- In the Best Interests of Baseball? Governing the National Pastime by Andrew Zimbalist
In this paperback update to his 2006 history of the nine commissioners of Major League Baseball (MLB), Andrew Zimbalist, the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College and the author of numerous books on the economics of baseball, focuses upon the commissionership of Bud Selig and addresses the challenges facing MLB as we move toward the end of the Selig era. Presenting an essentially favorable appraisal of the ninth commissioner, who provided the economist with considerable personal access, Zimbalist concludes that Selig’s rise from the ranks of ownership has finally demolished the mythology that the commissioner of baseball is an independent voice for the fans and general public who is only concerned with the best interests of the sport. Following the 1922 Federal League Supreme Court decision that exempted baseball from the antitrust laws, the baseball establishment insisted that a strong commissioner was necessary to protect the sport from the abuses of monopoly. As Zimbalist persuasively argues, such justification does not agree with fact that the commissioner is selected by the baseball owners and serves at their pleasure.
Zimbalist maintains that baseball’s first commissioner Kenesaw Landis did a good job of restoring the sport’s integrity following the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Owners, however, were less supportive of Landis when he attempted to intervene with such business issues as the development of the farm system, and this pattern was apparent with his successors. Zimbalist credits A. B. “Happy” Chandler with supporting Jackie Robinson and the breaking of baseball’s color line, but he antagonized owners with his handling of players who defected to the Mexican League, culminating in a legal challenge to the reserve system.
The owners replaced Chandler with National League President Ford Frick, whom Zimbalist describes as the ultimate baseball insider who did little to market the game in [End Page 189] the 1950s and early 1960s when the sports of basketball and football began to grow at the expense of baseball. Frick made few enemies among the owners, and Zimbalist concludes that the barons of baseball were so pleased with his laissez-faire approach that upon Frick’s retirement in 1965 they appointed the malleable but out of his element Gen. William Eckert as commissioner. In December of 1968, he was replaced by National League attorney Bowie Kuhn.
Zimbalist asserts that one of Kuhn’s major problems was his belief in the mythology that the commissioner was, indeed, appointed to protect the best interests of the sport. Thus, Kuhn often made arbitrary rulings and antagonized growing player union solidarity under the leadership of Marvin Miller. Eased out in 1984, Kuhn was followed by Peter Ueberroth who expanded baseball’s long neglected marketing of the sport. Zimbalist notes, however, that Ueberroth’s 1986 collusion with the owners to hold down free agent salaries contributed to the growing disenchantment between labor and capital.
Ueberroth failed to seek a second term in 1989, but his successor Bart Giamatti died after six months in office, and his deputy Fay Vincent struggled to deal with issues of revenue sharing between small and large market clubs. After Vincent received a no-confidence vote from the owners, they tapped one of their own in Bud Selig of the Milwaukee Brewers to serve as commissioner.
While many baseball fans are critical of Selig for conflicts of interest, for presiding over the strike that which led to cancellation of the 1994 World Series, for ignoring the emergence of the steroids era, and for promoting the construction of privately-owned baseball parks at public expense, Zimbalist is more positive in his assessment of Selig—crediting the commissioner with expanding MLB marketing, working to bring revenue sharing into the sport, ushering in a vigorous drug testing and harsh penalty program, presiding over the peaceful labor climate of the twenty-first century, and fostering interest in the sport with interleague play, wild card teams, an expanded playoff system, and the...