As Bud Selig prepares to retire from his long tenure as commissioner of baseball—in deed since 1992 and in name since 1998—it bears asking: Why does baseball still have a commissioner? More importantly, does baseball still need one?
The answer to the first question is simple enough. For the past 93 years, baseball always has had a commissioner, and for a sport as hidebound as baseball, that is as good a reason as any. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was given near-absolute authority, and with the instincts of a showman and the iron will of a dictator, he exercised it, telling baseball’s owners that he had come “to save you from yourselves.”
Many would argue that he did just that. On the eve of Selig’s retirement, and 70 years after the retirement of Landis, it may be time to close the book on the office of the commissioner.
In its long history, Major League Baseball has had just nine commissioners:
- 1921-1944: Kenesaw Mountain Landis
- 1945-1951: Happy Chandler
- 1951-1965: Ford Frick
- 1965-1968: William Eckert
- 1969-1984: Bowie Kuhn
- 1984-1988: Peter Ueberroth
- 1988-1989: Bart Giamatti
- 1989-1992: Fay Vincent
- 1992*-2014: Bud Selig
* From 1992 to 1997, Selig did not hold the official title of commissioner, serving as the interim commissioner until his actual responsibilities were formalized in 1998. For all intents and purposes, he was the commissioner of baseball for the entire period.
According to the popular history of baseball, baseball’s owners turned to Judge Landis as a response to the 1919 Black Sox scandal, asking him to rid the game of gamblers by any means necessary. But that isn’t the whole story. Gambling was a proximate cause for the creation of the office of the commissioner, but it was not the true cause. The true cause was baseball’s desire to preserve its monopoly.
Eight current baseball franchises began their operations in the 19th century: the Cubs, Braves, Cardinals, Pirates, Reds, Giants, Phillies, and Dodgers. They outlived literally dozens of other contemporary teams, and by the turn of the century, they constituted the eight-team National League, the only major league in the country.
Team owners had complete control of their players, holding absolute rights to their services through the reserve clause, and suppressing salaries through a salary cap. Nor was the atmosphere entirely wholesome for fans. Future commissioner Ford Frick noted in his autobiography that back in the 19th century, baseball stadiums featured pervasive gambling and a “corner saloon atmosphere.”
But there were a great many other teams in the country, and there was nothing stopping them from competing for National League talent. There was a minor league called the Western League (it was really Midwestern), led by an imperious former sportswriter named Ban Johnson.
Johnson saw the moral laxity of the National League as a marketing opportunity and the salary cap as an economic opportunity. So, in 1901, he changed the Western League’s name to the American League, declared it another major league, and unleashed his league’s owners on the NL’s star players, many of whom were poached by the AL’s owners. The two leagues both played the same sport by the same rules, but they were at war.
Eventually, the National League sued for peace. As business journalist John Helyar writes: “At a ‘peace meeting’ in 1903, the two leagues agreed on an end to raiding, a common reserve system, and a single ruling National Commission. It would consist of the president of each league, plus a third member to be agreed upon by them.”
(That didn’t quite end the bickering, as the New York Giants’ legendarily pugnacious player-manager John McGraw refused to play a team from Johnson’s league for the 1904 World Series, the first and last time that a World Series would be canceled until the 1994 player strike. Nonetheless, his team played in and won the 1905 Series, and an uneasy peace prevailed for the first decade of the union.)
Baseball faced its second major crisis in 1913, with the formation of a third major league: the Federal League. Once again, star players began to jump to the new league, where they were capable of getting paid much more.
Major league owners sought injunctions to prevent their players from leaving their teams for more money, claiming that such action was forbidden by the reserve clause, and several judges returned players to their original teams. In 1915, the Federal League brought an antitrust suit against organized baseball.
They chose Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to hear their case, because at that time he was a famous trust-buster, having fined Standard Oil $29 million in 1907. The fine was quickly overturned, but his scruples were well established, if not his opinion on monopolies.
On the contrary, Landis had no problem with organized baseball functioning as a monopoly. As he heard the case, he left no doubt which way his heart leaned: “A blow at this thing called baseball,” he told the attorneys, “will be regarded by this court as a blow at a national institution.”
