Because he appears to be so ordinary a leader, so humdrum a
personality, so artless a communicator, Bud Selig has been
dismissed by the fans, mocked by the media and reviled by the
players, so that it has generally escaped notice how much has
really taken place on his watch. Baseball's administration has
been reorganized, its divisions reshuffled, its schedule
radicalized, its playoffs pizzazzed. Under his aegis the owners
have been taught, at last, to share (if not to share alike), and
they are more unified than ever before.
Because he has been dismissed by the fans, mocked by the media
and reviled by the players, it has not generally escaped notice
that under his leadership baseball has suffered a work stoppage,
canceled a World Series and seen its salary structure run amok,
its competitive balance leeched away and its labor relations
reduced to a blood feud.
But in the summer of 2002, all that history--Selig's and
baseball's--doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is
whether there will be another strike, another battering of the
public trust. After all, this is not a choice time for endowed
institutions to test the patience of the American citizenry, not
after both the Roman Catholic Church and Wall Street have so
shattered faith. Besides, baseball, which itself poses as
religion and business alike, is already vulnerable enough to
cynicism because of the stench of drugs that clings to its
So, practically and emotionally, baseball has very little wiggle
room--and, fair or not, Bud Selig knows that if a strike is
averted, he will get the credit, and if owners and the union
step off into the abyss together again, he will forever be the
one who takes the blame.
The suite of offices of the commissioner of baseball is so grand
that the commissioner doth protest (perhaps too much) that he
should reside in such spacious splendor. "This is inconsistent
with the rest of my life," Bud Selig poor-mouths, there in his
30th-floor aerie, in the tallest building in Milwaukee, looking
out over the city's new art museum just below and, at some
remove, a flat Midwestern vista with smokestacks that emit and
interstates that point and a smooth great lake that stretches
away to the horizon.
On a hazy day, around to the right, you might also see back to
1951, to a sandy-haired young man sitting alone on a dirt pile,
watching County Stadium being built--an edifice that when
constructed would entice the Boston Braves to uproot and move to
Milwaukee (the first franchise in half a century to be
transplanted), thereby changing baseball forever. In the long
run the move would make life better for Milwaukee but much more
difficult for baseball commissioners.
At the moment, though, on the 30th floor, the commissioner, his
assistant, a receptionist and two security officers toil in
tranquility. Usually the commissioner talks endlessly on the
telephone to the delegates of his baseball federation, all the
while imbibing Diet Cokes, the one after the other. This is the
height of apostasy, since Pepsi is a sponsor of Major League
Baseball, but, as Bud's wife, Sue, says, "Bud is just so
habitual." He has drunk Diet Cokes--out of glasses or cups,
never out of cans--forever. So, too, every day has he munched on
cold raw vegetables that his assistant, Lori Keck, brings him as
She has been with him for 30 years, having started back when
Selig was owner of the Brewers, a nettlesome crusader who
brought baseball back to his beloved Milwaukee after Atlanta
seduced the Braves away. Back then Selig's office was hardly
more than a dusky cubbyhole in the nether reaches of County
Stadium, and he was viewed by his amused owner-colleagues as no
more than an eager young pup who could recite baseball arcana
just like the actual fans do. No one could have imagined that
this unobtrusive backbencher would eventually emerge as not only
the commissioner with the most authority ever but also as a
zealot determined to match the union in adamantine righteousness.
Still, some things never change. When he breaks for lunch every
day, the commissioner gets in his Lexus, and, listening to Sarah
Brightman, he drives back near to where the new Miller Park is,
where County Stadium stood before it was demolished, to the
Gilles Frozen Custard stand on West Bluemound Road. There he
orders a hot dog with ketchup and (of course) a Diet Coke, which
he consumes in his car, away from the hurly-burly, reading
newspapers. According to Ms. Keck, "Once in a blue moon he
orders a grilled-cheese sandwich." Variety is, after all, the
spice of life. Fridays he drives over to get his hair cut at
Tony Lococo's. Before Tony cut his hair, habitually, Fridays,
Tony's father did.
Some days there is excitement for the few denizens of the 30th
floor, as owners arrive in Milwaukee from Shangri-las afar for a
meeting. Or the commissioner's subalterns have flown in from
baseball's headquarters, on Park Avenue in New York City. Alas,
that address is what Sue Selig had envisioned when the owners
made an honest man of Selig in 1998. At that time, after six
years as acting commissioner, they excised the qualifier and
formally made Buddy the ninth official czar of the national
pastime. Anyway, sighs Sue, "I thought we'd be lucky enough to
move to New York." But Bud Selig was born and bred in Milwaukee,
sallying out only to bivouac nearby in Madison for college, and
he remains forever a Cheesehead. Well, there is a nice symbolism
to it. Maybe he who runs the national pastime should be Main
Street, not Park Avenue. Commissioner? One almost expects to see
this, below a transom, upon a frosted glass door:
Bud Selig, Prop.
And so the owners trek to Milwaukee. The mountain comes to
Wayfarers enter a circular reception area with a round rug
depicting a baseball. They may sit upon a bench made of bats and
bases, there to read baseball history books and view other
memorabilia of the diamond. In New York the walls of the
headquarters feature rows of television monitors and glitzy
displays, baseball as glamour. In Milwaukee the presentation is
more homespun, baseballiana. The 30th-floor suite is found, you
see, at the confluence of the man and his love.
Bud Selig has an adoration for baseball. Admire him or detest
him, this is the first thing anybody says about Bud Selig.
