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A look at the 10 MLB Commissioners and how the role has changed over time, part 5

The Commissioner’s office is now pretty much wholly ruled by team owners.

Photo By Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This article is being led by the famous Bud Selig shrug photo, which was taken at the 2002 All-Star Game at Miller Park in Milwaukee when the teams ran out of pitchers in the 11th inning and the game was declared a tie. Very few photos sum up Selig’s tenure better.

And now, we’re going to have Home Run Derby settle ASG ties!

Bud Selig 1998-2015

Whether people realized it or not, then or now, the idea of the Commissioner acting in the “best interests of baseball” ended with the owners’ dumping of Fay Vincent from the office in 1992.

Selig was elected by owners to succeed Vincent, but not as Commissioner. Selig was named “Chairman of the Executive Council” — of team owners. He clearly was not, at least at the time, intended to be Commissioner. It was the owners’ way of saying, “We’re in charge now.” Selig was the first — and to date only — team owner to serve as Commissioner.

Selig’s tenure included some of the most tumultuous events in MLB history, beginning with the 1994/95 strike, which cancelled the 1994 World Series. At the time, Selig said:

“There’s an incredible amount of sadness,” Selig said during a late- afternoon news conference in Milwaukee. “It’s hard to articulate the poignancy of this moment. There’s been failure on so many fronts. ... We can only hope now we constructively move forward to solve our problems, rebuild the damage and take the game to the heights it can reach.

“We felt pragmatism dictated this,” added Selig, the Milwaukee Brewers’ owner. “I know the short-term pain is intense. But if this can serve as the impetus to a long-range solution, then maybe there will be some good that comes from this.”

I have no doubt that Selig actually did feel badly about losing a World Series. Whatever you think of Selig, he was absolutely, positively a baseball fan. In fact, Selig grew up as a Cubs fan — he often told stories of how his dad and uncle used to drive him from Milwaukee to Wrigley Field to see major league games, before Milwaukee had its own team. Selig was also the prime mover in bringing the Brewers to Milwaukee in 1970, after the Braves had departed for Atlanta five years earlier. In fact, Selig nearly bought the White Sox and moved them to Milwaukee in 1969:

The White Sox played nine “home” games at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1968 and 11 in 1969 (one against each A.L. team). Bud Selig, who had formed a group dedicated to bringing major-league baseball back to Milwaukee after the Braves had departed following the 1965 season, had arranged those games and came close to making a deal to purchase the White Sox from the Allyn brothers, John and Arthur, who owned them at the time. But John Allyn didn’t want the Sox to leave and bought Arthur’s shares out and saved the Sox for Chicago. Selig, meanwhile, got his team when the Seattle Pilots declared bankruptcy, buying them and moving them to Milwaukee.

Having said all that, Selig was a team owner, and as noted in Part 4 of this series, part of the “Great Lakes Gang” that helped oust Vincent. There’s no doubt he was doing the bidding of his fellow owners, particularly Jerry Reinsdorf, in taking a hard line toward players in 1994. He was formally named Commissioner in 1998, and at that time stepped down as CEO of the Brewers, leaving running the team to his daughter Wendy and son-in-law Laurel Prieb. The Selig family sold the Brewers to Mark Attanasio in 2005.

Baseball was fortunate to have the 1998 home run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire to revive interest in the game, because the strike depressed attendance and TV ratings for three years. As we now know, though, the explosion in home runs in the late 1990s and early 2000s was due to what is colloquially termed the “Steroid Era,” and it is generally thought that Selig turned a blind eye to PED use in that time because, well, teams were making money and interest in baseball was growing.

One thing Selig was very good at was consensus-building. He was able to bring groups of team owners with disparate interests together, and that’s one of the reasons baseball had labor peace from the end of the strike in 1995 until the owners’ lockout in late 2021. On the other hand, players gave in to owners in a lot of the negotiations in that 26-year period.

Selig presided over the most recent MLB expansion, the beginning of interleague play, replay review and perhaps most importantly, the consolidation of MLB power in the Commissioner’s office. League presidents were reduced to ceremonial roles and the umpires were placed in one group, thus making the “leagues” more like NFL-style conferences. Selig also helped introduce international games to MLB, a popular initiative.

After several PED scandals, stricter drug testing was also introduced under Selig, and does appear to have cut way down on the amount of PED use in baseball, though every now and again a MLB player get suspended. The biggest names suspended since the new PED rules came into effect were Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez, and the most recent one involving a high-profile MLB player was Robinson Cano in 2020 — he missed the entire 2021 season as a result.

So while Selig was disliked by many fans, he did preside over a period of prosperity and labor peace in baseball. Famously, he refused to move to New York to preside over the Commissioner’s office there, preferring to remain in Milwaukee where he had lived his entire life. In the early years of his tenure you could call or fax his office with comments and he would engage with fans. I actually received a hand-signed letter from him in 1998 when I wrote him regarding MLB’s rumored plans for “radical realignment” of the leagues. It was a thoughtful letter and based on what he wrote, he had to have actually read my letter. (I only wish I had a copy of it available to post here.)

