Commissioner Peter Ueberroth speaks out on the important issues that face baseball today
April 15, 1985

I met with Peter Ueberroth in his New York City office exactly six months after he had succeeded Bowie Kuhn to become the sixth commissioner in baseball history. The office is on the 17th floor with relatively few of the mementos and honorary trappings that usually decorate the working quarters of such public men. Ueberroth's office is dominated by two large flags; one is the stars and stripes, the other the maple leaf. Over in the corner, quite tucked away, is a plaque with an Olympic torch attached—a modest reminder of Ueberroth's successful tenure as president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.

The new commissioner appeared to be in fine fettle as his inaugural Opening Day approached. He was in shirtsleeves, was nicely tanned and, at 47, literally seemed the fair-haired boy. On this occasion, however, Ueberroth was hurting. "I ain't doing good today," he moaned. He injured his back three years ago, and the long flight he had made back from Tokyo a few days before had aggravated the condition. So Ueberroth stood up throughout an hour-and-a-half interview. Near the end he picked up a bat and took a few swings.

Conversationally, Ueberroth proved to be a pull hitter, except when subjects arose concerning union-management matters. He refused any comment on what he calls "table issues." Curiously, the only question he would categorically not answer regarded baseball's economic dependence on beer advertising, which provides one-sixth of its broadcast revenues.

Two things he made abundantly clear. First, Ueberroth is not using the baseball office and its high visibility as a springboard to the U.S. Senate. Second, he loves baseball. Notwithstanding the economic problems that beset the game, he clearly wants to be remembered as the commissioner who made it possible for more people to love baseball and its players more.

FD: First of all, can you bring us up to date on the labor negotiations?

PU: I don't participate. I have probably had equal contact, which is very limited, with both sides.

FD: But you have no evidence to suggest that the kind of rancor and abrasiveness that existed four years ago is there this time?

PU: No, I don't think so. And I think that this time both parties are very well represented. Don Fehr, the leading sports labor representative, has constant access to Marvin Miller, who wrote the book, who's the finest labor negotiator there has ever been in sport. On the other side, the owners are better represented than I think they've been in the past.

FD: But what about you? There's always the question of your neutrality because, after all, you were hired by the owners.

PU: Yes, there are people who say that. But I will be neutral. I will be neutral without question. I don't consider that the owners pay me, because they don't. I'm paid by the fans who buy the tickets.

FD: All right, let's say selected. You were selected by the owners, and the players had no input.

PU: That's right. I think in the future it would be a good idea for the players to have input in the [hiring of the] commissioner, and before I'd agree to be commissioner again—I'm breaking new ground here, but I feel this way—I would think the players should have input, if they want it.

FD: Equal input?

PU: If they wanted it, certainly. Also, the umpires.

FD: You have participated in the negotiations to the extent that you have offered to hand over the books of the 26 franchises to the players.

PU: No, I have not offered to "hand over" the books. I have simply said that, in the process, if that's something both sides would like, I'll see to it that it's done. There would be no question about it. They would be opened so that there would be no suspicions—because I don't think you can have good collective bargaining with suspicions.

FD: I have the impression that even though you have set yourself apart from the negotiations, if they are resolved in a calm and satisfactory way you'll receive a lot of credit, but if there's a strike people will say it's your fault.

PU: Well, I think the second part is more true than the first, because I think when anything in baseball doesn't go well, the commissioner is blamed. I think history is going to treat Bowie Kuhn very kindly. I think he was a damned good commissioner.

FD: Why did you agree to succeed him?

PU: A lot of reasons. First, I rekindled a love affair with sports through the Olympics. For my family, the Ueberroths, baseball was always the sport we identified with—by a large margin—more than all other sports combined.

And then I was shown the need. Baseball had problems. And they were problems that were non-baseball problems—so that got me past the idea of "Gee, how could I be commissioner without experience in baseball?" Because all the problems were in areas where I had some expertise—economics, television...drugs.