Baseball was even the corespondent in his divorce from his first
wife. "From the day that Bud became involved in baseball, he
divorced me and married baseball," the first Mrs. Selig, Donna,
swore to the court in 1976. The judge agreed, declaring that her
husband had "unduly absent[ed] himself from the home of the
parties and isolat[ed] himself...in pursuit of his baseball
interests to the detriment of his marriage."
So the artifacts on display on the 30th floor are testament to
the love that dares shout Play ball!, interspersed with certain
telling mementos of the man himself. Let us inspect them now.
First, in the entrance area, encased in glass upon the wall, is
a black Louisville Slugger, Allan H. Selig model. That is the
signature found on official major league baseballs, too, even
if, as the commissioner testifies, no one since his sixth-grade
teacher has called him Allan.
Bud. It is such a very uncommissionerish moniker. Hiya, Bud.
Bud, yo, you. Fill it up, Bud. But Selig is genuinely
comfortable with being Bud, or, in the affectionate diminutive,
Buddy. After all, he has had the name all his life, since the
very day he was born, when his mother, Marie, advised his older
brother, "Now you have a buddy." Marie Selig was so very
prescient. Her son's success is, at the nub, based on his being
a pal, a chum. He is the quintessential...buddy.
Says Fred Wilpon, the co-owner of the New York Mets, "Buddy
connects with people. He is patient and willing to listen to
other points of view. We've had lots of things to be really
angry about, too. But there has not been one day--one day--of
acrimony with Buddy. He is what he is."
And what, exactly, is that? Exhibit A is displayed prominently
upon a wall in another room, where owners and other petitioners
relax while awaiting an audience. It is a gauche certificate
attesting to the fact that Commissioner Selig has been selected
to appear in Who's Who in America. Here, surely, is the sign of
the insecure Selig, the son of immigrants; the shy outsider, the
Jew; the Midwesterner; the (in baseball lingo) small-market guy;
the neo-Babbitt, whose family fortune comes from selling cars.
As Groucho Marx might say, if you have to proclaim that you made
Who's Who, maybe you really aren't a who after all.
Next, in the commissioner's office itself, at the front of his
desk, facing out to exactly where any journalist will sit to
interrogate him, is too perfectly placed that rather
condescending remark of Teddy Roosevelt's, the one that
belittles the score-keepers of society ("It is not the critic
who counts") while elevating the bolder man who puts himself on
the line, down "in the arena." Selig was no good at sports, but
he is a very competitive sort, damn proud to be down in the
arena and, in singular contradiction to his reputation as an
accommodator, unafraid to bark back at those picayune bystanders
who dare carp at him. His wife refuses to read anything about
Bud, lest she encounter a negative report, but he searches out
his reviews--"I'm just a masochist, I guess," he says--and then,
unlike most public figures, picks up the phone and challenges
his critic. "The people who have raised the most hell are those
who don't know me," he says. "I just can't understand them
But it is in the other wing of the suite, in the conference
room, above the great long table where the owners convene, that
the most revealing framed statement hangs. It is written out as
a poem, but there is no rhyme or rhythm to it, and capital
letters appear capriciously. It is unattributed (though, in
fact, written by Calvin Coolidge), rough but nonetheless
see-through, an unadulterated ode to Bud Selig.
Nothing in the world can take
The place of Persistence.
Talent will not; Nothing is more
Common than unsuccessful
Men with talent; Genius will not;
Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education alone will not;
The world is full
Of educated derelicts.
Persistence and Determination
Alone are omnipotent.
That is why Bud Selig rose to become commissioner of baseball:
to persist doggedly so that he might save his game from the
financial destruction he is convinced the unforgiving union will
bring down upon it. And, while we're at it, it is also very
likely why George W. Bush became president of the United States
Notwithstanding his naturally sunny constitution--the man was a
car salesman, after all--Selig today is a constant purveyor of
gloom. It drives his alter egos in the players' union crazy,
because, of course, they want the world to think that the well
can never run dry. But, like a Weather Channel announcer
pointing out "watch boxes" around the nation, Selig regularly
cites the latest franchise crises. Hello, Bud, what's new? And
he is off. Well, he just heard from this team. It's losing money
hand over fist. And that one called yesterday: It can't find a
buyer. Neither can this one. It just called again. Team X--Team
X!--just called, and even if it draws x.y million, it loses. The
grim litany is forever upon his lips whenever a Diet Coke is not.
"I know the frustration of the owners," he wails. "I grew up in
this game, and the frustration level has never been so high.
We're whipsawed. We can't make it the way things are. We need a
systemic change. I don't see how anybody can come to any other
conclusion. This game that you and I grew up with can't sustain
itself. That's why I can't have this Scarlett O'Hara thing. I
can't wait until tomorrow." He makes a steeple with his hands,
takes off his glasses, points fingers. "I never said this
before. I shouldn't say this."
"All right, I'll say it. I told the owners not long ago that if
there was one mistake I've made as commissioner, it was that I
should've let a couple teams go bankrupt."
So why didn't you?
"I thought it was bad for baseball."
But now, Selig opines, sadly, bankruptcies might be good for
baseball, because only then will baseball's sneering critics
understand that he is not blowing smoke. Unfortunately, however,
he always must contend with the sins of the fathers. The owners
have cried wolf since time immemorial. They moaned that free
agency would skewer baseball, but in fact the sport's popularity
soared, and a wide cross-section of franchises prospered. Then,
when operating in the thrall of the domineering and distant
Peter Ueberroth (the Commissioner from FedEx, so called), the
owners were caught at collusion. Their pique grew at being
bossed by a disdainful outsider, even as their public laments
rang hollow and they were fined $280 million for their deceit.
