Bud Selig and his place in history

Bud Selig worked his last day as commissioner last week, which makes it a good time to assess his performance and place in history.

No less than ESPN’s David Schoenfield and Hardballtalk’s Craig Calcaterra opined that Selig was the best commissioner ever, so the idea deserves consideration before rejection.

Forgive them the sentimentality of the moment, but no he wasn’t.

Being the greatest commissioner is a little like being renowned as a slugger in the days before Babe Ruth. Frank Baker might have been nicknamed “Home Run”, but his career high was 12.

The competition includes Bowie Kuhn, who sat in the rain without a raincoat to watch postseason games, Ford Frick, who contested Roger Maris’ home run record and William Eckert, a general who got the job on the recommendation of Curtis LeMay (that should have been a take sign right there; LeMay is the general who was George Wallace’s vice-presidential candidate and advocated at least the idea of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. When LeMay gave a reference, one should have considered the source).

That just about puts Selig in the top three for the wild card alone.

Selig had the job, by one title or another, for more than 20 years, and he helped major league teams build portfolios and stadiums. According to Schoenfield, baseball has gone from a $1.9 billion business to a $9 billion business in the last 20 years. Twenty-five million dollar salaries are the new $15 million, and even the Rays, the thriftiest of teams, can afford to pay James Loney $7 million per year. The Giants overcame Barry Zito’s bad contract to win two of their three World Series; the Red Sox were able to divest $250 million in bad salaries to rebuild and win a World Series.

Baseball is so awash these days in money the baselines could be lined with $100 bills. Of course, Selig came to the job as owner of a small-market team, so he’s never been against maximizing profits.

Selig made owners and players alike money, but if you want to credit him for that, you might want to ask what he’s done for the fan who pays the price of a bleacher seat (not to mention parking, soda, hot dog and the jersey of your kid’s favorite player). Sometimes it seems as if you have to be paid like Miguel Cabrera to watch him in person.

Selig deserves credit for courage and innovation — expanded playoffs, interleague play, instant replay — and the labor peace of the last 20 years. But the latter was only after the cancellation of the 1994 postseason, which the owners accepted as casually as a batter tapping dirt out of his cleats. Selig presided over the mess, forcing a labor impasse for a goal — a salary cap — which was never realized.

If you’re a commissioner and you lose an entire postseason, you may not necessarily be Gary Bettman, but you lose your place at the head of the commissioner’s line. And if not for Selig, we’d only have to hear about the Braves’ 11 division titles in a row instead of 14.

(And awarding home field in the World Series to the league which wins the All-Star Game was a stupid idea, an overreaction and correction to a problem which didn’t exist.)

I’m not sure there is a commissioner who deserves the title of greatest, even if four of them (Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Happy Chandler, Kuhn and Frick) are in the Hall of Fame. Only in baseball could the all-time leader in work stoppages (Kuhn) be in the Hall of Fame, but the all-time leaders in home runs (Barry Bonds) and hits (Pete Rose) are not.

Chandler oversaw the integration of baseball, and did so apparently without timidity; Frick was National League president at the time and deserves credit for standing up to the Cardinals when they threatened not to play. It’s not often baseball is ahead of the curve, but Chandler and Frick did so seven years before the Supreme Court struck down segregation in schools.

Whatever Landis’ views, it seems less than a coincidence that Branch Rickey waited until after Landis’ death to sign Jackie Robinson. And while Landis gets historical points for his handling of the Black Sox Scandal, he seemed unconcerned that Buck Weaver was collateral damage; whatever happened to better 10 guilty players go free than one innocent one be punished with a lifetime ban.

The new commissioner is Rob Manfred and in his first week on the job he’s met with Alex Rodriguez and said in an interview with ESPN that he’d consider banning defensive shifts.

At this pace, it won’t be long before I miss Bud.

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