And then Landis did nothing. While he delayed issuing a decision, Federal League owners uneasily worried about their legal status. At the end of the 1915 season, Federal League owners settled with the two major leagues, folding the league. Baseball had found its savior, though they would not hire him for several more years.
Baseball’s final crisis came toward the end of the decade, as owners in both leagues began to rebel against the hard-drinking Johnson, and his two ineffectual partners on the National Commission could do little to hold the leagues together. The third member of the commission resigned in 1920 when his fellow owners refused to reappoint him, and owners across baseball were rethinking the commission. The owners were divided into fierce pro-Johnson and anti-Johnson camps, and so the American League president sought a candidate who would allow him to consolidate his power.
Johnson hit upon the idea of appointing a judge as commissioner and unleashing that judge on the allegations of gambling in the 1919 World Series. But he wanted a judge whom he could control, not Landis. As his biographer David Pietrusza writes, “Timing was everything, and almost equally important was the creation of a deft excuse for probing the Black Sox scandal. Johnson had been sitting on knowledge of the Series fix for months.”
However, Johnson was foiled. In the end, his endorsement doomed his preferred candidate, and the anti-Johnson owners chose Landis to be a one-man commission: the commissioner of baseball.
Just as with his court cases, Landis was not quite consistent in dispensing justice. While he rode roughshod on the Black Sox, his justice was displayed more delicately in other cases. Pietrusza argues that the entire key to cleaning up the game was the banning of the eighth man out, Buck Weaver (played by John Cusack in the movie), the third baseman who heard about the fix, refused to take the bribe, but also refused to rat on his friends. That was the high crime that earned him his ban. As Pietrusza writes:
Before 1920 if one player approached another player to throw a contest, there was a very good chance he would not be informed upon. Now, there was an excellent chance he would be turned in. No honest player wanted to meet the same fate as Buck Weaver. The Weaver decision had a great chilling effect on dishonest play—and talk of dishonest play…
And once prospectively crooked players knew that honest players would no longer shield them, the scandals stopped.
After establishing that gambling absolutely would not be tolerated, Landis had the luxury of being lenient on gamblers. In 1926, future Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were accused of having conspired to fix a game in the 1919 season. After hearing their testimony, Landis magnanimously cleared them.
Pietrusza explains Landis’s generosity by quoting another historian, David Voigt, who argues that “in the early years of his commissionership Landis had to expel players in virtual wholesale fashion to restore public confidence in the game. By 1927, the Black Sox scandal was receding into historical status. The fans no longer feared crookedness in the game.”
What is more, in 1922, the United States Supreme Court rendered judgment in Federal Baseball, exempting organized baseball from antitrust laws. No longer would baseball ever have to fear a new major league stealing its business or its players. That antitrust exemption is still on the books today: baseball is a legally sanctioned private monopoly, the only one of its kind in America. The owners’ chief desire was fulfilled.
By the late 1920s, the game was largely free of both gambling and of Johnson, whose power had continued to falter. With his own absolute power assured, Landis continued in his role until dying in office in 1944. The next 50 years in the commissioner’s office were mostly a muddle.
In his book on the role of the commissioner, In the Best Interests of Baseball?, economist Andrew Zimbalist disposes of the seven commissioners between Landis and Selig in two chapters called “The Undistinguished Middle.” (I owe his book a large debt of gratitude for summarizing the following history, and recommend it highly as a primer on the commissioner’s office.) Some were more passive and some were more active, but as a group, these commissioners did little, and what they did was rarely much good.
There was, however, one important exception: Landis’s immediate successor, Happy Chandler, assented and did not push back when Branch Rickey announced plans to break the color line by bringing up Jackie Robinson. Chandler did little to encourage integration before Rickey acted, and later he attempted to puff up his own role in the affair. But he was on the right side of history, and it was perhaps the greatest moment by a baseball commissioner between Landis’s death and Selig’s tenure.
Many things happened in baseball in those years, of course, but by and large, the commissioner was less a leader than a follower. He had to please all of baseball’s owners, a nearly impossible task, and without their support, he was more a figurehead than a chief executive. Ford Frick and William Eckert established the pattern by accomplishing very little in the first two decades following Landis, decades in which the rest of the country was growing by leaps and bounds in the post-war boom.
