clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Interview/Book Review: Andrew Zimbalist

Dr. Andrew Zimbalist, who is the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College, has written a number of books on the economics of sports, including the highly-regarded (by me and many others) "Baseball and Billions: A Probing Look Inside the Big Business of Our National Pastime, originally published in 1992, and still a standard for understanding the basic financial issues underlying the game -- which really is big business, even bigger than it was thirteen years ago.

In the next month or two, Dr. Zimbalist's new book, "In The Best Interests of Baseball?" (and that "?" is there for a reason - because the book questions whether or not many commissioners' decisions, allegedy made "in the best interests of baseball" really were), will be released, and lucky me, I was not only able to read an advance copy, but had a chance to chat with Dr. Zimbalist for a short time Monday afternoon about his book, the future of the game, and the Cubs.

The book is not only about what the subtitle ("The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig") states, but also provides, in its first half, an excellent summary of how the office of the commissioner evolved, from the iron reign of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to the old-boy-networking Ford Frick, to the absolutely mystifying and feckless William Eckert, to the imperious Bowie Kuhn, to the tragic figure of Bart Giamatti (who might have become the greatest commissioner of all, had he not died so young), to Selig.

Dr. Zimbalist spends quite a bit of time sketching out a biography of the young Bud Selig, and there's a purpose: to show the passion he developed for the game at a very young age. I was particularly struck by this passage:

Ben Selig [Bud's father, who didn't care much for baseball, according to Zimbalist] did allow himself one escape from hard work. He loved to fish. One Saturday, Ben and his friend took Bud and [Bud's brother] Jerry on a fishing trip. They took a boat out onto Lake Michigan and promptly at 2 pm, Bud pulled out his transistor radio to listen to the Cubs game. Ben's friend complained about the disruption to the lake's serenity and they ended up returning to shore to drop Bud off. Bud sat alone on land and contentedly listened to the game, while the others resumed their fishing expedition. Bud had found the passion of his life.

In further examining Selig's life and how he came to be the owner of the Brewers and eventually, "Chairman of the Executive Council" -- a supposedly six-month job he took after Fay Vincent was ousted as commissioner by the owners, which has now lasted fourteen years, Dr. Zimbalist shows how the job of commissioner has evolved from Landis' time, where that iron hand was needed to save the game from itself, to now, when the leader must be more of a CEO-type. Zimbalist points out that MLB marketing remained anchored in the Stone Age -- there was no central MLB marketing director until 1996, only ten years ago.

The book is a great read for anyone who wants to understand exactly how the game works, how business decisions have been made -- and not made -- over the century-plus that baseball has existed as a business in this country. Dr. Zimbalist says two key owners' decisions in the last thirty years -- first, the failure to reach a compromise with the players when Peter Seitz first ruled that Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith were legally free agents in 1975, and second, the collusion between the owners in the mid-1980's, probably caused virtually all the bad blood between players and owners during that time, cost the clubs many millions of dollars, and gave the sport the black eye from which it is only now beginning to recover.

In talking to Dr. Zimbalist on Monday, he says that the sport is in an era of more peaceful labor relations -- that the "economic system is working for the owners, and with players' salaries averaging $2.5 million", that the struggles of the past are getting more and more remote, "especially after the experience of the 1994-1995 strike". He says the system just needs to be "tweaked", and says that when the CBA expires at the end of this year, there may be a lot of "hot air" between the sides -- typical in any labor negotiation -- but there won't be a shutdown.

Other highlights of my talk with him:

  • The new amphetamine testing may cause some changes in the way players approach the game, because they've been a "staple in the diet of half the players for several decades." He says the casual fan might not notice the difference.
  • Contraction will "not be on the table" -- he said that if it were proposed, even if the players didn't litigate, that "the cities and states involved probably would", and since baseball is still growing, there's no way any teams will be contracted.
  • About teams moving, he confirms what many of us suspect -- that it's a "difficult period" for public funding of stadiums, but that MLB will have to react to reality and perhaps divert some revenue sharing funds to help teams fund new ballparks. Further, he says that even with the Marlins in trouble, baseball shouldn't abandon the south Florida market (nor do I think they want to, given that it is a gateway to Latin America), but that some of the cities that could support major league baseball, in his opinion, include: Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, Charlotte, the Riverside/San Bernardino section of metro Los Angeles (this surprised me, but Dr. Zimbalist said that although it's part of the LA TV market, it wouldn't necessarily encroach on territorial rights), and Las Vegas, "once the political objections are worked out".
  • Bud Selig will absolutely, positively retire from the commissioner's office when his term is up in 2009. He'll be 74 years old then, and whoever his successor will be -- and Dr. Zimbalist didn't name any names -- he'll be as Selig has redefined the position, a CEO-type. That will be Selig's lasting legacy to the game.
  • Finally, I asked Dr. Zimbalist about Tribune Co. and how he views its ownership of the Cubs. Those of you who are gung-ho to get Tribco to sell will be encouraged by his words: he said that while some media companies (he cited Turner/Time Warner's stewardship of the Braves) have done well owning teams, others haven't -- that, particularly Tribco, they have viewed teams as "software" for their media networks and "didn't focus on the team". He says "spending more money does raise your probability of winning, but there are no guarantees." About Tribune selling the Cubs, he says he's heard rumors, but nothing more.

About that, and for those of you who think I'm an apologist for Tribco, of course I want the Cubs to win. Every single day I go to the ballpark, I want them to win. Badly, and maybe more badly than some of you, since once you get to my age, you've seen a ton of losing. Has Tribco been the perfect owner? No, but they did a lot better than the previous steward, the Wrigleys, who let the Cubs fall into benign neglect for the last three decades they owned the franchise.

The danger is that although you might get a Mark Cuban or a George Steinbrenner, you also might get a Peter Angelos or Frank McCourt, and then those who are pushing a Tribco sale would be screaming just as loud for another sale.

Let's see what happens in 2006 before we push Tribco off the ledge.

I see I've digressed from this review/interview, so let me just finish up by saying that I think Dr. Zimbalist's book is not only a worthwhile read, but an important book for anyone who wants to understand how baseball got in the business spot that it is in today. It won't be in bookstores for a few weeks, but you can preorder it here.