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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. This 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.

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