Someday they'll write cases about him at the Harvard Business School: about the businessman who took on a new job in a new field, tamed the raging egos of his 26 bosses, turned his industry's losses into unexpected prosperity and did it all while keeping his public image shining as bright as a new penny.
If baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who keeps the tally of his accomplishments as close at hand as Wade Boggs does his hitting statistics, were to write the case himself, it would read something like this: 21 money-losing teams when he took office, none as he leaves four years later; a doubling of national television revenue, which will mean an average of nearly $15 million annually for each team over four years; a 16-fold increase in licensing income from merchandise related to Major League Baseball.
And, he would probably add, a few nonfinancial benefits, too: only one day's games lost to strike, lockout or other work stoppage during his tenure; a sharp decline in headline-making drug cases; ticket prices increasing at a rate less than inflation's; soaring attendance (including two seasons, 1986 and 1987, when every team drew at least a million fans); industry-wide attention focused on racial imbalance in front-office hiring. It's true: Ueberroth, who stepped down as commissioner on April 1, can even take credit for the fallout from an aging general manager's foolish comments on late-night TV; Peter Ueberroth knows how to turn almost any situation to his own advantage.
Fortunately, what was to Ueberroth's advantage over the past four years—ever since he rode into baseball on the handsome white steed acquired during the Los Angeles Olympics—was largely to baseball's advantage, too. To a job previously occupied by the ineffectual (Bowie Kuhn), the invisible (General William "The Unknown Soldier" Eckert), the inconsequential (Ford Frick) and the incomprehensible (Happy Chandler), Ueberroth brought an authority, an effectiveness and a public visibility that matched those of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the man for whom the job was invented in 1920.
April 9, 1989
Like Landis, who embarked upon his job when baseball was reeling from the scandal of the Black Sox, Ueberroth entered office at a time when the game was in a desperate state. In fact, it was his artful—and necessary—manipulation of this desperation that made nothing Ueberroth did during his entire term so meaningful as what he did before he even assumed control in 1984. For 23 months, Kuhn had been twisting in the wind, his re-election blocked by a small handful of dissident owners. Kuhn agreed to extension after extension of his contract, all the while making it clear, to anyone who asked, that the game's very structure made it impossible for any commissioner truly to rule. "Baseball can't restructure until it has a commissioner," Kuhn said, "and it might not be able to get a commissioner until it has restructured." The game's system of governance had become a management expert's nightmare, with the ostensible boss—the commissioner—at the bottom of an inverted pyramid, crushed under the various whims of the 26 team owners.
While Kuhn lingered, Lee Iacocca, Alexander Haig, James Baker and Jack Valenti, among others, surfaced in the press amidst speculation concerning his possible replacement. But the cry for Ueberroth as the game's only possible savior became a crescendo. It was a cry fostered by such enlightened owners as the search committee chairman, the Milwaukee Brewers' Bud Selig, who had seen his friend Kuhn eviscerated in his effort to hold on to the job. It was a cry abetted by the press coverage that had made Ueberroth a national hero following his success with the Olympics (he was TIME'S Man of the Year for 1984)—coverage all the while brilliantly manipulated by Ueberroth himself.
As masterful with the press as he was frequently disdainful of it, Ueberroth made it publicly clear he would only take the job if the pyramid was turned right side up and full authority was placed in his hands. He insisted on having all baseball departments report directly to him, on having the subordination of the league offices to the commissioner's office and on having an expansion of the commissioner's protection from legal action brought by the clubs. He was the prettiest girl in the senior class playing hard to get. After the long public courtship—during which it became clear that failing to meet Ueberroth's list of demands would establish that the owners were not serious about hiring the man who was obviously the best candidate—the owners finally gave him everything he wanted.
"Ueberroth knew how badly baseball wanted him," Chicago White Sox board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said at the time, "and he would have been dumb if he hadn't demanded the right to dictate the terms under which he would accept."
His detractors have called Ueberroth many things—arrogant, abrasive and motivated only by self-interest, for three—but no one ever called him dumb. Within hours of assuming the job on Oct. 1, 1984, the new commissioner set out to establish his independence from the men who had begged him to take the job. As his first act in office, he gave the umpires' bumptious union chief, Richie Phillips, a fat settlement to end the wildcat strike that threatened that year's playoffs. Ueberroth awarded the umps—to the accompanying yelps of the owners—more than double their previous compensation for postseason work.