FD: Do you think your fame has helped?

PU: No, I don't think so. In fact, I asked our press department recently to study the idea of the commissioner not giving any interviews during the baseball season, that maybe once the game begins, administrators should try and take a backseat. I have no [personal] p.r. agent. The Los Angeles Times records will show that I was almost never in their newspaper in the 17 years before the Olympics. So fame is not something I chase after. But it came, and too much. We were staying at a motel visiting our daughter down in Tennessee at college this weekend and there was a magazine in the hotel room with my picture on the cover, and I never was interviewed by that magazine at all. Where the magazine came from, I don't have any idea.

FD: When you came into the job, did you find anything that greatly surprised you?

PU: I found—but I have to preface this by saying it was not due to anyone's fault, but was the fault of the process—the financial situation much worse than what I [had] thought [it would be]. In fact, in some sense there was financial neglect.

FD: And this was the fault of the process?

PU: Yes, the process and not the individuals—and certainly not my predecessor. I was surprised by the high turnover in ownership. I was surprised to find so many teams for sale. I didn't think any was for sale, and my first day on the job, my closest friend in baseball, Bob Lurie, announced that his team, the Giants, was for sale. I was surprised at the disarray of television. There was going to be a premier game [between the Cubs and Padres during the NLCS last October] starting so late that it could have been called in the seventh inning due to darkness. And the superstations: I read debate and argument covering nine years, but nothing had been done about it.

FD: Do you ever say, "What am I doing here?"

PU: No, I don't think I say that more than once or twice a day.

FD: Your friend Bob Lurie once said that if you got all the owners a little bit mad at you, you'd be doing a good job. After six months, do you think that's true?

PU: Well, the only thing I'd take out is the word little.

FD: You have 26 wealthy egotists. Have you adjusted to that?

PU: Oh, they'll always complain about [my exercising] too much control. But that's the only way I can operate. In an important environment, you can't decide by committee. But I would not describe the owners as rich egotists. There may be some, but there are also some of the best citizens in this country. And it's very clear to me now some are not so wealthy. Some are less wealthy than they were before they owned a baseball team.

FD: O.K., is everybody losing money?

PU: Ninety percent.

FD: Does anybody make money?

PU: A couple.

FD: If we went back 10 or 15 years ago?

PU: The other way around. It's turned that much.

FD: So why is everybody losing money? Salaries?

PU: No, it's a combination of factors. Nobody forced anybody to pay any salary.

FD: But certainly the courts gave the players more leverage. Mike Schmidt never would have gotten $2 million a year without those decisions.

PU: I don't know if that's true. In this day and age, the top 100 of anything in this society—and certainly in entertainment—are highly paid.

FD: Have you ever considered suggesting some form of salary cap, as in the NBA?

PU: That's not for me to consider. I want to provide an environment to let collective bargaining....

FD: Well, all right, how about down the road, when this contract is settled. You can't stand up then and offer an opinion on something like a salary cap?

PU: That would be counterproductive. That's what happened in the last labor negotiation. People on the outside....

FD: I hardly would say you're on the outside.

PU: I am on the outside.

FD: All right. But the teams are losing money.

PU: If too many teams lose substantially, and there's any kind of negative downturn, the whole system is jeopardized. But clearly, baseball teams don't have to make a profit. In fact, it's O.K. for them to lose a little money.

FD: Could you amplify that? Why isn't a baseball team like the corner grocery that has to make money?

PU: Because I think teams are part of the community where they are situated. [Baseball] belongs to the community. It belongs to the fans. Maybe not in a legal sense, but in more of a moral sense. So, especially in some of the smaller markets, if they're operated by a group of individuals or an individual and they lose a little money but serve the community well, that's all right as far as I'm concerned.

FD: Let's take a hypothetical situation and say that tomorrow one of your teams wants to move.

PU: I'd just flat stop them.

FD: Can you still do that?

PU: Yes, I think I can. But that's a problem for us now with teams for sale. Without question every one of the seven or eight teams for sale could achieve a better price by selling to a city without a franchise. But they're not going to.

