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A look at the 10 MLB Commissioners and how the role has changed over time, part 2

Two men led baseball through a time of great change in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ford Frick in 1956
Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Ford Frick, 1951-65

Frick had been a sportswriter in Denver and New York and then the National League’s public relations director when he was named NL president in 1937.

Imagine something like that happening today — someone like Ken Rosenthal or Tom Verducci being named a top baseball executive. It literally wouldn’t and couldn’t happen.

But that actually happened fairly often back in the day. Bill Veeck Sr., who was Cubs team president from 1918 until his death in 1933, had been a Chicago sportswriter before being hired by William Wrigley. Jim Gallagher, Cubs GM from 1940-49, was also a sportswriter before taking on the Cubs job. Again, can you imagine Paul Sullivan or Gordon Wittenmyer being named a Cubs exec now? Nope.

Frick had been NL president for 14 years when Happy Chandler was forced out of the Commissioner’s position in 1951, his contract not renewed. Per Wikipedia:

In September, the owners elected Frick to replace Chandler in a twelve-hour meeting that the Chicago Tribune called “their all-time peak in dilly-dallying”. The owners were able to quickly narrow the candidates down from five unnamed nominees to two frontrunners, Frick and Warren Giles. The owners deadlocked until Giles decided to remove his name from consideration. Giles, who had been president and general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, succeeded Frick as NL president.

It was a different time. When Frick became Commissioner, there were 16 major league teams and none west of St. Louis. When he retired in 1965, there were 20 teams and baseball would soon expand by four more, and there were three California teams, soon to become five.

A lot of that happened because of the proposed Continental League, a third major league proposed in the late 1950s that would have included teams in New York (after the NL departed in 1958), Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Buffalo, Houston, Toronto and Minneapolis. Frick had initially supported a third major league, but after MLB was threatened with the loss of its anti-trust exemption, NL and AL owners quickly agreed to expand into some of those markets. One (Denver) didn’t get a MLB team until 1993, and Buffalo — which was the 18th largest US metro area in 1960 — still hasn’t, as its metro population now ranks 49th.

Frick’s tenure as Commissioner thus presided over baseball growth, but the Commissioner’s office seemed to have lost the power it had when Landis was in charge. The league presidents still had a lot of power in those days and Frick, having been a former league president, often deferred matters to the league offices. He’ll likely mostly be remembered for the “asterisk” he wanted to put beside Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in 1961 (Frick himself called it a “distinctive mark” in the record books; the term “asterisk” was the invention of another sportswriter, Dick Young of the New York Daily News). Frick’s interest in this came largely from his sportswriter days in New York; he and Babe Ruth had become friends and Frick wanted to “protect” his friend’s record.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1970 and now has a Hall award named after him that’s presented to one baseball broadcaster each year.

William Eckert, 1965-68

It’s almost as if the Commissioner’s office was vacant for these three years as the position was held by this former US Army officer. Per Wikipedia:

More than 150 names appeared on the original list of nominees for the commissionership following Ford Frick’s retirement. The club owners initially were unable to decide if the next commissioner should come from the ranks of the game (e.g., the president of the American or National Leagues), or elsewhere. They finally decided that the new commissioner should have a strong business background to deal with the problems that were confronting the game at the time.

Eckert had not appeared on any lists of prospective candidates at first. He only became a serious candidate for the commissionership after fellow officer Curtis LeMay gave Major League Baseball a recommendation for him. On November 17, 1965, by a unanimous vote of the then-20 major league club owners, William Eckert became the fourth Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

When he became commissioner, Eckert had not seen a game in person in over 10 years. He was almost completely unknown to the public, leading sportswriters to nickname him “the Unknown Soldier.”

And Eckert did essentially nothing memorable during his three-year tenure. That was during the time when the MLB Players Association was first recognized as a union (1966), a fact that would eventually lead to the first players strike six years later. The worry about a strike pushed the owners to try to force Eckert out even though he had three years remaining on his contract. He was finally forced to resign at the end of the 1968 season and Bowie Kuhn, an attorney who had worked on baseball matters for a New York law firm (sound familiar?) was named interim commissioner.

Tomorrow: The tumultuous tenure of Kuhn.