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Bud Selig: the greatest commissioner in the history of baseball?

Jan 27, 2014, 1:28 PM EDT

Bud Selig Reuters

Save your easy jokes. I know it’s fun to slam Bud Selig because he’s the boss, has been for a long time and thus every baseball complaint we’ve had for over 20 years is easy enough to lay at his feet. Plus he’s kinda funny in a lot of ways so that makes it even easier. Believe me, there is no Bud Selig punchline we haven’t heard.

But Jayson Stark lays out, at length, the case for Bud Selig’s legacy today. A legacy which Stark believes to be unparalleled in baseball history:

Bud Selig has been, without any dispute, the greatest and most important commissioner in the history of his sport. Period.

Again, save the jokes. And name a commissioner who has a better claim to that title. Or, at the very least, one whose legacy isn’t severely compromised by illegality, segregation, unfortunate early death or, in some cases, pure fecklessness. Happy Chandler integrated the game, but that legacy is far less his than Jackie Robinson’s and Branch Rickey’s. Really, among the nine guys who have held the title of Commissioner, Selig is pretty easily the top choice. Stark makes a good case for him. And he doesn’t let him off the hook for many of his stumbles either.

But I do feel a bit of a whitewash afoot, however unintentional it may have been on Stark’s part. And I suspect it was unintentional for the very reason Selig is such a fascinating Commissioner in the first place: his legacy and history in the game is extraordinarily complex, and thus almost impossible to capture while trying to keep things from spiraling out of control.

By way of example, Stark — while correctly noting that Selig and others in the game looked the other way on PEDs for years — lauds Selig for ultimately dealing with the PED problem more aggressively than any other sports commissioner. He also offers the defense for Selig’s past inaction that Selig has offered in the past: that he couldn’t do it alone. He had to have player cooperation.┬áThis is very true. But what’s left out of that is the reason why players were loathe to cooperate with ownership on PEDs or anything else for the great bulk of Selig’s term.

Put simply, there was zero trust between players and owners due to decades of owners doing absolutely everything they could to screw players over. The Collusion cases involved illegal conspiracies by the owners — with Selig and his ownership allies at the forefront — to hold down player salaries. To some of you it may seem like ancient history — most of the acts took place in the 1980s — but when Selig took office the Collusion cases were still very recent history. Indeed, the most recent expansion in 1998 which brought us the Rays and Diamondbacks was a direct result of those cases. The owners needed the money to pay the settlements and got it via expansion fees.

This distrust, on top of the owners still-ongoing aim of imposing a salary cap which led to the 1994-95 strike, meant that financial matters were first and foremost in every player-owner negotiation. Indeed, they could just barely deal with those (and in 1994 didn’t), meaning that there was no way they were going to get to any drug issues until at least after the last acrimonious CBA negotiation in 2002. Eliminating PEDs wasn’t a priority of ownership at all and even if ownership had pushed it, their treatment of players over the previous couple of decades would have made reaching some agreement next to impossible.

The same dynamic underlies labor peace as well, which is the primary thing Stark credits Selig for bringing. Which, yes, he did. Eventually.

While the labor battles of the 80s and 90s are often portrayed as player vs. owner, the reality is that for most of the post-free agency era, the biggest battles have been between small market owners and large market owners, and the complicated financial negotiations that led to labor strife were often a function of small market owners trying to tamp down salaries, both to help their own pocketbooks, but also to hamstring the richer, larger-market teams. Pushing back, of course, were the larger market teams who resent having to share the wealth they receive by virtue of a territorial monopoly system trying to screw the small market owners. It was only after they bruised each other for a while that proposals were put to players and even then there was a lot of owner-owner intrigue in the mix.

Selig was, unequivocally, the leader of the small-market owners in the late 80s and into the early 90s, and it was clear that their plan — to try to institute a salary cap — was the one that carried the day (what, you think Steinbrenner thought of that?). Selig led the charge to get rid of Commissioner Fay Vincent. Selig and his allies took the hard line that led to the 94-95 strike which caused the cancellation of the World Series. And of course, Selig was, by then, acting Commissioner.

So, yes, Selig brought about labor peace. But it was a peace attainable only because everyone knew how awful the alternative was. And they only knew that because Selig was the leader of the movement which led to that awful alternative in 1994.

There are other examples of this. Things which Selig is credited for doing now only because he had a hand in messing it up to begin with. We’re getting instant replay now because there have been a lot of high profile umpiring mistakes that wouldn’t have been possible but for baseball’s hesitance to get tough with umpires or adopt technology sooner. The financial success of MLBAM and local television are helping the game boom, but how much of that is because of, as opposed to in spite of Selig, is an open question (Frank McCourt cashed out of baseball a billionaire, after all; it doesn’t take a genius to make money in MLB these days).