So now when things really may be desperate, there is a tendency
to disbelieve the commissioner's bleats--especially since he was
generally regarded as one of the architects of collusion and
since he was himself renowned as Budget Bud and "the best crier
in baseball" long before his colleagues placed his lugubrious
eminence upon the throne.
Forbes, for example, came up with its own rosy figures this
spring, disputing the ones Selig provided under oath to a
Congressional committee, before which he was pilloried and,
essentially, branded a flat-out liar. The esteemed Jesse
Ventura, erstwhile XFL shill and governor of Minnesota--home of
one of the teams the commissioner reportedly planned to
eliminate--sat next to Selig, smirking and sniping at him.
Unlike the overseers of other sports, baseball commissioners
have become figures of fun.
Ironically, the players' association does not dispute Selig's
figures that show a combined $232 million loss for major league
teams in 2001. "However," says Gene Orza, one of the union's
associate general counsels, "the conclusions we reach are quite
different." (Neither Orza nor the union's executive director,
Donald Fehr, would consent to speak about Selig or the ongoing
negotiations.) It is also true that, historically, annual losses
in baseball have been beside the point because owners could
always unload their franchises for huge profits. But now?
"The bigger fool theory!" Selig cries out. "Gone. Gone. There
are just no buyers. Nobody." Softly now, almost a whisper:
The recent sale of the Red Sox for $660 million appeared to
contradict baseball's tales of woe, but, in fact, approximately
$320 million of the purchase price went for 80% of NESN, the New
England Sports Network. Thus, at a time when the NFL sold an
expansion franchise--in fact, just a piece of paper--to Houston
for $700 million, one of the two or three most hallowed
franchises in baseball effectively cost $340 million, including
ownership of a sacred stadium on prime Boston real estate.
Cable television has been, it seems, the poisonous ingredient
that has so fouled fair competition and led to a situation in
which the richest team has local operating revenues 22 times
larger than the poorest. Another more pertinent example: The
Yankees make almost twice as much money from radio as the
Brewers--which remain in the Selig family, now run by Bud's
daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb--make from TV.
For the first time, as labor negotiations intensify, public
perception seems to have shifted, and there is no longer the
glib tendency to cry "a plague on both your houses." More and
more neutral observers are accepting Selig's pessimism. John
Moag, a Baltimore investment banker who specializes in sports
franchises, last year offered a "positive outlook" for baseball.
Now? Because of the looming labor impasse, he says, "Baseball
owners are at the bottom. The curve is very, very bad, because
the sport's economic structure is flawed. If there's a strike,
values will plummet." Moag points out that as recently as 1994,
NFL and MLB franchises were essentially selling for the same
amounts. Since then, football franchises have come to double
baseball franchises in value. Estimates of major league baseball
debt run upward of $3 billion--credit lines primarily arranged
by Selig, as sure as once he could get you GMAC financing for
your new Oldsmobile.
"In a nutshell," Moag writes in his formal report on baseball,
"the failings of baseball are escalating player costs and the
fact that only a small minority of franchises can afford to lure
and/or retain the best players." Sandy Alderson was the
brilliant general manager who built championship teams in
Oakland a decade ago. He left to become a vice president on Park
Avenue because he wearied of the futility of discovering and
showcasing players who would then be U-Hauled away by the richer
teams. "In the old days the Yankees had access to everybody on
the Kansas City roster," Alderson says, with only a touch of
hyperbole. "Now they have access to everybody on every roster."
There have always been poorly managed losing teams, but
ultimately what has changed in baseball, alone among team
sports, is that now only a handful of clubs can give their fans
reasonable hope. To Selig this is essentially a theological
issue, even if it manifests itself as an economic one. After
all, in what is always referred to as "the entertainment world,"
when a fan loses hope nowadays there are simply too many other
diverting options for him to throw his "entertainment dollar"
at. For baseball to survive, Selig believes, it needs greater
revenue-sharing between the haves and the have-nots, as in the
NFL; some kind of ceiling on salaries, as in the NBA; and the
dissolution of up to a half-dozen weak-sister franchises so that
the remaining clubs might thrive.
The players' association is the night nurse that stands in the
way of the game's ingesting all these nostrums. And the players'
association never loses. This time, though, at least the owners
are presenting a fairly united front. "Yeah, we're closer
together now," says Stan Kasten, the Braves' president, "but
that's only because everybody's desperate, and it's gotten like
something out of Kafka."
But if the dismal financial circumstances have created a climate
in which the owners will at last get on the same Kafkaesque
page, it has then been Bud Selig--talking, kibitzing, cajoling,
commiserating--who has brought his company in misery together.
He is of them, he has been with them in the arena--in the
trenches, everyone says melodramatically--and so the owners have
put their trust in their nondescript colleague who has been
belittled as Bud Light and Kenesaw Molehill Landis. Make no
mistake: Bud Selig holds the scepter. "I have more authority
than any other commissioner ever did," he crows, "and I can
count. I have the votes to do what I want to do."
Whoever said, Whatever you do, don't volunteer, never met Bud
Selig. Volunteering has been the key to his ascendancy. While
helping operate his father's automobile agency, he took it upon
himself as a "civic duty" to restore baseball to Milwaukee. In
that chivalrous capacity he chased after expansion franchises
and, after losing out to the likes of Kansas City, Montreal, San
Diego and Seattle, only just failed to get the White Sox to move
90 miles north in 1969. Indeed, most owners had their first
glimpse of the young man as he trailed after them like a nasty
terrier, yipping at them, waiting for them next to the potted
palms as they emerged from another meeting and tried to brush by
him. "Oh, to baseball I was a leper," he admits, rather
That aggressive behavior was foreign to Selig's nature, too.