He slapped errant clubs with unheard-of fines, and almost every time it happened news of the fine somehow leaked to the press. Publicly he suggested that the owners had been both backward and unfair in their dealings with the Players Association, and he made a habit of reminding interviewers that many of the owners didn't like him. "I think he liked to exaggerate how he was making a lot of enemies," one prominent player agent said recently, "but the pose didn't hurt." And like so many of the stratagems he deployed, the tactic worked. Ueberroth was able to separate himself in the public mind (and even in the players' minds) from the owners' worst tendencies, and he increased his strength at each juncture.
More than any of his other acts in office, it was his two interventions in the labor strife of 1985 that cemented both Ueberroth's freedom from the owners and his authority over them. "If Peter thinks he can settle this like he settled the umpires' strike," a general manager told SI at the time, "he's smoking something." But Ueberroth's grip on reality was unassailable, and by then he knew precisely how to pull baseball's strings. First, he ordered the owners to open their books, a move that earned him the players' gratitude and simultaneously established that, while 21 of 26 clubs were losing money, the owners were not in nearly the perilous condition they had claimed to be.
Later that summer, as the players prepared to walk off the field, Ueberroth entered the negotiations by his usual vehicle, the newspapers. At a press conference he called the owners' latest offer "frivolous," chastised them for asking the players to solve management's problems and offered his own settlement suggestions. "He double-crossed us," one owner told The New York Times, as if the very idea seemed impossible.
When the strike was settled the day after it began—on terms remarkably close to those Ueberroth had proposed—the commissioner declined credit. "I want you to know very clearly that I had no role," he said at the time. But the images on the evening news spoke louder than his denials: The man on the white horse, it seemed, had knocked together the heads of the greedy players and the stingy owners and brought peace to the land.
Ueberroth's nearly supernatural feel for public relations enabled him to deny credit precisely as the world showered it upon him. It was a tactic he used throughout his term as commissioner: the artful creation of public perceptions, with ripples that carried behind closed doors. Not only did he boast about the enemies he had made in ownership, but he also praised the Players Association whenever he could (to this day, he ascribes to the players and their leadership the sharp decline in drug problems inside the game). Most notably, Ueberroth and his staff perfected a technique that might make him more qualified for public office than even his greatest boosters would think: the controlled news leak, which time and again enabled him to fight his internal battles with public opinion on his side.
All along, what Ueberroth was fostering was the notion of go-to-hellability. If the owners didn't like what he did, he would publicly pack his bag and walk away from it all. Imagine the headlines—COMMISH BLAMES OWNERS FOR MESS; the stories that might have followed, as the owners had good reason to fear, would have made a Hollywood kiss-and-tell look tame by comparison. It also didn't hurt that throughout his tenure, press speculation about Ueberroth's other opportunities ran rampant, a constant reminder to the owners that they didn't hold the leash. He was going to run for U.S. senator in California; President Ronald Reagan was going to make him the drug czar; he was a possible Republican vice-presidential candidate for '88; he was going to bring to this or that Fortune 500 company the same Midas touch he had bestowed upon the L.A. Olympics. Ueberroth didn't need the baseball job, each rumor established, and he certainly didn't need it if the owners were going to make life hard for him.
At the same time, no one could question his stewardship on economic grounds. Early on, he gave up on his one unattainable goal—full sharing of local broadcast revenues, which would have created economic parity between the major-market New Yorks and the small-scale Cincinnatis of the baseball world. But the same owners who, in 1985, projected cumulative losses of $420 million by 1988, saw losses evaporate and some $209 million in profits accrue instead.
Even if only inferentially, the fans came to share in the profits, too. If the millions of us who follow baseball don't really care whether or not Gene Autry gets richer, we can at least appreciate that ticket prices remained relatively stable. If our sensibilities were offended by the seemingly ceaseless penetration of the game by commercial sponsorships, it was certainly worth the price if it helped bring labor peace. And even the stubbornest troglodyte among the owners couldn't complain too much about Ueberroth's private abrasiveness or his shameless use of the public stage; after all, the man did have an alchemist's knack for turning red ink black.