FD: So you think the present 26 franchises should all stay right in place?

PU: The two in the Bay Area require further study. That's the only place where I think arguments can be made. But even there, my basic feeling would be to do everything I can to keep both the Giants and A's in the market.

I think you need three things to keep a franchise going, in any city. One is real fan support. In good years and in losing years. Second is ownership with roots in the community. And third is total support by the government in the region.

FD: Do you think it's conceivable that we're moving toward a time when baseball teams will be owned by their communities—like public parks or libraries?

PU: I hope not. In my opinion, that's a step toward socialism. But I think that a trend may be there. And I try to watch trends. There are seven sports bills in Washington now. [The bills deal with a variety of subjects, including franchise relocation, alcoholic beverage advertising and entertainment deductions.] In the middle of everything, problems with the deficit and world affairs, there are seven sports bills in Congress.

FD: Now, another trend. For the first time in four years, attendance was down slightly last season, .12 percent in the American League, 3.56 in the National? How do you deal with that?

PU: One thing we're tying a lot of our future to is family involvement. I think baseball is the best value and it's the best for the family. We saw to it this year that nobody broke the double-digit barrier. There's no ticket in major league baseball more than $9. We're establishing family sections, places that are kid-oriented. All sports have suffered from rowdyism and vulgarity, that sort of thing, and we're going to do our best to eliminate that problem in the few of our stadiums where it occurs. Stadiums—that's one place where I have had a little experience. We're going to do our best, everything from rest rooms to the better training of security people. I really applaud what Detroit did—going to low-alcohol beer throughout Tiger Stadium.

FD: What else are you seeking to accomplish in this area?

PU: Well, we have to return baseball players to the idol status they've always enjoyed in the past.

FD: How?

PU: First, by removing drugs from baseball. It's a huge undertaking, because all of society is suffering from that now. With the Olympics I had the opportunity to meet with some of the top law-enforcement leaders in our nation, right down to the beat cop, and all of them say the same thing to me, that cocaine is at the root of criminal problems in society and at the root of degrading society in our country. Cocaine's the No. 1 problem. Clearly, far and away. But it's also No. 2 and No. 3. It's all related to that. Now, having said that, baseball's not worse than any other part of society. Probably less than some. But because we're so visible, I think we have an extra responsibility. To show it can be done.

FD: How can it be done?

PU: That's long and complicated. It's built on trust and players helping players. It's not grandstanding and saying we're going to ban somebody for life. It's saying if somebody has a problem, let's catch it, let's detect it. Let's help him get rid of his problem, and let's try and return him to society and baseball.

We're doing a lot of things along the lines of public education, too. We have an extensive antidrug campaign planned for television. Players on every single team have donated their time for commercials to help kids stay away from drugs, and you'll be able to see them in every city.

FD: You say you want to make ballplayers into idols again. "Idols"—that was the word you used.

PU: Well, they are idols. I don't say they should be. They are. It's something that shouldn't necessarily be thrust on them, but it is.

FD: So, should they be held to a higher public standard?

PU: I think that anyone who has a public image is held to a higher standard, whether he likes it or not.

FD: Would you go so far, then, as to say, "You, Mr. Player, or you, Mr. Owner, you've done something that is not illegal but it is very damaging to the image of baseball, we don't want you in our game anymore." Can you do that?

PU: I don't think I have the right to throw a player out of anything. And I don't think that's my role. I'm not a policeman. But I think it may be necessary.

FD: How does this sort of thinking apply to your decision reinstating Mantle and Mays?

PU: That was a different issue. I don't fault the prior ruling, but, currently, law-enforcement people tell me to worry about drugs and gambling.

FD: Take drugs and gambling together?

PU: Yes. Any problem that arises in sports, baseball included, that has to do with gambling, will probably be drug-related. Mays and Mantle worked for licensed casinos. A recognized licensed casino that is legally doing business would be the last institution to try and misuse a player.

