Bud Selig, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball is retiring. Before he was commissioner he was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. I’ve never liked Bud, initially because he led a group that deposed his predecessor, Fay Vincent, when they grew weary of a commissioner whose authority could place the interest of the game above their own. Bud’s commissionership affirmed that in the new order the prime directive of the position was to make money for the owners.
The first commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was hired by the team owners of that era (a flamboyant lot of cheats and scoundrels) to clean up the image of the game following the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal in the 1919 World Series. That scandal is often attributed to the eight ball players Landis banned from the game even though they were acquitted in a court of law. That bit of history is well documented in two fine works, the book 8 Men Out, by Eliot Asinof, and the film of the same name, by John Sayles. Landis brokered his integrity and credibility into a lifetime appointment that made him baseball’s supreme commander. In varying degrees all subsequent commissioners had that authority and the game was frequently thought of as something more important than the selfish interests of both its owners and players.
From Wikipedia: “Kennesaw Mountain Landis was an American jurist who served as a federal judge from 1905 to 1922 and as the first Commissioner of Baseball from 1920 until his death. He is remembered for his handling of the Black Sox scandal, in which he expelled eight members of the Chicago White Sox from organized baseball for conspiring to lose the 1919 World Series and repeatedly refused their reinstatement requests. His firm actions and iron rule over baseball in the near quarter-century of his commissionership are generally credited with restoring public confidence in the game.”
Restoring Public Confidence in the Game
After Landis came a string of men who to some extent followed that mandate, including Happy Chandler, who undid one of Landis’ greatest shortcomings-failing to allow black players into the game, when Landis did not stop the Dodgers from playing Jackie Robinson. Commissioners occasionally ran afoul of a disgruntled owner when acting in the better interests of the game, but it was the accepted norm until Commissioner Bart Giamatti, a former President of Yale University, died unexpectedly on the job leaving a relative unknown and less powerful Fay Vincent to fill the position. Seizing on the unexpected opening, a new breed of owners led by Uncle Bud understood it was time to have a Commissioner do their bidding even if it meant sacrificing the notion of upholding the mythical good of the game. Vincent was deposed, and leaving nothing to chance, Bud assumed the position.
Happy Chandler Gen. Bill Eckert Ford Frick Bowie Kuhn
Peter Ueberroth Bart Giamatti Fay Vincent
If I can forgive Bud for his limited view of economics, I cannot forgive him for how he botched the response to the Steroid Era. Like the owners during the post Black Sox scandal in 1919, modern day owners found themselves at the center of a moral storm that they were in part responsible for. Their willingness to pay extraordinary sums to players with hyper-inflated statistics encouraged and rewarded the practice of using banned substances. It is hard to believe that anyone paying those sums did so without knowing the chemical component to those statistical miracles. Left to others, the steroid inquiry might lead up the food chain to owners so, when Bud had a chance to do something about it, he went all holier than thou and set about “to clean up the game” restoring confidence as had the owners who hired Landis decades before.
This is my biggest gripe with Bud.
Instead of turning on his stars, he could have done something better. He could have cleaned up the game of the harmful steroids while protecting the game itself, a mandate he didn’t seem to favor, and without turning the public against the players who made him and the other owners wealthy.
He could have thanked them for how much they excelled, how much they strove to perform the superhuman deeds we all applauded and paid for.
He could have said that he understood the pressure an athlete faces to perform.
He could have declared an amnesty for all prior use of steroids and established a window of time, say three years, in which all players would be asked to come forth and declare what and when they used. Those players would be immune from any punishments, suspensions or impacts on their Hall of Fame credentials.
The game would have been clean, sober and revealed of the mysteries surrounding who did what and when.
Then, he could have lowered the boom and said that any player henceforth who either was proven to have used substances and not come clean, or who was caught using now would be suspended from baseball for life.
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION.
But, Bud is not a Nelson Mandela and instead went all Crucible choosing to support an hypocritical witch hunt against players who dared to play the game better by getting stronger. Bud threw some of the best players of the era like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez to the feeding frenzy.One scandal after another, one revelation after another rocked the game and robbed it both of its stars and its integrity, something it has not fully recovered from yet. All this in a country that peddles enhancement in everything from our breasts to our penises.
Baseball, under Bud’s leadership, served up a crusade against athletes who got stronger. The American public was more concerned with Barry Bonds than bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “Game of Shadows” was more important than the shame of two of the most ill-conceived wars in American History.
Further, while the bus was rolling over their discarded carcasses, scores of other players watched the big names take the fall while they went undetected. Sadly, if you think the ones who have been vilified are the only ones who used, you are delusional. While no one can cite a figure, it is likely there were hundreds of players using some form of banned enhancement. I keep a personal and list of overachieving players whose anomalous statistics make me suspicious of their achievements, and most of them were not punished.
I had a high school teacher in the less than tolerant early 1970’s who was openly gay in a hostile all boys school environment asked impolitely by one of my classmates if he was a faggot (Sorry, I don’t use euphemisms when recounting real language) boldly replied, “Listen, stop wasting your time trying to figure me out. If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and looks like a duck: it’s a duck.” So to all the average players who morphed into Ruthian Popeyes, all I can say is, “quack fucking quack.” I don’t know how you live with yourselves. Thank you Bud for that sordid piece of history.
To be clear: there are players who will be or have already been elected to the Hall of Fame who “used” and didn’t get caught, while the best ones like Bonds, Clemens, and Rodriguez will not get in. The Baseball Writers, who vote for Hall of Fame membership, men and women who never played the game will uphold their perverted mythical status of the game, while in reality that status didn’t exist before, doesn’t exist now and will not exist in the future. Like Buck Weaver in Eight Men Out, some of the greatest players of this or any era will find themselves on the outside looking in at a game they played so well.
In the low-level dialogue that constitutes the sports media, Bud is treated fairly well, even given credit for being visionary because of the handful of changes he brought to the game. These are in no special order,
Realignment and the introduction of playoff wild card teams.
An unbalanced schedule formula that heavily favors intradivisional play (2001)
Home field advantage in the World Series granted to the winner of the All Star Game in the same season (2003)
Stricter Major League Baseball performance-enhancing drug testing policy (2005)
World Baseball Classic (2006)
Instant replay used by umpiring crew to review disputed home run calls (2008). Expanded to all calls (except balls and strikes) starting in 2014.
These things make him visionary?
It seems to me that what Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, Nomar Garciaparra, Raphael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi, Andy Pettite, Roger Clemens, and the other so-called “cheaters” did along with the hundreds of other baseball players, using or not, that made a hard game seem elegant and simple gave more to the game than what Bud did.
I don’t think I’ll miss Bud but you never know. Just when you think the bar can go no lower… One day Uncle Bud may seem like a hero to us as we stew in our own maudlin juices recounting the fictitious Good Ole Days when the game and all those in it were pure. One day, we may walk the halls of Cooperstown and see Bud’s plaque on the wall in place of the above mentioned players, and we’ll say, “That was Bud Selig, he introduced video replay twenty-five years after the National Football League did. He was a genius.”