A thousand Hollywood swells in full evening dress watched with restless amusement last Thursday as a photographer maneuvered the celebrities on the dais into one awkward pose after another: Dinah Shore to the left of Peter Ueberroth, Howard Cosell to the right; Dinah in the middle, Howard on the left, Peter on the right, and, hey, how about getting the university chancellor into the picture and...yeah, sure...Sylvester Stallone, wherever he had gotten to. Well, this sort of thing had obviously gone on too long and somebody—Robert Stack? Vin Scully? Vidal Sassoon?—had to put a stop to it. Let's get on with the program, for pity's sake.
So who should step forward but the one true authority figure in the room—Peter Ueberroth himself, former L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee president, commissioner of baseball and recipient this night of the 16th annual Scopus Award from the American Friends of the Hebrew University (Western States Region). "I think," said the commissioner in a sincere baritone that at once conveyed command, humility and all that is virtuous, "it's time to take charge here." You should have heard that audience, famous folks all, cheer and shout.
It was nice that Ueberroth could pause in Los Angeles long enough to be anointed, because a few days later when he traveled south to San Diego to make a State of the Game address at baseball's winter meetings, there was more dyspeptic muttering than cheering and shouting. Ueberroth never had it so good as when he was running the L.A. Olympics. What a difference 14 months makes, that being the length of time he has been commissioner. Now his constituency is composed of 26 curmudgeonly multimillionaires who say they can't make a dime out of baseball, 650 mostly zillionaire ballplayers who, for all their riches, look upon themselves as inhabitants of a Dickensian workhouse and 100 million or so fans who can't understand what the griping and moaning from both sides is all about.
In truth, Ueberroth remains a hero only to the fans, who see him as the commissioner who let Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays back in the game, who resolved both an umpires' and, supposedly, a players' strike, who fights drugs, who may have saved a franchise or two—Pittsburgh?—from extinction, who opposed a cap on players' salaries, who ordered the poor-mouthing owners to open their mysterious financial books (revealing, in fact, that at least some teams were poor) and who generally showed everybody who was boss. He's the guy who was TIME'S 1984 Man of the Year and, according to the Fashion Foundation of America, is one of the 10 best-dressed men in the country. A self-made man, a poor kid from California who made a million through hard work and dedication. A guy who knows the value of a buck. A man young enough, at 48, to be a political force in the future.
December 16, 1985
His other constituents, after this eventful year, see him quite differently. To some in the baseball hierarchy, he's the guy who gave away the store to the umpires and opened the way for mediocre arbiters to mess up the World Series. He's the one who, though officially denying any major involvement in the negotiations, seems all too willing to claim credit for settling the players' strike in midseason. "I said at the time I had had no role," Ueberroth said last week, "but the public's perception [that he had] might be right." He's the commissioner who was going to resolve once and for all the designated hitter dilemma by polling the fans but who, after the poll was in, declared it "inconclusive"—although he hasn't divulged the results. (It was a poll, one of his detractors confides, that also asked, among other questions, if the name Peter Ueberroth was easily recognized.) He's the crusader against illegal narcotics who, through grandstanding and back-fencing, alienated the players and rid baseball of the one drug program, however inadequate, it did have. He's also the commissioner who has miffed some of the game's most faithful friends in the corporate community by severing longtime attachments with them. And who's to say he's really such a good guy? Mostly, according to his foes, he's arrogant, high-handed, inconsiderate and egotistical, a man more concerned with image than substance, the kind of man, one former associate said, "I wouldn't want to be stranded on a desert island with."
As for politics, there are those who feel he's already involved. His recent autobiography. Made in America, reads to some critics as a campaign document, and there has been constant speculation in print that he will be a Republican senatorial candidate from California next year. Ueberroth vehemently disclaims any of this. "Those are not my skills. I'm too opinionated." Proof of the pudding will come, he says, when his name does not appear among the candidates by the March 7 filing deadline for the California senatorial race.
Certainly Ueberroth still has unfinished business as baseball commissioner. This includes the two prime objectives he says he had in accepting the commissioner's job—to rid the game of drugs and to create some economic balance between baseball's haves and have-nots.