FD: You face a potential problem if the government refuses to allow companies to write off the purchase of sports tickets as a legitimate business expense. What percentage of major league ticket revenues comes from companies?

PU: Forty-six percent. That's all kinds of companies, hundreds of little companies included. [If such a law were passed,] it would be very damaging to baseball and to sports. Very damaging.

[Ueberroth discussed the problem in Washington last week with Secretary of the Treasury James Baker.]

FD: Now, as to television, you have taken charge of a runaway situation by having teams that show games on superstations compensate all the other teams.

PU: Yes. I think we returned the control of our destiny to baseball. Until then, the superstations were doing what they wanted to do. [However, baseball has not yet reached an agreement with the Cubs, who also show their games nationally on cable.]

FD: Fine, but does this perhaps presage some kind of deal whereby teams will have to give up a portion of their home television to the visiting team? If someone like Edward Bennett Williams in a small market like Baltimore says, "Ted Turner is keeping people from going to my park, and I'm paid for it," he could also maintain that when he comes to New York, George Steinbrenner's television keeps fans home, so he should be paid compensation for that, too.

PU: I don't see that happening. We've done the numbers on that, and it's not a major issue.

FD: A few quick questions. How about interleague play?

PU: We're going to address that in an in-depth national survey conducted by a prominent firm. Anyone surveyed will sit down for 30 mintues and answer a lot of questions. It's not going to be passed out at the ballpark. Interleague play has drawn a lot of interest from some owners and some players' groups. It ought to be something that we can talk to the Players' Association about.

FD: Then how about intercontinental championships?

PU: I first got that idea from Don Fehr, and so I looked into it while I was in Japan. I think it will definitely happen one day, but how many years off it is, I don't know.

FD: How about encouraging it by pushing Sadaharu Oh for membership in our Hall of Fame?

PU: That's baseball tradition. I don't think I want to mess with that.

FD: The lights in Wrigley Field?

PU: It's a complicated subject. It's still being litigated by the Cubs, and it's really the kind of question I shouldn't answer. But I do think our concern on that has been misunderstood. Our major concern is that the working man and woman who follow baseball all year long should have a chance to watch the two premier events, the league championships and the World Series. They don't have the Super Bowl on Tuesday afternoon. Most people are at work. This is a working society and most people think baseball is a working person's sport. It's not polo or yachting. If you're a baseball fan and and you can't see your team play in the World Series because it's held during the day, I don't think it's fair.

FD: What about beanballs?

PU: The on-field activity, the way the game is played—I'm a delegator. People call me that, and I think it's very true. And I've delegated that responsibility to the league presidents. But I do think Dr. Bobby Brown and Chub Feeney can work with the umpires and the managers and players to make sure we do not start a new tradition in baseball in the area of bench clearing. That's a new thing, a phenomenon, and I'll encourage them to put a stop to that. Still, that's their job.

FD: How about the designated hitter?

PU: That's up to the fans and the baseball experts.

FD: Finally, what sets baseball apart? What do you love about it?

PU: I love the tradition, and I love the drama. Every baseball game has drama. It's not just an end-of-the-season thing. I love the pace. I mean, it just works. All the way through.

FD: Thank you.

PHOTOOFFICE OF THE BASEBALL COMMISSIONER PHOTOLANE STEWARTUeberroth is a softballer on the field and a hardballer off. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERTime for a laugh with Bill Russell and Tommy Lasorda. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERFour of the First Family: Keri, Joseph, Peter and Ginny. PHOTODAVE BURNETT/CONTACT/FORTUNEAutographs are a sign of Ueberroth's celebrity status. ILLUSTRATION

"Before I'd agree to be commissioner again, I would think the players should have input, if they want it. Also, the umpires."

"For my family, baseball was always the sport we identified with—by a large margin—more than all other sports combined."

"One thing we're tying a lot of our future to is family involvement. We're establishing family sections, places that are kid-oriented."