzling.

8. Peter Ueberroth (1984-1989)

His management of the hugely successful 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles got him the gig as commissioner. His business acumen, though, did not translate well to baseball.


While he is credited with helping to clean up baseball’s cocaine problem, he also lead owners into two messy -- and very expensive -- collusion lawsuits, both of which the owners lost and cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.


9. William Eckhert (1965-68)

This former three-star army general’s selection was a head scratcher, given that he had no baseball background. News reports at time said he hadn’t attended a game in 10 years before being named commissioner. But the search committee apparently valued his business experience, which featured working as a management consultant in aviation and serving on the boards of several corporations.


His unremarkable tenure included heavy criticism for not canceling games after the 1968 assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.


10. Bart Giamatti (1989)

I hate to rate him this low, but the former Yale University president and National League president served only five months before dying of a heart attack. So, there isn’t much to go by.


He is best known for persuading Pete Rose to admit his guilt in gambling and to accept a suspension from baseball. Much to Rose’s dismay, a few weeks later baseball’s Hall of Fame would rule that anyone suspended is permanently ineligible for enshrinement.


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Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.





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