When in May Ueberroth said that all front-office and minor league personnel would be subject to random drug sampling, he could only ask the unionized big-league players and umpires to go along. The umps volunteered, but the players balked, rightly deciding that it was a move to embarrass them publicly. Later, in September, Ueberroth circumvented the Major League Players Association and appealed directly to the players to undergo testing voluntarily. More outrage. In the meantime, the owners have discontinued their joint drug program with the players and, at the urging of their Player Relations Committee, have written mandatory testing into their new contracts. Union executive director Donald Fehr says that Ueberroth "has helped perpetuate and rekindle an atmosphere of conflict on the issue." What perplexes others is that three months after the Pittsburgh drug trial that implicated 17 active and two former major-leaguers in drug use. Ueberroth still has not met with those players or imposed any punishment on them, although meetings are scheduled for January.
As for Ueberroth's other avowed goal—to bring about a better economic balance between rich and poor franchises—he took a firm step forward when he ruled a year ago that the teams whose games are televised via satellite superstations must compensate other major league teams for intruding upon their markets. Ueberroth also wants companies to invest millions in baseball, buying both sponsorships and tickets that would benefit all 26 teams. He is taking his cue from the Olympics, in which Coca-Cola, for example, paid $12.6 million to become the "official" Olympic soft drink. But he's finding that this approach may not be as successful in baseball. There could scarcely be an "official" major league beer when two teams, the Cardinals and the Blue Jays, are owned by separate breweries.
Ueberroth discontinued baseball's longtime association with Sport magazine (which gives a Ford to the World Series MVP) but struck a deal with Chevrolet to have a car donated to the MVP's favorite charity. Rolaids (Relief Man Award) and Gillette (All-Star fan balloting) were also dropped, on grounds that such close corporate identification commercialized the awards. In fact, in Gillette's case, baseball simply wanted more money. The razor-blade company, which will still continue its 46-year-old promotional association with the World Series, paid baseball $100,000 in licensing fees for the right to publish and distribute the All-Star ballots. The company's total expenditure on the project may have run as high as a million dollars. Baseball wanted Gillette to cough up more for the balloting rights, but they couldn't come to terms. But no other company can take on the fan balloting until 1989. Baseball must either issue its own ballots at considerable expense or do away with that method of voting.
"Peter came into office encumbered by some historical baggage," says Roy Eisenhardt, president of the Oakland A's. "The fan has no forum, the Players Association views its role as adversarial, and ownership is inexperienced in subordinating self-interest to the overall interest of the game. With these initial handicaps, it's hard for anybody to bring about rapid change. But I think Peter has shown that he's clearly not beholden to ownership. He's taken distinctly different positions on several key issues, labor policies being one. And, personally, I think he's correct. Ultimately, the commissioner's office should be looked upon as an independent authority balancing the competing interests of fans, owners and players." Said another big league executive, "He's been a very positive influence if for no other reason than his willingness to ride roughshod over the owners.... What people like most about him is that he's a doer."
Ueberroth has described himself as "the fans' commissioner," an observation that moved former players union chief Marvin Miller to inquire, "What fans elected him?" And, as one executive said, winning the owners' disapproval can only be a public relations plus because most people hate owners anyway. But then, public relations coups are a specialty of Ueberroth's, along with grand gestures unburdened by details. He's the man, after all, who in his book—No. 14 on The New York Times bestseller list—perpetuates the fiction that the L.A. Olympics didn't cost taxpayers a dime when, in fact, government outlays for security and other purposes came to $65 million. Ueberroth obviously leads a charmed life: He fought in vain against the Soviet-led boycott of those Games and then watched as the boycott resulted in more U.S. victories and higher TV ratings and helped make the event the patriotic and commercial blockbuster it was. No wonder nobody is ruling out the possibility that Ueberroth will eventually get the drug-testing program he wants. And no wonder even the guy who said he didn't want to be stranded with him on a desert island conceded that maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all, because if anybody could find a way out of that predicament, Peter Ueberroth could.