Although Sue married him in 1977, the two had been friends going
back to high school, and she remembers that when kids gathered
at her house, her mother would ask her, "Who is that shy boy who
always sits in the corner?" That was little Buddy.
It was his own schoolteacher mother who nurtured Buddy's love
for baseball. It was Marie who for his 15th birthday took him to
New York to see the Yankees (and South Pacific). But young Bud
revered his father, Ben, always seeking his approval. After
college he wanted to get his doctorate and become a history
professor, but he gave in to his father's entreaties--"Just give
me one year, Buddy"--tried the family trade and gave up any
dream of academia. "Well, I liked the retail business," he says.
"I like people."
Perhaps only once did he cross his father, and, of course, it
was baseball that led him astray. That was in 1957, when he
played hooky from an accounting class that he needed to pass in
order to work in the automobile agency. Instead, Selig hied
himself to County Stadium, where his heart stilled as he watched
Henry Aaron slug a homer off Billy Muffett (of course he
remembers the pitcher) to send Milwaukee into its first World
Despite this uncharacteristic lapse in discipline, Selig became
an apt businessman, but he found his purpose in life only in the
quest to restore major league baseball to his beloved city. His
persistence paid off when the desultory Seattle Pilots went
belly-up in 1969 and Selig and his partners snatched them out of
bankruptcy court for $10.8 million. "No matter what happens, my
proudest achievement will always be getting the Brewers, getting
a team back to Milwaukee," he says. Perhaps more important, that
giddy success against the odds--Mission Impossible, Milwaukeeans
of little faith had called it--leaves Selig convinced that the
owners can triumph against the union, if only they hold fast
together and persist. "His faith never wavered," Wendy
Selig-Prieb says. "My father was always so sure that he would
get us a team. And I have that child's recollection, which is
why I believe so fervently in him now. He will not back away."
As soon as Selig got his team and was safely ensconced in the
owners' club, he found himself awed by the company. There are
reports, notably in Lords of the Realm, John Helyar's
comprehensive business history of baseball, that anti-Semitism
flourished among some owners and was directed particularly at
Marvin Miller, the indefatigable head of the players'
association. Selig was only the third Jewish owner at the time,
but he professes to have had no awareness of prejudice. Maybe he
heard what he wanted to from his idols. "I never personally
sensed it," he says.
What he does remember vividly is his first owners' meeting. It
was devoted to one topic: labor. "It was the angriest meeting
I'd ever been in," Selig says. "And you know, it's never gotten
any better." He went home and plaintively asked his father,
"What have I gotten into?"
Still, Selig venerated the older owners, gentlemen of his
father's generation such as John Galbreath of the Pittsburgh
Pirates, Jerry Hoffberger of the Baltimore Orioles and,
especially, John Fetzer of the Detroit Tigers. Selig would plot
his journeys home from league meetings through Detroit, so that
he might be alone with Fetzer. It was Fetzer who most
passionately preached the gospel of sacrifice. "Bud," Selig
remembers him saying, "if you do what's in the best interest of
baseball, it will be best for the Detroit Baseball Club." Selig
pauses; just the remembrance of his old counselor almost makes
his eyes well up. Then with a smile of happy reminiscence he
says, "Mr. Fetzer...I called him Mr. Fetzer at first. I was just
a kid. Mr. Fetzer always said 'the Detroit Baseball Club.' Not
the Tigers. The Detroit Baseball Club. The Milwaukee Baseball
But then Selig looks out the window, over Lake Michigan. "When
Mr. Fetzer was going to sell out, in 1983, he called me up, and
I went to Kalamazoo, and he told me. He said, 'Buddy,
selfishness has taken over.' Apart from my father, John Fetzer
played the greatest role in my life. Why, when something came up
in the Executive Committee just today, I got up and walked
around and thought about Mr. Fetzer."
Because it was something disagreeable that came up?
"Yes." He nods morosely.
The youthful Selig ingratiated himself with his surrogate
fathers, offering to sit on committees that nobody else would
bother with. Fay Vincent came into baseball in 1989, serving at
the right hand of the new commissioner, Bart Giamatti. He laughs
and says, "Bart and I would just sit around and say, 'What would
happen if we didn't have Bud to take on the thankless, miserable
By now Selig had been in the inner circle for two decades. He
wasn't the kid anymore. If he wasn't yet quite out front, he had
found his way to the center of things. Selig was a clearinghouse
of information, gossip and intrigue. All the owners not only
knew Buddy and liked him well enough, but they also knew what
Buddy knew. He was the original 24/7/365 man, keeping the
minutes of baseball. "When my father is on vacation," Wendy
Selig-Prieb says, "he sits on the deck in Arizona and does the
same thing he always does--talk on the phone to the same people
about baseball. His vocation and avocation are the same." He has
extra time every day for substantive activity, too, because he
doesn't play golf.
The one way Selig does relax away from baseball is by reading,
history mostly. Presently he is going through Robert Caro's
third volume on Lyndon Johnson, which concentrates on LBJ's
legislative genius. It's easy to see why Johnson interests
Selig. Both men rose up as insiders, not popular leaders. But
LBJ was a bold, outsized figure who took charge of the Senate
almost as soon as he got off the train at Union Station.
