BUD SELIG had been working for a day like Thursday, Oct. 2, for many of the nearly 50 years he has spent in Major League Baseball, the last 22 as commissioner. He had long promoted what he calls his Hope and Faith Theory, which stresses the importance of creating a system that would allow fans of every club—not just the rich ones—to believe, for as long as possible, that they had a chance of winning it all too. Now small-market teams appeared to, due in large measure to significant changes in revenue sharing and playoff format that Selig had succeeded in enacting. This year's wild-card games included financial bottom dwellers like the A's and the Pirates, and minutes away was the start of the division series round that would feature the similarly shallow-pocketed Orioles and Royals. Baltimore's Chris Tillman was about to throw the first pitch of his club's opening game against the Tigers, and Selig, who is 80, planned to watch it from his office on the 30th floor of Milwaukee's tallest building. There was just one problem.
This is an article from the Oct. 20, 2014 issue
"Mary!" he called out to his longtime assistant, Mary Burns, as he punched buttons on his television's remote control and pointed it at a stubbornly black screen. "This silly television set of Mary's. I blame Mary for the television. Mary! Terrible television set. You see, I am technologically illiterate." Soon Mary appeared and gently took the remote. "Let's go to three, huh?" Selig said.
This is the Bud Selig that much of the public imagines. Befuddled, as he appeared in perhaps the most famous photo taken of him, in which he is standing, frowning, with his palms open to the sky, his tie too long and too wide and his trousers wrinkled, before declaring that the 2002 All-Star Game would end in the one result for which baseball's rules do not allow: a draw.
Yet while Selig can come across as a bumbler, underneath that veneer is one of sports' shrewdest power brokers. As he enters the final months of his often criticized commissionership—he will retire in January, to teach and to write a book with the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin—his sport is, in most ways that matter, more prosperous than ever. The last decade has produced all 10 of the best-attended seasons ever, driven, in part, by what has appeared to be the advent of competitive balance. The league, whose history is pocked with damaging work stoppages, is about to complete its 20th straight season of labor peace. Then there is the money. When Selig, the founding owner of the Brewers, took over from deposed commissioner Fay Vincent in 1992—first in an acting role and since '98 in a permanent one—MLB's annual revenues were $1.2 billion. The game's financial health was imperiled both by uneasy relations between the clubs and their players, and between the clubs themselves. This year revenues will approach $9 billion, an ever-increasing portion of that derived from a technology arm, MLB Advanced Media, that is the envy of the sports industry.
Selig not only has trouble turning on his TV but also has proudly never sent an email. "You don't have to know how to make a watch," says Jerry Reinsdorf, the longtime owner of the White Sox, "in order to head up a watch company."
Baseball has never ticked more reliably than it has under Selig's leadership. His detractors argue that it has done so in spite of him, that all major American sports leagues have experienced exponential revenue growth during the past few decades. Selig's message to them would be the same as the one engraved on a plaque that sits on the front of a desk that features piles of papers—he has been reviewing old files and correspondence, as his job nears its end—but, of course, no computer. ILLEGITIMUS NON CARBORUNDUM, the plaque reads. Don't let the bastards get you down.
The bastards have included all those—journalists, opponents at the bargaining table, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (who has twice failed in his attempt to buy an MLB club and has become outspokenly anti-Bud)—who have billed Selig as a car salesman who oversaw the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, sat back as the chemical bloom of steroids pervaded his league (only cracking down once it seemed possible that the problem might overwhelm his legacy) and engaged in various types of cronyism. Yet the topic of regrets is not one to which Selig gives much thought. "I don't really have many of those," he says. Yes, there are things he wished had turned out differently—but no, there isn't a course of action he can imagine having personally taken to have avoided similar outcomes.
"You have to learn in this kind of life that no matter what you do, somebody's going to be mad," Selig says. "And you just gotta accept that."