Frick was a journalist who worked in PR for Major League Baseball, then rose to become NL president and later commissioner; he behaved with all the deference toward owners that you might expect from a PR man. Eckert was a general in the Air Force who was little known outside of baseball, knew little about baseball himself, and garnered little respect within the game. They quickly replaced him.
Kuhn established the designated hitter rule, but he also is remembered for his ineffectual bluster at the birth of the modern players union under Marvin Miller, a titan of baseball who bested Kuhn, successfully brought an end to the reserve clause, and brought about the advent of free agency, leading to massive increases in player salaries. Like Johnson and Landis, Kuhn could be imperious, capricious, and erratic. Unlike them, he did not leave any great lasting legacy of his own.
Kuhn’s successor was Ueberroth, who is best remembered for his role in leading the owners in secret, illegal collusion to depress player salaries. Players filed numerous grievances, and the league was forced to pay $280 million in damages to players. His successor, Giamatti, died in office while dealing with the sordid Pete Rose affair, and Giamatti’s deputy and successor, Vincent, was a lame duck almost from the start. He resigned in 1992 after three years of nonstop bickering with owners.
That left the position open for the fifth time in seven years. Baseball needed stability. And the owners wouldn’t feel comfortable with anyone but one of their own.
Selig was the best-connected, best-liked, and most ambitious owner in baseball, serving on numerous executive committees and mentioned as a leading commissioner candidate for at least a decade. He was chosen in 1992 because the owners would listen to him, but his appointment finally ended the thin fiction that the commissioner represented the interests of fans rather than of owners.
In his two decades on the job, Selig is easily the most accomplished commissioner since Judge Landis. He finally ended the administrative separation of the National and American Leagues that had existed for a century, mostly to baseball’s detriment. He expanded the league to create four new teams, inaugurated regular-season interleague play, directed the creation of the World Baseball Classic, and oversaw regular-season games in Tokyo, Monterrey, San Juan, and soon in Sydney. Selig oversaw the building of the best digital media company in professional sports, MLB Advanced Media, which has earned hundreds of millions of dollars for owners and been a great boon for fans who root for teams far from where they live.
Perhaps most importantly, following the crippling 1994 strike, Selig oversaw two decades of labor peace with the players union, successfully negotiating Collective Bargaining Agreements without a work stoppage for the first time in baseball’s history. More than anything, he succeeded where his predecessors failed because he had a rare gift for politicking among the bumptious owners, who often hated each other but trusted him.
The single most challenging job his successor will face will be to get the owners to agree on anything. Selig is loathed by many fans, but even that is the sign of a job well done. He has deflected fans’ ire away from the other owners and toward himself. Don’t think that the owners aren’t grateful.
That said, there are three legitimate reasons fans loathe him, and all three have roots in the 1994 strike and the cancellation of the World Series, which turned many fans away from the game. The lost 1994 pennant race indirectly led to Selig’s other two greatest failings.
First, there is the tragedy of the Montreal Expos. The Expos were an expansion team in 1969, baseball’s first team outside the United States. They were not a particularly successful team for most of their tenure, but they were a consistently entertaining team in the 1980s, with larger-than-life stars like Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Andre Dawson, and Gary Carter.
By the early 1990s, the Expos looked like a juggernaut waiting to happen. They had never
made the playoffs finished in first place, but in 1994 they surged into first place in July and remained there for a month—until the strike ended the season and Selig canceled the playoffs.
The strike drove away fans and hurt teams all over baseball, and especially the Expos, who otherwise might have hoped for the increased revenues associated with a playoff team. Over the coming years, their cash-strapped management opted not to hang onto the stars of the 1994 team—including Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, and Pedro Martinez—the team never made the playoffs, and the Expos left Montreal in 2005, the first time that a baseball city had been left without a team since Selig’s own Milwaukee Braves decamped for Atlanta 40 years earlier.
(Milwaukee was not the first city to be deserted by major league baseball. Baltimore and Washington were each jilted for decades during the 20th century. There was always a major league team in one of the two cities, but rarely one in both. Before the Expos moved to Washington, D.C., the District had been without baseball since 1972, when the Senators moved to Texas to become the Rangers during Kuhn’s tenure.