Yet I am still inclined to agree with Stark about Selig’s primacy among baseball’s Commissioners. And not just because it’s a pretty weak field overall. I give Selig credit for many if not most of the good things baseball has done during his tenure because, hey, at least he didn’t stand in the way. And even for those items I mentioned above — the “victories” Selig claims even though they’d be impossible without his previous failures — because it speaks of a quality in leadership that is so often lacking: learning from mistakes.

Really, how many leaders actually think about, learn from and ultimately solve the problems they created? Not a ton. Most leaders declare victory no matter what happened and let their successors deal with the fallout. Maybe that wouldn’t have been as easy for Selig given how long he’s been around, but there is an undeniable humility on his part in actually trying to get things right after being wrong previously. It’s something we expect from normal people but hardly ever see and rarely even demand of leaders. The fact that Selig has learned on the job and the fact that he has grown is much to his credit.

None of that makes Selig perfect. None of it brings the 1994 World Series back or the Expos back or gets rid of Jeff Loria or keeps sewage out of the A’s clubhouse or equalizes the TV revenue the Brewers get with that the Dodgers get. But when you judge Selig you have to give him credit and blame where it is due. And on the whole, I believe Selig is running an accomplishment and leadership surplus. And, yes, compared to his predecessors, he is the greatest of all time.

  1. rohlo - Jan 27, 2014 at 4:36 PM

    this guy was the puppet !!! idiot moves his brewers to the national league then few decades later says its unbalanced and forces any new owner who purchased astros to move to the american league after 50 years of national league experience.. even when the diamondbacks had said they wanted to move to the american league and the simple thing to do would then move the astros to the national league west still having a team from each league in texas… thats just one of the things this idiot has done that has me SMH… cant wait till this moron is gone!!!

    • Dennis Tidwell - Jan 30, 2014 at 10:52 AM

      Worst ever. The fact that he was allowed to be a “temporary” commissioner for 20 years tells you how bad MLB is run. He was the owner of the Brewers and signed it over to his daughter and wolla… a illegitimate commissioner was born.

      This Ass-face cancelled the world series…(wait for it…) …”because it was in the best interest of baseball”. Case closed, cancel Christmas, kitchen closed!

  2. mpzz - Jan 27, 2014 at 4:54 PM

    Selig’s legacy is no joke, unless you think total corruption and incompetence are jokes. From his guaranteed pro-owner stance to his love of steroid-enhanced players and record books, Selig has damaged baseball almost certainly beyond repair. The current joke of fifty day suspensions for the first time players get caught using PED’s, to players like David Ortiz somehow never “officially” being caught, to the incredible income enhancements for owners to the price of a ticket being beyond the reach of the average family, to baseball having virtually no younger fans, Selig’s mark on baseball will be a scar that will never fully heal.

    • brewcrewfan54 - Jan 27, 2014 at 5:41 PM

      Yeah baseball is so broken the whole league should just shut down. Oh wait, no its not even close to that. If baseball is so broken why are you wasting your time reading and commenting on a baseball blog?

      • @Cereal_22 - Jan 28, 2014 at 11:37 AM

        LOL, yeah Selig didn’t completely ruin the game he should be praised. You have too much sausage & cheese in your brain guy…

      • pjmarn6 - Jan 28, 2014 at 2:21 PM

        I still haven’t seen dinky dork, aka Craig Catch-a-torro apologize to all the readers for his half ass story that Lasorda said that Rodriguez “ruined baseball”.

        This sniveling ex-lawyer is good at catching a headline, false as it may be, supporting his champion Rodriguez and then yellow journalizing a story with never a thought of doing a five minute research into the material. But that is what msnbc is famous for and why nothing that this cheat and liar can be believed or taken as the truth or an accurate report.

        Yellow journalism, or the yellow press, is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. This accurately describes what dinky dork does. Yellow journalism goes back more than a 120 years to the feud between the two newspaper czars Hearst and Pulitzer. Some sources declare that yellow refers to cowardice to report the true and accurate truth, which we have seen many times by this person. It definitely refers to false, misleading and inaccurate information that is spread to gain notoriety.
        When 90 people responded to this inaccurate report by king kong, most were taken in and didn’t do the 5 minute search that I did that fully described the circumstances and background of the article. The fact that this individual jumped on a headline without verifying the veracity only to come to the rescue of his champion, just makes everything else he prints suspect.

    • @Cereal_22 - Jan 28, 2014 at 11:39 AM

      But he’s got a great stat for you, what player has the most HR’s ever during a full moon ?? Can’t stand that guy…

      • @Cereal_22 - Jan 28, 2014 at 11:41 AM

        Whoops this was referring to Stark

  3. lanflfan - Jan 27, 2014 at 5:07 PM

    Jayson Stark is a moron. He and Ken Rosenthal both got their brains from the Abby Normal jar.

    • bigharold - Jan 27, 2014 at 6:17 PM

      Perhaps Jason is angling for a job in MLB??

      Bud Selig isn’t even the best commissioner now let alone in the history of baseball.