Selig's rumpled bearing, as well as his rambling, digressive style of public speaking, have only fueled his critics' rancor. And yet the idea that Major League Baseball would be healthier, or even as healthy, had someone else been running it for the last 22 years is a fundamentally unprovable counterfactual. What is fact is that the league's current, successful model is Selig's legacy—and that despite his image, he has done more to shape his sport than perhaps any other baseball commissioner. Says Yankees president Randy Levine, "I think Bud is a bit of a substance-over-form guy."
MOST EVERYONE'S appraisal of Bud Selig begins with a simple truth: He deeply loves baseball and always has. Selig views the game as a thread that connects many of his life's milestones. He was out on a Milwaukee diamond on April 12, 1945, with his childhood friend Herbie—Herb Kohl, who would go on to be his fraternity brother at the University of Wisconsin and then a four-term U.S. senator and the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks—when their mothers came out to tell them that President Roosevelt had died. ("Upwardly mobile, middle-class people," Kohl says of Selig's parents, Ben and Marie, who like his own parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe.) Selig loved the game when he was selling cars at his father's dealership and simultaneously trying to do all he could to keep the Milwaukee Braves from leaving town. Four seasons after the Braves left for Atlanta, he purchased the bankrupt Seattle Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee, renaming them the Brewers. It was 1970, and he was 35 years old.
At times Selig loved baseball too much. In proceedings that would lead to the dissolution of his marriage to his first wife, Donna Chaimson, in 1976, the judge told Selig that he had been "unduly absenting yourself from the home of the parties and isolating yourself ... in pursuit of your baseball interests to the detriment of your marriage."
"From the day that Bud became involved in baseball, he divorced me and married baseball," said Donna at the time.
"Yeah, Donna said that, and in the retrospect of history, I won't quarrel with that," Selig says. "There's no doubt that I devoted my whole life to getting a team and then having it." (Selig has been happily married to his second wife, Sue, for 37 years, and he is close to his children, two daughters from his first marriage and his stepdaughter.)
There are, of course, millions of people who are passionate about baseball, sometimes to their personal detriment, but most never own a team, let alone become the commissioner. Yet when Bill Bartholomay—who had spearheaded the Braves' move out of Milwaukee before the 1966 season and therefore might have become a lifelong nemesis of Selig's—chaired the committee that searched for Vincent's replacement during a deeply contentious era, he and his fellow executives kept coming back to one name. "He really was the right man at the right time for that job," says Bartholomay. "It was Churchillian. He was the only one who could at that time have received enough votes to be elected commissioner."
Churchillian? Bud? It took more than an abiding love of baseball to receive that sort of mandate. It took influence and credibility, at least among the voters—his fellow owners. More than that, it took power, but a specific type of power. "Commissioners are expected to be authoritarian and precise in how they rule and in the justice they provide for the industry," says Terry McGuirk, the Braves' chairman and CEO. "They're sort of judgelike. That is not Bud Selig. Bud Selig is all about figuring out solutions to intractable problems, bringing sides together.... Much of the time, power is wielded so much more effectively when it isn't displayed."
When Selig assumed office—and that he was permitted to rule from Milwaukee and not New York City was one sign of how deep his power ran from the start—he immediately made it clear that he would be a new type of commissioner. He dispensed with the charade, still maintained in some other sports, that a commissioner is a neutral arbitrator, standing both between and above a league's owners and its players. "In the old days commissioners kind of pretended that the economic interests of teams and owners of teams, and making a lot of money, was not front and center," says Levine. "It was just this 'integrity of the game' type of thing. Where Bud really did a great job was to protect the game from an integrity standpoint, while also really becoming a CEO and leading it to astounding financial heights."
Even the players' union begrudgingly valued the new transparency. "There is now an appreciation for the commissioner being a representative of the clubs, and obviously the Players Association being the representative of the players," says new MLBPA chief Tony Clark. "I don't know if there's any gray area as far as that representation. As much as anything, with those brighter lines, the dialogue it has led to at the bargaining table is reflective of that understanding. We have collectively been able to have dialogue against that backdrop over the last 20 years that has usually proven beneficial to the industry."