For those four decades, the closest team was the Orioles, which had come to Baltimore in 1954 and overlapped with the Senators for 17 years. Prior to that, Baltimore had been deserted for 50 years, from 1903 to 1953. That was because the Orioles—probably the best team of the 1890s—moved to New York in 1903, eventually becoming the Yankees.)
Second, Selig bears some blame for the steroid era, which was instrumental in fueling the home run races that often were credited with bringing fans back to the game in the late ’90s but led to cartoonish numbers that seem comical in retrospect, to say nothing of the pressure on high school and college players to take steroids if they wanted a chance to play in the majors.
During the period, Selig was attempting to build a fruitful working relationship with the players union, which was greatly resistant to drug testing. Understandably, union leadership saw drug testing as an intrusion on player privacy and a major concession within any labor negotiation. In order to accept testing, they wanted a major concession in return. For years, owners were reluctant to grant players any significant concessions in return for drug testing, and Selig appeared unwilling to twist any arms to institute a testing regimen.
During that impasse, the Steroid Era blossomed, coming to an end only after Congressional hearings forced baseball’s hand. At best, Selig was inert. At worst, he and his fellow owners may have tacitly encouraged the offensive boom, enjoying the profits it brought them.
Finally, one of the biggest reasons that Selig’s fellow owners have gotten so wealthy is that many of them have gotten public-funded stadiums for which they needed to pay very little, and they received them because Selig threatened their cities by saying their teams either would be moved to another city or removed by contraction. After the 1994 strike, and especially after the Expos moved in 2005, no one doubted that he would do it, and city after city buckled, often taking on ruinous debt in order to prevent their favorite teams from bolting.
These are not the actions of a commissioner charged with serving the fans. They are the actions of a business executive charged with increasing revenues. By that standard, Selig has been very successful for his sport. But he did nothing for the game’s integrity, which was the original pretext for the office of commissioner.
The commissioner’s office was established with a dual purpose, both purposes designed to shore up organized baseball’s position as a monopoly within its sport. First, to put the owners in line and end the ruinous bickering between leagues that had plagued organized baseball since the establishment of the American League. And second, to restore fans’ perception of baseball’s moral integrity by expelling gamblers from the game. Both of these constituted existential threats to the major leagues. The first clearly required him to act in the best interests of owners, and the second was a shared interest among both owners and fans.
But the office of the commissioner has changed a great deal since Landis’ days, as has the league itself. Unlike the early days, the major leagues have no serious external threats. Even without the antitrust exemption, the cost of starting a new major league within one of the other established professional sports is prohibitively high and generally doomed to fail, as the XFL can readily attest. Similarly, the prominence of gamblers and racketeers has greatly declined across the country over the decades, so Landis’ original boogeyman is dead and buried.
The only possible existential threat to baseball would be if the sport were so mismanaged that it lost its entire audience or financially imploded from within. This is a fairly common state of affairs across all American professional leagues, where the commissioner is generally recognized as less of a moral arbiter and more of a marketing manager.
In this new context, Selig has been the most effective baseball executive since Landis. But while Landis’ mandate was to prevent the game from completely succumbing to gamblers—which is what has happened to boxing in the past half-century—Selig’s greatest accomplishments have involved putting the game on a firmer economic footing, with two decades of labor peace and rapidly growing revenues.
Baseball does not need a National Commission, or a one-man commissioner. Since the time of Landis, no one man has been able to bend the league to his will. On matters from integration to steroids, baseball’s commissioner has proven unable to save baseball from itself, instead having to wait for political pressure from outside. As a result, the name commissioner is outdated. What baseball needs now is a CEO, not a judge.
References & Resources
- Ford Frick, “Games, Asterisks, and People: Memoirs of a Lucky Fan” (New York: Crown Publishers, 1973)
- John Helyar, “Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball” (New York: Villard Books, 1994)
- Daniel R. Levitt, “The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy” (Lanham, Maryland: Ivan R. Dee, 2012)
- David Pietrusza, “Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis” (South Bend: Diamond Communications, 1998)
- Andrew Zimbalist, “In the Best Interests of Baseball? Bud Selig’s Revolutionary Reign” (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2006)