Selig--as befits a small-market owner--more resembles one of
those unimpressive little congressmen from a hinterland state
who builds up power over time, accumulating authority from
privileged knowledge more than from presence. Bud Selig never
grabbed anyone by the lapels.
He often comes to the party late, in fact, only after he's seen
the other RSVPs. Most recently, for example, he had to be
brought round to the idea of contraction. However, "once Bud's
locked onto the issue du jour, he never lets go," says Bob
DuPuy, Buddy's buddy from Milwaukee who now serves as president
of Major League Baseball. "He's like the salesman to whom you
finally scream, 'Stop, stop, I'll buy the policy just to get rid
of you.'" In many respects, too, Selig's greatest successes have
been of the Nixon-goes-to-China variety. It was under the
bend-an-ear direction of Selig, the weepy diamond
traditionalist, that the owners finally reached consensus on
splitting the leagues into three divisions, adding wild cards
and allowing interleague play, innovations that still strike
baseball fundamentalists as sacrilege but that have been hugely
popular with fans.
"Bud has no great intellectual capacity," says Vincent, who
became commissioner after Giamatti died suddenly in 1989, "but
he just keeps at it, and he's really very good at politics. But
that's also his liability, because he tends to agree with
everybody he talks to. He wants to keep everybody happy."
Selig adored Giamatti, perhaps only slightly less than he did
the sainted Fetzer. When first they met, one night in New York
when Giamatti was still president of Yale, the two baseball
votaries walked the streets after dinner, in rapture, reveling
in shared nostalgia. A discussion, nearly theological in nature,
of a 1949 home run by Johnny Lindell--Johnny Lindell!--cemented
the friendship. Sue Selig says that the first speech her husband
ever wrote out was his eulogy at Giamatti's memorial service.
After Giamatti's death Selig was at first a staunch supporter of
Vincent's, but eventually he turned against the new
commissioner. More than anything, Selig soured on Vincent's
conciliatory attitude toward the union. Vincent believed in
rapprochement, and he thought it could be achieved only over
time, so, as a first gambit toward peace, he hired Steve
Greenberg as deputy commissioner. Greenberg, who represented the
owners at the negotiating table in 1990, is a respected and
cordial baseball insider (he had been a players' agent) and,
just as important, he was friendly with Fehr and Orza. Selig
disapproved of this pussyfooting, and, as head of the Player
Relations Committee, he not only hired Richard Ravitch, a lawyer
and politician, to run the negotiations but also gave him a
salary higher than Vincent's. If not emasculating to the
commissioner, this was insulting. "Bud's got a much more facile
mind than people give him credit for," DuPuy says. "Vincent
underestimated him terribly."
Finally, Selig called for Vincent's head. Making an emotional
speech to his fellows on Sept. 3, 1992, he began, "This is a
very traumatic day. In the beginning I considered Fay an
appendage to Bart, the best friend I'll ever have." However,
Selig said, "I was one of the last to come to the conclusion
that Fay must go, [that] he really doesn't care for the
institution." The no-confidence vote was 18-9, and Vincent soon
resigned. It was then that the owners decided to stay within
their own farm system and promote Selig to acting commissioner.
Many observers felt that it was a regency, with Jerry Reinsdorf
of the Chicago White Sox as the real chief. Time has shown that
to have been a gross misconception, but there is no agreement
about whether or not Selig joined the Vincent putsch because he
was motivated by his own desire to take control. Selig himself
maintains that he never had any designs on becoming
commissioner, that he truly believed what he told his wife: that
he'd only be warming the commissioner's seat for a few months.
Even as the years wore on, Selig says, he never fancied the
position. Sue Selig says, "I knew he'd be commissioner long
before Bud himself realized it." The other owners maintain that
Selig had no ulterior motive and had to be talked into taking
Selig's critics laugh up their sleeves at that. The union
leaders, who manifestly distrust Selig, have whispered that his
canny manipulations in procuring the position reveal the
commissioner's true self. As early as 1989, Charles O'Connor,
the owners' lead labor negotiator at that time, told a
disbelieving Vincent that Selig had set his cap for the job.
Whereas such national figures as New York governor Mario Cuomo
and Senate majority leader George Mitchell seemed inclined to
accept the position--"It's really amazing who would want this
awful job," Vincent mutters--the tide turned against offering it
to an outlander. The head of the selection committee was Bill
Bartholomay, the chairman of the Braves and surely the only
person on the face of the earth to have met all nine
commissioners. (He sat on Judge Landis's knee when he was a
five-year-old.) "We talked seriously to a lot of people,"
Bartholomay says, "but we never came close to picking an
outsider. And Buddy was the obvious insider."
Well, except for....
"All George W. Bush wanted was to be commissioner of baseball,"
Vincent says. "He'd talk to me about it after they ran me out,
and he'd say that Selig was going to get him the votes, and I'd
say, 'George, I don't think he's going to deliver for you.'
"By then I finally understood that Bud wanted the job, and the
last time I talked to George W. about it, I said, 'Do you believe
me now?' And he said: 'Yes, I'm beginning to understand.'
"George W. had to make a decision then, whether or not to run
for governor in '94. A lot of people wanted him to run, but he
didn't think he could beat [the incumbent] Ann Richards. It was
only when he finally realized that Bud wasn't going to step
aside that he decided to try it. It is my contention that one
man made George W. Bush president, and that man was Bud Selig."
Accepting an invitation from the commissioner, the President
threw out the first ball at Miller Park, the Brewers' new
stadium, when it opened last year.