With the very nature of the commissioner's role redefined—a development that was most likely necessary as the sport transitioned from profitable pastime to major industry—it was time for Selig to push for the changes he believed necessary to modernize an innately conservative business. His guiding principle was simple: He would do what he thought was right for the game. What he thought was right was to reform baseball's economic structure—a long-term effort that would most obviously benefit the owners, via the escalating valuations of their franchises, but would also benefit the players and the game he loved.
At first Selig's tenure seemed destined for disaster. The players went on strike in 1994, wiping out the World Series for the first time in 90 years; they mistrusted Selig's promotion of a salary cap, as well as Selig himself, for his suspected role in the mid-1980s collusion by owners to hold down the value of free-agent contracts. (The league was eventually compelled to pay affected players $280 million in damages; Selig has never admitted a personal role.) The owners of the big-market clubs balked at the very idea of revenue sharing. Traditionalists hated the introduction of the wild card, which they asserted devalued the regular season. "The '90s were particularly tough, because I was doing things that weren't popular," Selig says. "I knew they had to be done. But it's interesting how life works out, because years later everyone accepts them, and they're happy. 'Oh,' they say, 'you knew what you were doing.' That's what they weren't saying in the '90s."
It takes time for the results of Selig's kind of power to reveal themselves, and patience. Patience Selig had. "He sat outside more meeting rooms and had more doors slammed in his face than any other man within memory," the baseball executive Peter Bavasi once said of Selig's half-decade effort to land the Brewers. "We'd look behind a potted palm, and there'd be Buddy."
"I understood that if you wanted to get people to cooperate, it may be a slower, evolutionary process, but it was the way to get things done," Selig says. "It would take longer. And it may be more difficult. But my style, which was oft criticized as too slow and too cautious, led to 30-to-nothing votes and led to revenue sharing and the wild card and so many other things. There's no way you could have just come in there and say, Bang, let's do it. I was very cautious. And here I am, responsible for most of the changes in baseball over the last 20 years, more changes than ever before. But not without a lot of pain."
As he was being publicly excoriated, Selig worked the phones, convincing the league's owners—rich and proud men whose agendas often seemed diametrically opposed—to see things his way, no matter how long it took. He led the push for interleague play as early as 1973, as the Brewers owner; the first game did not occur until nearly a quarter-century later. Reinsdorf has said that Selig might have made a fine Senate majority leader, in another life.
"He has a unique ability to get along with people and bring them into the process," says Reinsdorf. "He would never go forward, asking for a vote, until he knew he had virtually unanimous support. The way he did that was by talking to people in advance, cajoling. If they agreed with him, fine. If they didn't, he'd explain to them why they're wrong."
George Steinbrenner's Yankees had more green-backed reasons than any other club to resist Selig's push for revenue sharing, but in 1996 they agreed to a comprehensive plan for it that has only escalated over time. "Others who didn't have this unique unifying ability would not have been able to get it done," says Levine. "On all the economic issues, the fight was always to take more of our money, in aspect after aspect. Revenue sharing, luxury tax, Internet rights, you name it. But Bud convinced us.
"I think he's the greatest commissioner who ever held the job," Levine continues. "It all comes down to his personal quality of being able to hold, like no one ever did in the history of sports, all 30 owners together in a unified fashion throughout the 23 years or so of his commissionership."
Not long ago Fay Vincent, his vanquished predecessor, pushed out via a vote of no confidence, called Selig the "Rocky Marciano of baseball politics." As a heavyweight fighter, Marciano was undefeated.
IN HIS office in Milwaukee, with its expansive views of Lake Michigan, Selig talks about the idea of regrets, of which he has so few. He explains that this is partly because of his commitment to taking the long view. His positions, he says, have always been extensively deliberated, though they sometimes evolve; he was once firmly against both an expanded playoff structure and instant replay. By the time things happen, he can't fault his own process, even in retrospect.