Perhaps Selig’s most bizarre choice was to make the All-Star Game winner choose home field advantage in the World Series, ostensibly to make the ASG “meaningful.” He said, in 2007, that the reason was... hotel rooms:

We can’t wait until September 30th or October 1st to determine where the World Series is going to be played. You have thousands of hotel rooms to book and a lot of other things and right now we take a chance. But at least you know it’s going to be in a league and our people can work on that.

Never mind that the NHL and NBA do this every year and it seems to work out all right. In any event, that was eliminated after 2016 — and, you might remember, the Cubs NOT having home field in 2016 due to the NL losing that year’s All-Star Game worked out pretty well, with Kyle Schwarber thus available for DH duties four times instead of three, including having a key hit in Game 7.

Rob Manfred 2015-

I have spilled a lot of digital ink about Manfred over the last seven years. It should be noted — because many don’t recall — that it took three ballots for owners to elect Manfred, with him just squeaking over the 23-vote mark necessary. A small but vocal group of owners, led by, who else, Jerry Reinsdorf, had been promoting Red Sox chairman Tom Werner for Commissioner, thinking he would be tougher in labor negotiations. It’s very interesting to read some of the reactions to Manfred’s election from that article:

MLB union chief Tony Clark congratulated Manfred on his election.

“As representative of the players, I look forward to working closely with Rob, the clubs’ representative, as we strive to sustain the growing popularity and prosperity of our great game,” Clark said in a statement.

“Personally, I have known Rob for more than 15 years, and I’m confident that his vast experience in all aspects of the sport will serve his commissionership well.”

“I’m thrilled,” Mets owner Fred Wilpon said. “He knows the game. He’s been there for 20 years. They were all good candidates. . . . It celebrates (Bud Selig’s) legacy. Bud Selig was his mentor. Bud Selig was with him for 20 years. Bud Selig’s legacy is the highest it’s ever been.”

Seven years later, that sounds like Mirror Universe Rob Manfred, doesn’t it?

The thing I think is most memorable about Manfred is his tone-deafness. In his very first interview given after taking office in January 2015, he started right in about banning shifts:

Rob Manfred: “For example, things like eliminating shifts — I would be open to those sorts of ideas.”

Karl Ravech: “The forward-thinking, sabermetric defensive shifts?”

RM: “That’s what I’m talking about.”

KR: “Let’s eliminate that?”

RM: “Mmm-hmm.”

KR: “So all of the work that the Cubs and/or Angels and/or whoever has done, you’re willing to say, ‘I appreciate that, good idea, but it’s killing the game in a sense’?”

RM: “Yeah ... I mean, we have really smart people working in the game. And they’re going to figure out way to get a competitive advantage. I think it’s incumbent on us in the commissioner’s office to look at the advantages that are produced and say, ‘Is this what we want to happen in the game?’”

Seven years later, there’s talk about banning or modifying defensive shifts, and something like that could happen. But it has taken all that time to get these sorts of discussions into mainstream baseball thought, and Manfred just shoved it out there in his very first interview without any previous context.

It’s been like that through a lot of Manfred’s tenure. His public statements always feel very couched in lawyerese, and of course that’s his professional training. While I am certain Manfred has served his bosses — the owners — very well, as the public face of Major League Baseball I believe he ought to at least think about how his statements are taken by baseball’s customers, the fans. Selig understood this instinctively, I believe. Manfred doesn’t.

A lot of the rest of what Manfred has done while in office is recent history that you know well — the “piece of metal” comment, for example. I understand what Manfred meant, but he surely did not choose his words wisely.

The rest of Manfred’s tenure doesn’t really need to be recapped here, as you’re likely quite familiar with it. My view is that baseball could use a different public face, or, as I noted in this quote from Fay Vincent in Part 4 of this series:

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 certainly be great to have, someone as a baseball executive whose job would be to grow the game, create positive liaisons with players and fans, and be a better public face than Rob “Piece of Metal” Manfred, who seems to “open mouth, insert foot” quite a bit, as he did in his comments in Jupiter, Florida a couple of weeks ago professing “concern for fans” was at the top of his list. I cannot imagine anyone but Manfred believed that.

Baseball will need to make quite a bit of amends with players and fans now that the lockout is over and MLB will have a normal season. I am not sure Manfred is the right man to do that. On the other hand, as long as Manfred helps the owners continue to make buckets of money, he can probably keep the office as long as he wants it.

I hope this series has given you a good read on how the Commissioner’s office has evolved over the century it has existed. Baseball has changed quite a bit over that time, yet in the end it’s still the nine-inning sport we all love. Baseball’s leaders would be wise to remember that.