George Mitchell, one of those men of distinction who wanted the
job Selig got, once explained why a facility to appear and
declaim impressively on television was so crucial for any public
person. "It's just an attribute of leadership in our time,"
Mitchell said. "People cannot ridicule or demean it. Two
centuries ago the ability to ride a horse and wield a sword were
attributes of leadership."
Alas, as the face and voice of baseball management, Selig does
not cut an impressive figure. After all those man-hours on the
telephone, he is styled for chitchat, not oratory. The passion
that is so obvious in casual byplay tends to come across more as
whining when he is before a microphone. Words are not his best
friends. Inside baseball, people still snicker about an unsigned
memo of a few years ago that employed the word analization for
analysis. It was instantly attributed to Selig.
The commissioner is healthy and looks young for his 67 years,
but his hair often drifts down into something of a page boy.
Selig also buys perfectly nice conservative clothes, but they
don't dress him up so much as wear on him. Carl Pohlad, the
Minnesota owner, even provided Selig with a considerable
wardrobe in a wistful effort to turn the rumpled commissioner
into more of a Beau Brummell. When he ran the Brewers, Selig
reminded the players of Jerry Lewis. For his looks, not his
What he is, is a kidder, always teasing his friends and
associates with cracker-barrel humor. Selig will introduce a
good friend and say, "Everybody says he's a gentleman. I don't
know why." Guffaw. Or, "Look at those old shoes. See, on the
bottom it says, 'Vote for McKinley.'" Guffaw. He revels in this
kind of badinage. Altogether he's genial, a likable fellow, just
folks, who can laugh at himself for being the classic adoring
(rhymes with boring) grandfather.
In professional matters, however, he is thin-skinned. Selig
insinuated himself into national commissionerdom after being a
beloved local icon, and it may have been especially hard for him
to adjust to a job that comes with built-in criticism.
Wistfully, as he peers over the Milwaukee landscape, he says,
"There was never a cross word for me here. In fact, I was a hero
for a long time."
In point of fact he did lose some of his native luster in the
past few years when he employed all his tenacious buttonholing
skills to get the Wisconsin legislature to pass the bill to
construct Miller Park mostly with state funds. The disputatious
measure passed by one vote--that of a legislator from Racine,
who was promptly recalled by his furious constituency. Still,
for most Milwaukeeans, once again their Bud Selig had brought
them added baseball pleasure: not only a fancy new ballyard with
a retractable roof, but also an All-Star Game to go under it in
Certainly, though, Selig should have been prepared for the
slings and arrows hurled at him from outside Greater Milwaukee.
After all, he is a genuine student of the position he holds, a
Plutarch of himself. "I am a history buff," he says. "I do
everything in the retrospect of history [sic]. I've studied the
commissioner's office year by year, and I believe I understand
this office better than anyone on the face of the earth." He
crosses to his refrigerator and cracks another Diet Coke. "For
example," he goes on, "Ford Frick. He was underestimated as a
commissioner. He was so prophetic." Indeed, much as U.S.
historians cite George Washington's famous valedictory, so Selig
quotes highlights of Frick's farewell address in 1965, when, way
back then, he warned the owners that they simply must accept
some change in the operation of their game or suffer the
But Selig found out early on that his fellow owners were
unyielding. Reluctantly, since the anecdote might offend a dead
man, he tells the story of visiting St. Louis with one of his
Milwaukee partners in 1967 there to meet Gussie Busch, who owned
the Cardinals. With Busch was Dick Meyer, a trusted lieutenant
at both the brewery and the ball club. "Someday we'll be gone,
Mr. Busch," Meyer said, "but these young men will be the ones
who are going to have all the trouble if we don't make a change
in the reserve clause."
It was not an extreme or unreasonable observation, but Busch
absolutely stunned Selig and his friend, pounding his cane,
screaming at Meyer, "Don't you ever say that again, Dick, or
you'll be fired."
That attitude was typical, as the owners kept fighting the last
war. "The lords of baseball," as they came to be called about
the time Selig became one of them, were ridiculed, portrayed as
the silly little top-hatted pip in Monopoly. Meanwhile the union
had the law and fairness on its side, and while the players were
unified behind Marvin Miller and then Fehr (with Orza), the
lords kept changing their negotiators as willy-nilly as George
Steinbrenner changed managers. Besides, not only were the owners
divided, but they also often clashed with their own
commissioners. So the moguls never laid a glove on the working
stiffs. "Fehr and Orza are remarkably talented, and they're
intellectually superior to most people in baseball," Vincent
says. "And, of course, they're ideologues. They take economic
issues and turn them into moral issues."
"Truthfully, we weren't even negotiating," says someone who once
participated in the collective bargaining on behalf of the
owners. "It was a joke. It was all just p.r. You should see it:
The union plays the owners like a harp. It's not Selig's fault.
And the owners aren't as stupid as they're depicted. It's just
that each is driven by his own self-interest."
Says the Braves' Kasten, who is also president of Atlanta's
Hawks and Thrashers: "In basketball or hockey David [Stern] or
Gary [Bettman] says, 'Well, we've studied it, and here's what
we're gonna do,' and everybody goes along. In baseball there'll
be 30 different opinions." Trying to unite baseball owners
recalls what Trent Lott once said about how difficult it is to
keep a party of senators together: It's like "loading bullfrogs
into a wheelbarrow."
Even Selig admits, "I told the executive committee: Just once
I'd like to be Paul Tagliabue." Indeed, he can cite the business
history of the NFL--how the noble gridiron owners all sacrificed
and chimed the Three Musketeers' refrain--as well as he can
recount esoteric baseball statistics.
