Book Review: In the Best Interests of Baseball?

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For those who have monitoring the state of MLB over the last few years, for the most part (steroid issue and fumbling attempts at contraction aside), the health of MLB as an industry has been rosy.

The relationships among the ownership ranks has grown better in many senses. The relationship between the players’ association and management is better. The marketing is better, because there is finally a proper marketing director, which had been missing before 1996.

In addition, the creation of the MLB Advanced Media as a centralized entity has allowed MLB to no longer be an outdated establishment when it comes to burgeoning technological delivery methods for baseball. Revenue sharing is now part of the economic landscape of MLB. The increase in public subsidies of stadium development has been, on one hand, a boon to the owners, and in the view of many, a bane to the tax-paying public. And by working in concert with Congress (a large consideration) to get the players’ association to open up the collective bargaining agreement not once but twice, a substantive drug testing policy has been implemented, with steroids as the chief target.

The game has changed in terms of structure as well. Interleague play and the Wild Card are two prominent changes to the game that have come about in the last 20 years.

All of this has been negotiated during Bud Selig’s tenure.

How this has all come about is detailed in a new book by Smith College Professor of Economics Andrew Zimbalist, titled, In the Best Interests of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig.

One may look at the title and assume that this is about ranking Selig—a bio-topic foray into Selig the man, and his stature as viewed through the lens of history. What the book actually does—in strikingly good detail—is outline the change in how MLB has been structured from a governance standpoint. He documents the shift from the image of Landis and the all-powerful commissioner that is wholly independent from his employers (the owners) to the CEO model that Selig exemplifies.

It is this direction, outlining the remarkable changes in how Selig has governed MLB during his tenure, that is the main thrust of the book.

Those who are to purchase the book sight unseen would find that 108 of the 218 pages of the book are purely dedicated to the current commissioner. Zimbalist presents the governance history of Selig’s predecessors in the preceding chapters, touching on Selig throughout. I initially found this to be a bit of a distraction, as I view Selig as a fascinating subject; given his longevity, I would have almost been unsatisfied with a tome of 600 pages on Selig alone. As a whole, however, the details on those who have governed MLB prior to Selig set the stage for understanding the change that has occurred under Selig’s watch.

Zimbalist does an adept job of making the book enjoyable for everyone, from those who study the economics and business of baseball from an academic standpoint to anyone who may be interested in furthering their understanding of why MLB, as a body, acts as MLB does.

What reading the book did for me was take the context of the position of commissioner and break it down fundamentally into its various dynamics, and explain the shift that occurred when Selig slid into position after Fay Vincent’s ouster. Zimbalist addresses how this action allowed a “settling in period” for the owners after dealing with the turnover of multiple commissioners in a relatively short period, while, as Zimbalist describes it, “[I]t turned out that the owners liked the ambiguity of the commissioner’s mission.”

Throughout the book, communication between the commissioner and the owners is a critical component. Whether it is outlining how this functioned poorly during Bowie Kuhn’s or Vincent’s tenure with the owners, or with how it works to Selig’s benefit, it is a thread that weaves itself throughout the book.

Selig, for the most part, is viewed by the public as a dull, mostly benign figure in comparison to those he governs. While Jerry Reinsdorf or George Steinbrenner seem to encapsulate the view of the verbose intimidating figure that Zimbalist describes in his section on former commissioner Peter Ueberroth, Selig’s skill at working to get everyone in the room on the same page has been a hallmark of his tenure. He is, at least at this point in time, a man who has few detractors within the ownership brethren.

How big of a factor was Selig’s ability to communicate effectively in the changes we’ve witnessed during his reign? Zimbalist replied, “I think Bud has superlative communication skills and every ounce of these skills, plus Bud’s boundless energy and tenacity, were essential as baseball confronted its revenue-sharing and labor battles of the 1990s. I’m not convinced that Bud continues to depend on open communications today as he did prior to becoming the full, in contrast to the ‘acting,’ commissioner in 1998.”

Here is the book’s description of Selig during his early tenure in the ‘70s and ‘80s with the Brewers and MLB’s inner workings:

As the 1970s wore on, Bud became more inured to baseball’s peculiar management style and began to participate on more owners’ committees. Then in 1980 when Ed Fitzgerald moved to Tennessee and resigned from the Brewers board, Bud became more active and more central to baseball’s governance committees. In part, Bud’s prominent role was because most owners shunned the administrative responsibilities. In part, it was because Bud loved being involved in all aspects of the game. When he was not rooting for his Brewers with all his heart and soul, he was spending hours upon hours talking on the phone with other owners. He listened and always seemed to be on the side of whichever owner he was speaking to.

It is here that we see where Selig’s skill in governance is. He has been a part of the governing of MLB and has been familiar with his constituency for over 30 years now. He’s a known quantity. The owners see him as “one of [them].” It is this, along with Selig’s constant state of achieving consensus and cajoling his fellow owners in a way that looks like lockstep by comparison of the former commissioners (with Landis the possible exception), that makes him so effective in the eyes of those he serves.

Given the short tenures of commissioners up until Selig’s current reign, I asked Zimbalist if continuity has helped lend some stability to the relationships between the owners and the players’ association. “Continuity of leadership is important,” Zimbalist said. “It facilitates communication, cooperation and planning. It is possible to develop continuity without having the CEO in the job for 14 or for 17 years however. At some point, too much longevity can become stale. What came before Selig was very counterproductive? Between the end of Kuhn’s reign in 1984 and the beginning of Selig’s in 1992, counting the bookends, there were five commissioners.”

The book touches on all the key moments and issues that have arisen in Selig’s tenure. The Kohler meetings, the proposed revenue-sharing system that was tied to a salary cap, which led to the 1994 strike; the Blue Ribbon Panel and Collective Bargaining; the 2002-2006 Agreement; the issues surrounding the funding of Miller Park, which to this day remains a sore spot in his home state; the public subsidy debate in stadium construction; the relocation of the Expos to D.C., and the funding issues that have, until last week, finally been resolved in D.C.; and finally, the issue of drug testing as it pertains to steroids, all are covered.

Since Zimbalist has better insight into the role of the commissioner after writing the book, I asked if he felt the position of commissioner of Major League Baseball would continue to evolve. “Yes, I suspect that, as the sports industry changes and the nature of the challenges baseball faces mutates, the parameters of the commissioner’s job will shift,” Zimbalist said. “One thing I can guarantee: when Selig retires, MLB will adopt the same provision to its constitution that exists in the NFL and NBA constitutions: the commissioner cannot hold stock in any team, either in baseball or any other sport.”

So, what’s the recommendation on In the Best Interests of Baseball?: The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig?

Zimbalist has written an insightful and thought-provoking book that peels the cover off the ball of the position of the commissioner to see the threads inside. I highly recommend it.

References & Resources
In the Best Interests of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig, by Andrew Zimbalist

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