restricted access The Conscience of the Game: Baseball's Commissioners from Landis to Selig (review)
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Reviewed by
Larry Moffi. The Conscience of the Game: Baseball’s Commissioners from Landis to Selig. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. 226 pp. Paper, $24.95.

What's in store for Major League baseball? No one can be certain. For about a quarter of a century, labor disputes threatened to rupture the game. Baseball seems to have rebounded from those troubles as vibrant as ever, but doubts remain. The recent (and ongoing) steroid scandal is only the latest in baseball's seemingly endless series of crises. What will it take for the sport—or, more specifically, that corporate entity entitled "Major League Baseball"—to insure its integrity and its future?

Larry Moffi doesn't claim to have a comprehensive answer to that question, but he does have some well-formulated thoughts on the subject. In his view, baseball's problems since the demise of Commissioner Fay Vincent fifteen years ago have stemmed in large part from the lack of an independent conscience of the game. Moffi believes that such a conscience can and should be part of the commissioner's role. It is in this spirit that he reviews the history of the office, noting especially when and how commissioners have and have not responded to that aspect of the position and explaining what the consequences have been for the game itself.

This is not a history of the commissioner's office or a set of biographies of the men who have occupied it; Jerome Holtzman wrote that book a decade ago. Rather, Moffi intersperses chapters on four years' worth of congressional hearings on various baseball-related subjects with observations and anecdotes about each of the nine commissioners. He writes about the ways in which the commissioner's office is related to the best interests of the game, with the explicit assumption that that relationship should be much stronger than it has been in quite some time.

The book devotes a number of its early pages, inevitably, to the first and most memorable commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis served, in the apt words of David Pietrusza, as "judge and jury." While the judge was a [End Page 126] reactionary, at least in practice, on racial matters (although Moffi intimates that history might not have come to view him that way had he lived longer), Landis occasionally demonstrated a progressive side as well, as exemplified by his ruling that an Indiana girl was eligible to play on her local American Legion team. As Moffi points out, the commissioner had absolutely no legal jurisdiction on that matter, but his moral suasion was such that no one was inclined to argue with him, then or ever. In any case, Landis served—rightly or wrongly—as the conscience of the game.

No successor to Landis could hope to retain such authority, and none has. Since Moffi is ultimately more concerned with the present and future than the past, he spends more ink on current commissioner Bud Selig—"the man so many fans have learned to love to hate," as he aptly states—than on Landis or any of Selig's other predecessors. "The robe of office that Selig wears so comfortably, the very one that Landis tailored for himself, is worn and threadbare in spots, altered and realtered to suit the conscience of the eight others before him" (79). In order to insure that next bearer of that robe will serve the best interests of the game, Moffi recommends that Selig oversee a restructuring that will have the owners and players jointly elect the next commissioner, and then step aside in favor of the person who is selected to fill that post. "If you think I'm nuts, I probably am," Moffi concedes. "But I'm also right." Probably so.

Even before that happens—or, to be more realistic, doesn't happen—Moffi hopes for some restoration of integrity to the commissioner's office. He was heartened by the steroid hearings of 2005 during which, according to Moffi, Selig began addressing issues in a "Landislike" manner. Until then the author was inclined to believe that Selig had "compromised both his understanding of the game and its history as well as the...