But that didn't necessarily mean Ueberroth could have stayed in the job if he had wanted to. "I think a lot of the owners tired of him," one who is close to baseball's inner circle said a few weeks ago. "He became, if anything, more difficult the longer he was there." The price of having things your own way—the tariff on go-to-hellability—is that you can't kill your parents and then ask for mercy because you're an orphan.
Then again, one general manager who has no love for Ueberroth says, "No, I don't think he had the votes to stay. But I'll tell you this—if he had wanted to stay, he would have found a way to get those votes. It's not always pretty to watch, but this guy knows how to get what he wants."
There are two singular blots on Ueberroth's record, and the mention of either of them makes him bristle. Not only does he not accept blame for the charges of collusion by the owners (confirmed by two arbitrators), he does not even acknowledge that collusion took place—a stance worthy of the Flat Earth Society. No one who wasn't a member of ownership between 1985 and 1987 knows exactly what was said about free-agent salaries at baseball's private conclaves. Still, not only did a severe case of caution seem to afflict every single club while stars like Jack Morris, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines went begging for offers, but an examination of figures released by the commissioner's office also reveals that during the very years Ueberroth was leading the game to record profitability, players' salary increases somehow decelerated to their lowest rate in the free-agent era. In fact, during a year when Ueberroth says the owners were not colluding, player salaries defied economic gravity; they went down.
The other instance in which Ueberroth was wanting was in his feel for the game on the field. Here, too, his combativeness, usually banked in public, comes to the fore. At a press conference he held in Fort Lauderdale on March 9, someone asked the commissioner what, of all the things written about him, had bothered him the most. "The folks who said that because I am a corporate type. I didn't love the game," Ueberroth intoned. Then, more snappishly, "That simply is not true."
Yet it's difficult to find anyone in the operational ranks of baseball—general managers, farm directors, scouts—who would offer that the but-toned-down Ueberroth had any more feel for baseball than the average guy in a suit whose company owns season tickets to a pair of boxes behind the visiting dugout. (At the Fort Lauderdale press conference, Ueberroth actually boasted about the increasing number of Sunday night games.)
Indeed, if one were to list the people in the game with whom Ueberroth got on best, player agents—independent capitalist buccaneers like himself—would rank high. "Our side will miss him," says agent Randy Hendricks of Houston, who with his brother Alan represents Boston Red Sox ace Roger Clemens, Toronto Blue Jay outfielder George Bell and Minnesota Twins reliever Jeff Reardon, among other players. "We knew we could talk to him."
But as the consummate independent capitalist rides this week into the California sunset, he should be forgiven for his apparent "aloofness from what's between the white lines," as one general manager puts it. For in establishing the commissioner's dominance over the owners, Ueberroth has built an ideal throne for his successor, A. Bartlett Giamatti. No one can ever doubt Giamatti's passion for the game, and if he uses the power that Ueberroth left him, he might embody the two best personalities one could ask for in a commissioner: a baseball dictator and a baseball poet.
In fact, as Ueberroth leaves for one of the various futures reportedly beckoning him—savior of Eastern Airlines, governor of California, CEO of MGM/UA—he may have just made a valedictory contribution as momentous as the one he engineered when he took the job. On March 8, two days before the owners held their last meeting of the Ueberroth Era, the Associated Press reported that not a single major league franchise lost money in 1988, and that collectively the 26 teams earned a single-year operating profit of $100 million. And this is before the monster new television contracts with CBS and ESPN begin to kick in.
The AP story implied that the number came from an unauthorized leak (if you believe that....), but Ueberroth was more than happy to confirm the figure at his press conference the next day. As he did, one could nearly hear the blood vessels popping in the brains of the hard-line owners. Greed and simple bullheadedness notwithstanding, it will now be very hard for ownership to claim poverty when contract talks with the players begin this winter. Even as he was ostensibly saying a quiet goodbye, Peter Ueberroth made sure that the owners were still under his thumb.
Daniel Okrent is the editor of "New England Monthly" and has written numerous books and articles about baseball.