The strike in 1994? "I've agonized over the 1994 World Series," he says. "Agonized over it. But I don't know what I could have done. It was the eighth work stoppage of my career, the previous seven of which were not under me. And it was painful. But ..." he trails off. "I understand people have different opinions."
The steroid era, to which critics say he didn't react quickly enough? "The union—they were outspoken, bitter," he says, of an issue that can most fairly be blamed on both the owners and the union, neither of whom were initially incentivized to crack down. "I'm proud of the fact that we wound up with the toughest testing program in sports. Yes, I know there are some people who say we didn't act fast enough. I believe that's a historical myth."
What about the unprecedented PED-related suspension of Alex Rodriguez—knocked down by an arbitrator from an initial 211 games to the length of the 2014 season—which came after an investigation of sometimes questionable tactics (including the alleged purchasing of evidence), leading many to assume that it was designed to make amends for the era of McGwire and Sosa? "There were a lot of factors that entered into it, including, quite frankly, [Rodriguez] trying to interfere with the whole process, which he shouldn't do. I'm not going to treat anybody any differently. I've often said, a drug program is only as good as its enforcement. We went after him because the facts dictated it."
Still, Selig has no objection to Rodriguez's return to the Yankees, next spring. "That's fine—he should come back, and I have no problem with that at all," he says. "It'll be very interesting."
Levine, of the Yankees, has no argument against how the commissioner's office disciplined his third baseman. "I think they dealt with it exactly the right way," he says. "They followed the basic agreement, and they followed all the procedures. They handled it the way they should have." It must be noted that the way they handled it allowed Levine's club to save some $25 million in salary to an aging and unpopular player.
Selig's recent decisions have not often been challenged by clubs who came to realize that his will would usually correspond with their own enrichment, but one was: his support for Rob Manfred, the 56-year-old longtime MLB executive, as his successor. The 78-year-old Reinsdorf, traditionally a Selig backer, endorsed Tom Werner, who, before he became the owner of the Padres and then a co-owner of the Red Sox, had been the executive producer of hit television shows such as The Cosby Show and Roseanne. Baseball has a demographics problem—its fans are aging, and its popularity among certain groups, such as African-Americans, is declining—and Reinsdorf thought Werner could provide a solution. "When I looked at Tom Werner's career, I saw somebody who had huge successes in television," Reinsdorf says. "Which meant that he had his finger on the pulse of what Americans like. That was his best characteristic.
"I didn't oppose Rob Manfred; I supported Tom Werner," he continues. "There's a difference. And Bud didn't agree with me. But he understands that as long as you show respect for the other person, you don't have to agree with him."
Selig had won virtually every fight in which he'd engaged in baseball, while often making it seem as if he wasn't fighting at all. He won this one too. Manfred eventually won the vote, by the usual Seligian consensus of 30--0. Reinsdorf fell into line, with no hard feelings.
"He wasn't always right," Reinsdorf says, of Selig's tenure, "but he was right enough."
AS MARY BURNS wrestles with the TV remote, Selig has time to play the role that he will, as of January, permanently reassume: that of a devoted fan. Those who know Selig marvel at his ability to recall the specifics of games he has witnessed, and now he is doing that for the final home at bat of another baseball fixture who is also retiring this year, Derek Jeter, which had occurred one week before.
"Now, here comes Jeter in the last of the ninth," Selig says. "There'd been a base hit, and Brett Gardner bunts the runner to second, which he may not do in any [other] situation. And here's Jeter. And I said to myself—I'm talking to myself at home; I'm often talking to myself—this couldn't be possible, could it? And you know the rest. First pitch, what does he do? He does what he always does. Base hit, goes to rightfield. Wins the game. Look, I like other sports. But there are moments in baseball history, in my life, that you just never forget."
Finally, the correct combination of buttons has been pressed, and the TV screen shows Chris Tillman in mid-windup. "Oh, the game has started?" Selig says. "Oh. Oh."