  4. Jacob Rasch - Jan 27, 2014 at 5:13 PM

    Selig, in spite of his numerous mistakes, has managed to leave the game in a better position than any previous commissioner. Yes, the steroid era is a black eye. But between the money that baseball is bringing in, the attendance spike it has seen during Selig’s tenure, and baseball’s advancements in new media and internet streaming, baseball is better off than it ever has been. You may not like Bud Selig; neither do I. But there’s no denying that a lot of good has been done under his watch. My full take here:

    • hockeyflow33 - Jan 27, 2014 at 6:31 PM

      That’s not accurate, all sports have seen an increase.

      • Jacob Rasch - Jan 27, 2014 at 6:32 PM

        What’s not accurate? I never said other sports weren’t seeing increased revenues.

  5. bat42boy - Jan 27, 2014 at 5:52 PM

    Never in a million years. More like the worst commissioner in MLB history. He’s a joke and a disgrace to baseball.

  6. TheMorningStar - Jan 27, 2014 at 6:17 PM

    Well, at least he isn’t a blatant and overt racist like that piece o’ crap Kenesaw Landis was.

  7. hockeyflow33 - Jan 27, 2014 at 6:30 PM

    The financial gains are less about him and more about the changing sports-first culture; it’s the same reason all of the sports are financially healthy, (despite what their publicized balance sheets say).

    He was also so aggressive to the HR PED players because of the threat they posed to his friend, Hank Aaron’s legacy. It’s why Bonds and A-Rod, (I despise both), were the lead targets for Selig.

  8. moogro - Jan 27, 2014 at 6:52 PM

    Greatest as in Ricky Henderson greatest or Jamie Dimon greatest?

  9. jfk69 - Jan 27, 2014 at 6:55 PM

    Follow the money trail and buddy boy Selig and one of his few crony pals are right there at the end of it. Sure he did things to help the game. So long as those things didn’t conflict with self viewed baseball legacy and self importance.
    A petty man with manhood issues.

  10. docboss - Jan 27, 2014 at 7:45 PM

    It’s easy to slam the commissioner, but this very thoughtful article made me think about what has transpired in the ped/digital age. I think Bud has done a fantastic job! I can’t believe I said it, but it’s true.

  11. musketmaniac - Jan 27, 2014 at 9:54 PM

    63 days early. april 1st and all

  12. JP - Jan 27, 2014 at 11:22 PM

    I like the Wild Card. I don’t seek to besmirch Bud Selig’s legacy. But baseball has grown mostly in spite of Selig, not because of him. We’re talking about a 20+ year period here – if he got too far out of line the owners would have found a different Yes Man.

  13. thegonz13 - Jan 28, 2014 at 6:49 AM

    Any commssioner who doesn’t invoke the best interests of the game to kick Jeffrey Loria out can’t be that good!

  14. themanytoolsofignorance - Jan 28, 2014 at 7:40 AM

    I think its better to say “Least Bad”.

  15. @Cereal_22 - Jan 28, 2014 at 11:35 AM

    Wow, how out of touch the media has become when they are lauding Bud Selig, what a nightmare

  16. theghostofberniekosar - Jan 28, 2014 at 11:42 AM

    In the eyes of the owners, he probably is the best of all time. Revenues have soared in the last couple decades.

    In the eyes of the fans….he’s a turd. I can deal with the all-star game BS. PEDs are largely on the MLBPA as they continue to resist it tooth and nail. Instant replay, even though stupid, is more a reaction to poor officiating than anything else. Payroll inequality is huge, and he failed there big time. But personally, I will NEVER forgive him for the strike of ’94-’95. NEVER. It was never the same for me after that. The almighty dollar triumphed over the fans, and I stopped believing in the purity of the game when that happened.

  17. keltictim - Jan 28, 2014 at 2:33 PM

    Even the Long Island medium could have predicted the comment section of this article. (I was going to go with carnak but I thought that wouldn’t be understood). Such blind hate based on so many wrong/ignorant assumptions.

  18. disgracedfury - Jan 28, 2014 at 3:42 PM

    Wow…..just Wow.How can he be the best commissioner on PED’s when he created this culture:It wasn’t rapid before he became commissioner.He is using A-Rod because he couldn’t get Clemens and Bonds and now A-Rod is the worst which isn’t true.Selig is a puppet and used A-Rod to secure his legacy and wheather A-Rod took steroids or not it doesn’t matter now A-Rod is the face of PED’s when Selig should have been.

    Oh ask Joe O’Donnell how he rightfully bought the Red Sox and had it ripped away from him by Selig in a backroom deal.Sorry but stop the Selig the hero.

  19. Joe Vecchio - Jan 28, 2014 at 3:52 PM

    Whatever else Selig has been, he never worked to rig the system the way David Stern has rigged the NBA. That’s not saying much of course…

  20. lpd1964 - Jan 29, 2014 at 9:11 AM

    Best commisioner ever?? Where do I begin-Canceled the world series, the all star game voted by fans ( sometimes the best players aren’t even there ) decides home field advantage in the WS, DUMB, and just turned a blind eye to PEDS-Selig =BOOB!!

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