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A look at the 10 MLB Commissioners and how the role has changed over time, part 4

Here’s where the Commissioner’s office became more of a direct tool of team owners.

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It was during the relatively brief tenures of A. Bartlett (Bart) Giamatti and Francis T. (Fay) Vincent that the office of Commissioner lost any semblance of operating in “the best interests of baseball.” While there were no work stoppages between 1989 and 1992, the years these two men occupied the office, it was owners’ anger at Vincent for intervening during the 1990 lockout that eventually wound up in Vincent’s firing.

Bart Giamatti, 1989

Giamatti is likely familiar to you from The Green Fields of the Mind, a piece of prose he wrote about the Red Sox’ failure to win on the last day of the season in 1977. Here’s the part I cite after the Cubs’ last game of the season:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

It’s so clear from that passage that Giamatti understands and loves baseball as a fan. That’s obviously not why he was hired as baseball commissioner, though. A professor of English literature at Yale, Giamatti eventually became the school’s president and during his tenure led the university while a strike by its clerical and technical workers went on:

The issue of comparable worth has little guiding precedent. Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti sees the strike as “a classic union struggle over wages.’’ Striking workers see it differently. “This is a fight for equality,’’ says librarian Janet Wexler, holding a strike placard as she paced in front of the university’s Sterling Library last fall.

A deal was reached in that dispute in December 1986 after 13 months with both sides claiming victory.

It’s possible MLB owners saw Giamatti as someone who could help them break the union. It is likely not a coincidence that this was not long after the time Rob Manfred began working as an attorney for Major League Baseball.

Giamatti took office April 1, 1989 and much of his tenure was taken up by the case of Pete Rose, who was under investigation for gambling. On August 24, Rose voluntarily agreed to permanent ineligibility from baseball. Eight days later, Giamatti died of a massive heart attack. He was only 51 years old. He had been Commissioner for 154 days — just 20 weeks.

(Aside: Actor Paul Giamatti is Bart Giamatti’s son.)

It’s been said by some that had Giamatti been Commissioner in 1994, the strike that cancelled the World Series wouldn’t have happened, or if it had, the force of Giamatti’s personality and love for the game would have helped settle it before the loss of the World Series. I am not so sure about that. As noted, Giamatti had helped to attempt to put down a union effort at Yale and that had impressed owners. If he had lived he might well have suffered the same fate as his good friend...

Fay Vincent, 1989-92

Vincent, who had come from the film production business, agreed to be Giamatti’s deputy commissioner and thus, with Giamatti’s sudden passing, was pressed into service as Commissioner with almost no time to prepare.

In 1990, just as now, owners locked out the players during Spring Training. Vincent was a key player in ending the lockout before spring camp would have ended. A shortened camp was held and the season delayed a week, with all the pushed-back games made up.

The agreement was perceived as good for players, and owners took it out on Vincent two years later by forcing him to resign. The so-called “Great Lakes Gang” of owners was reportedly behind this; those owners included Bud Selig (Brewers), Jerry Reinsdorf (White Sox), Stanton Cook (Cubs/Tribune), Carl Pohlad (Twins) and Peter O’Malley (Dodgers). Per Wikipedia, on his departure Vincent said:

To do the job without angering an owner is impossible. I can’t make all twenty-eight of my bosses happy. People have told me I’m the last commissioner. If so, it’s a sad thing. I hope they [the owners] learn this lesson before too much damage is done.

It can be argued that 30 years later, that lesson still hasn’t been learned, and in some ways Vincent was “the last commissioner.” In fact, when Selig “succeeded” Vincent, it was not as Commissioner. He was named Chairman of the Executive Council, a group of owners who ran the game. The office of Commissioner remained vacant until 1998, when Selig was finally given the title.

Vincent is still living, now almost 84. In a 2020 interview he gave to the Berkshire Eagle, he said this about the Commissioner’s office:

We’re talking about a governance system that says the players, the owners and to some extent, the fans, all get to participate in the way baseball is governed. The way to have that happened is to have the fans own an interest in Major League Baseball — a new corporation that would be formed. In that corporation will be ownership interest in every big league team. The players’ organization will own part of each team. The players will be partners, full economic partners, with the owners. Until that happens, there can’t be a commissioner who is elected by all the constituencies. There should be a governing board of baseball that has the commissioner as the chief executive. It has an individual, probably, as chairman to be elected by the constituencies. The ownership would be a percentage, an equal percentage owned by the players and the owners, and then a small percentage owned by the public. We would have a system where all the parties would be interested in building the game.

That would be a great thing for the game, I think. Unfortunately, given the way baseball is run in 2022, it will never happen.

Tomorrow: Selig’s long tenure, and Rob Manfred and where we stand now.