It is harder to hold an election in baseball than outside," said Commissioner Ford Frick last week as the lords of the game sat in plenary, cursory session in Dearborn, Mich. to consider his successor. "The problem is these fellows all know each other."
Mr. Frick, the most positive-thinking of men, may not have been suggesting that baseball's owners mistrust each other, but there have been other indications that this is so. Reluctance to place the commissioner's power in the hands of a fellow owner could be one reason why the selection is proceeding so slowly. But the principal reason is that the new commissioner must be just right, a very big man, but not too damned big.
"Kuchel, Calif.," said one of the doodle pads on the green-baize-covered table in the Dearborn Inn. "Dirkson [sic]," said another. "Potter Stewart." Names like Nixon, White, Shriver and McNamara were chewed with the cold cuts at lunch. Baseball was aiming presumptuously high for the status symbol it wanted to present to the world.
"It is important to the public interest to have a national figure," said John E. Fetzer, president of the Detroit Tigers and American League member of the two-man committee that had reduced the list of candidates from a gross 150 to "approximately 20."
"But it is not a qualification," added John W. Galbreath, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Fetzer's partner in the process of elimination. "We're dead serious about getting a man who can really do a job for baseball."
This is a time when baseball franchises are moving like medicine shows, when a 15¢ can of beer goes for 45¢ and when day-night "doubleheaders" allow little boys to be bum's-rushed away after a Saturday afternoon game to make room for a new set of paying customers in the evening. But still baseball's statesmen must try to tread the tortuous path between the abstraction that the good old game belongs to the good old fans and the concrete fact that Walter O'Malley and CBS own the ball and bat.
Fetzer, after mentioning that it would be good if the new commissioner were capable of pitching to spots in legislative halls, described baseball's double image—as sport and business—rather well. In choosing a commissioner, he said, baseball ought to be motivated by "enlightened self-interest in the light of public interest."
Loosely translated, this means that the new commissioner ideally would be a man of renown whose positive identity would blend with baseball's—somebody like General Eisenhower. He would also be a man with political influence and a powerful swift sword to strike down those who would impugn baseball's fish-and-foul status before the antitrust laws. Like Bobby Kennedy. And he must never never forget that he is the creature and the instrument of the people who own the ball and bat. Like American League President Joe Cronin, perhaps.
Tough in the legislative halls but oh so gentle about league matters? If such an animal exists, he is not in baseball. But then baseball has pretty well decided—at least for the moment—that it no longer needs, or wants, a baseball man to run the game. Of the 20 eligibles who survived the Dearborn screening, Galbreath said, only three or four were baseball men. It would be "swell," Frick thought, if the man who encompassed all the necessary attributes happened also to know where second base is, but there was the clear implication that this was unlikely.
Once upon a time baseball was a game, and it had this problem: some people dumped a World Series. In the spirit of self-preservation the owners created the office of commissioner and invested it with the powers of a czar. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a tough-minded, spade-calling federal judge, used them accordingly. The old judge may have thrown out a few babies with the bath water (finding a cover-up of players in a team's farm system, he would arbitrarily turn the whole farm system loose), but in his 24-year tenure he made hanky-panky unthinkable. Forever, the owners now assume.
"Baseball no longer needs a policeman," Frick says. "The problems now are business: ownership and management. The game's integrity is beyond question."
Fetzer put it another way: "The integrity of the game is held in impeccable posture. It is a wholesome, clean sport." And a healthy, growing business.
So healthy that in Dearborn the need to reach a decision on who the next commissioner would be did not seem urgent. Most of the doodle pads contained notes like "TWA 4:45" and "United 5:10." The ruling heads of baseball, in convention assembled to create a quasi-messianic figurehead, were already looking for the exits. Fetzer"s briefcase contained, by his own estimate, 30 to 35 pounds of intelligence on potential commissioners, but nobody was clamoring for it.
"We'll probably meet again in September," Galbreath said. "Too many people will be away in August." Meanwhile, Fetzer said, the committee had quite a series of indirect contacts to make. "Yes, indirect," he explained. "We have not subjectively contacted anyone, but there are a lot of ways you can do it. Through a friend you can feel somebody out."
"Some prospects have been eliminated," Galbreath said, "not because of unsuitability but because of unavailability. We don't want to embarrass anybody, and we certainly don't want to be embarrassed."
It was suggested that the size of the salary and the length of the term might affect the availability of a man with the stature the owners have in mind. Pete Rozelle's commonly published $60,000 income as commissioner of the National Football League compares favorably with Frick's $65,000 considering Rozelle's solid tenure and the prosperity of his enterprise. Supreme Court judges don't make that kind of money, but they have life terms.
"We would be in a position to make the position attractive," Galbreath said. But, he added, neither salary nor tenure was discussed at Dearborn. "You have to remember," Galbreath said, "that these men [the owners] arc 20 rugged individualists. It isn't exactly easy for them to reach agreement."
Rugged individualists do not generally gravitate toward other rugged individualists—a fact that certainly militates against a man like Bill Shea, for example. More vividly than his work to create the New York Mets, the owners recall his struggle to found the Continental League, a project they effectively throttled. Shea is out.
So, probably, is Bob Cannon, the Milwaukee Municipal Court judge who has demonstrated his capacity for getting things done as counsel to the Baseball Players Association. Cannon's credentials are impressive, and one thing he has going for him is the support of Boston Red Sox Owner Tom Yawkey. Unlike many of his lodge brothers, however, Yawkey does not regard baseball players as his natural economic enemies. Cannon's identification with the cause of the players and his gentle firmness have probably done him in.
In feeling out the remainder of their nonbaseball Who's Who, Fetzer and Galbreath—as ruggedly individualistic as any of the owners—may encounter the same rugged individualism that gave their men of stature stature. If this is the case, it will be as Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick said of Herbert Hoover's nomination in 1928: the man will not do.
Baseball could pick the most valuable man, or the most malleable. The candidates haven't been completely evaluated, but the qualifications have and, if baseball remains in character, malleability will win out. This probably means that when the McNamaras, Dirksens, Whites and Kennedys have all been discarded, Joe Cronin will remain, a baseball man after all. But you might put a hedge bet on Richard Nixon. He's always a candidate.
Dodgers' Bavasi and Orioles' MacPhail are two of the four baseball men with a chance.
Players' counsel, Judge Robert Cannon, and Bill Shea are too individualistic to be elected.
Still the odds-on favorite for the job is Joe Cronin, a man cast in the Ford Frick mold.
If the owners finally decide on a political figure. Dick Nixon may get his turn at bat.