Of course Selig has been able to use the current baleful
economic situation to help create a new common cause among the
owners. Remember those times of yore when the owners were split
into big-market and small-market caucuses? Nouveau-riche
franchises such as Baltimore and Cleveland smugly aligned
themselves with New York and Chicago and Los Angeles. Today?
Selig says that the so-called big-market bloc consists only of
the Yankees and the Mets and maybe the Dodgers. The owners'
erstwhile best friend of labor, Peter Angelos of the Orioles, is
now, Selig avers, "about the biggest hawk we have."
The owners feel so comfortable deferring to one of their own
that they have granted Selig a provisional sovereignty that no
commissioner since Judge Landis has been accorded--and that back
when the very existence of the sport was jeopardized by the
Black Sox scandal. The lines of communication are clear; Selig
has his own handpicked deputies, DuPuy and Rob Manfred, staffing
the front lines, across from Fehr and Orza. Paul Beeston,
formerly the president of the Blue Jays, was the owners' chief
negotiator until he quit a few months ago, and the whispers are
that Selig found him, like Vincent and Greenberg, too much of a
softy and overruled him, so Beeston quit. Selig says Beeston was
homesick for Toronto; Beeston ain't talking. Whatever, it only
underscores the obvious. However blame is apportioned for the
strike of 1994, which cost baseball a World Series, Selig was
the acting commissioner, even if authority was divided. This
time there is no qualification: Diamond Armageddon is strictly
on his watch. "Buddy is clearly our head of labor--as he should
be," Wilpon of the Mets says. "If he has the responsibility, he
must have the authority."
Perhaps, though, it is the propaganda battle that will
ultimately prevail. Sure, as always, the owners can lock out and
the players can strike, but after past disasters does either
side dare loose its ultimate weapon against the other and risk
enormous collateral damage? After all, it is the fans who feel
they are the wronged party now. The system has robbed too many
of them of hope, the emotional circumstance that allows Selig to
position management as fighting for Good and not just for
Mammon. For the first time, the owners appear as relatively
sympathetic creatures. They do not seem to be lords anymore so
much as doleful knights errant, their castles breached, their
fields fallow. It's gotten even worse for them this season.
Attendance is down, and new stadiums are, apparently, no longer
a panacea; been there, seen that. It is now the players--with
their wealth and imperious manner--who are the object of scorn.
Ironically, even the labor roles are now somewhat reversed, as
it is the players' association that appears to be arguing on
behalf of the status quo. Says Sandy Alderson, his eyes
mischievously glowing, "The pendulum has swung so far the other
way that I think the union is as arrogant today as the owners
were 30 years ago. They're the ones who've lost the foresight
and the flexibility to improve the game now."
Certainly the owners can try and portray the union as standing
foursquare against those two American bulwarks, hope and
equality. After all, the beleaguered fans are no longer naifs to
the business of sport, and they know that in this collective
bargaining the union is essentially holding out against the very
positions that have made the NFL and NBA competitively healthy.
Moreover, even if the owners secretly like all those
steroid-stung home runs their muscular stars hit, it is the
union that refuses to accept random drug testing. The players'
association has managed to become just about the only sports
organization in the whole world that refuses to support drug
testing. And now the players' blind support for their leaders
smacks less of unity and more of servility. The moral high
ground that Marvin Miller secured back when Gussie Busch was
banging his cane against decency has been lost.
Ah, but luckily for the players, the commissioner gives the
union a convenient bogeyman to flay. "Bud's vulnerability is
almost unavoidable," says Alderson, "and it's obvious that the
union has decided that the best way to undermine our message is
to dehumanize the messenger." As long as the union can depict
Selig as a hypocritical, Enronesque wheeler-dealer, cooking the
books and feathering his own nest, the players might keep
sympathetic public opinion from settling down with the owners.
Almost surely, no commissioner in any sports labor dispute has
been such a central figure as Selig is in this contretemps.
Of course, it was the owners who painted the bull's-eye on Selig
when they opted for an old-boy commissioner. And, eyes wide
open, Selig took the $3 million a year and the big hometown
office in the sky and the charter plane on call and the other
perks well aware that all of that would have to be paid for with
a big bite out of his own hide. Whatever proposals the
commissioner offers on behalf of baseball are dismissed as
camouflage for improving the lot of the family store, the
Brewers. It particularly puts Selig on the defensive that while
Milwaukee fielded one of the worst teams in baseball last
season, management made little effort to use revenue-sharing
bonuses to buy better players--all the while pocketing more
profit than any other franchise. Yes, even more than the
Yankees. Selig responds by claiming that 2001 was an aberration,
that the team had lost money the previous eight years and only
went into the black because of the fresh attraction of the new
Miller Park. "I knew that when I was taking this job, there'd
always be this inherent conflict of interest," Selig admits. "I
knew there'd be people who'd make something of that."
Notwithstanding his defense, nothing in all of baseball gives
the union more of a field day than does Selig, the Brewers'
patriarch. The Brewers get rich sucking at not one but two
generous teats: that of the taxpayers and that of the richer
teams. But now, in 2002, they've got the worst record in the
National League--far worse than the records of the teams Selig
has fingered for execution.
Critics also point out that when one team had to be shifted from
the American League to the National League, it turned out to
be--surprise!--Milwaukee, the grand old Senior Circuit town,
which could better draw fans from the North Side of Chicago with
a natural rivalry against the Cubs. Selig protests that he was
always "skitterish" that he would face such allegations, and
Kansas City was first given the option to make the move, to
establish an intraleague intrastate rivalry with the Cardinals.
Says Selig, "For a month I begged David Glass [the Royals'
owner], 'Pull the trigger, David.' But he just wouldn't. And
then we were the logical choice."
When the contraction of two teams was first publicly broached in
October, Selig was immediately accused of marking Minnesota for
demise because of his personal friendship with Carl Pohlad, the
Twins' elderly owner. Pohlad would get out of the failing
baseball business with a handsome profit, and Minnesota's
evacuation would open the upper-Midwest territory for the
Brewers. Furthermore, it was revealed that not only had Pohlad
been Selig's haberdasher, but, more substantively, he had also
given the Brewers a $3 million loan.
The issue may be moot now, because thanks to the threat of
contraction, the Twins could get the new stadium they need to
remain viable. Still, Selig denies that there ever was any
sweetheart payback. The Pohlad loan, he says, was short-term and
duly reported to the other owners. Besides, the proposed
contraction agreement states that if the Twins fold, there can
be no windfall for the Brewers because the Twins' TV shares will
be split equally among all remaining teams.
Selig's image outside the owners' council fosters suspicion at
best, disbelief at worst. Perhaps it's a foolish measure, but in
an online poll taken by The Toronto Star this year, readers were
asked which commissioner they would buy a used car from, and
Selig ran a dismal last, garnering only 6% of the vote. He's
often, in fact, referred to erroneously as a used-car salesman,
a profession that is only about a step up from telemarketer and
drug dealer on the U.S. trust scale.
In any event, the quality that has propelled Selig to the
top--his cozy, folksy insider's legerdemain--counts for nothing
on the public stage, where a persuasive, prepossessing leader
might mount his steed and unsheath his saber in defense of his
game. So most of Selig's admirers defend the commissioner's lack
of a commanding presence by making a virtue out of it, offering
some version of "What you see is what you get." And yes, maybe
that style is in nowadays. Selig's former co-owner, the man who
would be commissioner, George W. Bush, has not been held back by
malapropisms and rambling inarticulation.
Still, for all that Selig's stick-to-itiveness has banded his
own troops together, what good is perseverance now, in the
external battle? What good is tenacity in a press conference?
What good is his virtuousness when he's pitted against somebody
just as holier-than-thou? What good is his determination when
the note is due tomorrow, with interest? "The union runs
baseball," Vincent says. "Well, no. Now the banks run baseball.
But Fehr knows that, so the effect is the same. He only has to
threaten to take the players out in September, and the banks
will force the owners to settle, because they simply can't
afford to lose the postseason revenue, especially the television
Selig swears that this time he will hold his forces together.
And there is a certain eloquence in his resolve. Maybe the union
hates him so because it takes one to know one. Selig is the
first ideologue the players have had looking back at them,
trading zeal for zeal. Selig cries out, "People are always
asking me, everywhere, even in the big markets, 'When are you
going to fix the system to help give everybody a chance?' Well,
I'm here to protect the fans' interest and the clubs' interest.
Somebody's gotta have the courage to stop the way things are
Chuckling at the memory, Selig recalls a meeting in which Jerry
Hoffberger of the Orioles got mad at Charley Finley of the A's.
"Charley," Hoffberger said, "spare me the indignity of telling
me it's raining out when you're pissing on my leg." Well, it is
Buddy's analization that it is not precipitation that is falling
on baseball right now. Lesser men with only talent, genius or
education at their command might not have been dogged enough to
stay out in the storm long enough to conclude that.
Frank Deford's commentary appears every Wednesday on cnnsi.com.
For more on the labor negotiations, go to the "Owners vs.
Players" link at cnnsi.com/baseball.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS PAYNE
COLOR PHOTO: JAMES SCHNEPF WIRED Selig spends his workdays (vacation days, too) reaching out and touching someone who owns a team.
B/W PHOTO: PAUL J. SHANE/AP PITCHMAN Selig (in '68) landed a team for Milwaukee through sheer dogged effort.
B/W PHOTO: SEAN KARDON/AP BOY SCOUT Selig (in '83) won over other owners by taking on the least desirable duties.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERTO BOREA/AP TALKIN' BEISBOL Selig sat with Fidel Castro when the Orioles played Cuba's national team in '99.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID GUTTENFELDER/AP CROWD PLEASER Selig (with Sammy Sosa) pressed for popular innovations like wild cards.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS FROG PRINCE Fellow owners have tried to make a virtue out of the unimpressive figure that Selig cuts.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CANTOR/AP PEOPLE'S CHOICE? The owners and Selig (with Fehr in '90) for once seem to have public opinion on their side.
COLOR PHOTO: SUE OGROCKI/REUTERS I'M ALL EARS If Selig hears no concession from the union, a stoppage may be inevitable.
Selig is a constant purveyor of gloom. Hello, Bud, what's new?
And he is off. Well, he just heard from this team. It's losing
money hand over fist.
Most owners had their first glimpse of the young Selig as he
trailed after them like a nasty terrier, chasing an expansion
Selig's first owners' meeting was devoted to labor. "It was the
angriest meeting I'd ever been in," he says, "and it's never
gotten any better."
"I have more authority than any other commissioner ever did,"
Selig crows, "and I can count. I have the votes to do what I
Selig is comfortable being Bud. His success is, at the nub,
based on his being a pal, a chum. He is the
The passion that is obvious in casual byplay comes across as
whining when Selig is before a microphone. Words are not his
Ironically, the labor roles are now reversed: It is the players'
association that appears to be arguing on behalf of the status
"Bud has no great intellectual capacity," says Fay Vincent, "but
he just keeps at it, and he's really very good at politics."