The Commissioner of Baseball is supposed to be the commissioner of all baseball. Yet he serves at the pleasure of the owners and throughout history, from the first one forward in Kensaw Mountain Landis, who ruled like a hanging judge from 1920 to 1944, the commissioner has never been perceived to be on the side of the players.
As the sport heads into the home stretch leading up to the American League and National League playoffs and the World Series, Major League Baseball elected a new commissioner Thursday in Rob Manfred, 55, who will succeed the long-serving Bud Selig in January. Selig, 80, announced some times ago that he would retire at that time.
One of the fascinating aspects of Manfred’s selection is that there was actually a contested election for the job. It was a two-ballot process and Manfred beat out Tom Werner, chairman of the Boston Red Sox, and Tim Brosnan, who is executive director of business for MLB.
It is somewhat rare for the commissioner’s office to be contested – there hadn't been an election with more than one up-front choice since 1968. Manfred has worked for Major League Baseball since 1998 and he is a labor lawyer. Right away when the owners choose a labor guy it raises the question of whether the idea is for him to be a hard-liner when it comes time to negotiating a new collective bargaining contract with the players.
However, Selig often gave credit to Manfred for the baseball peace of recent years because of his skills, so maybe his background is a plus rather than something to raise suspicions among players.
History of the Commish
Not that players should trust a commissioner. Landis was a dictator. It’s hard to find a photograph of him that doesn’t show him with a frown. Happy Chandler didn’t make the owners happy, but one thing the former U.S. Senator from Kentucky did was shepherd in the era of integration when Jackie Robinson arrived on the scene. In some ways that was baseball’s finest hour, leading American society into social change with the acceptance (long overdue) of a black man on the playing field.
Ford Frick, who served in the 1950s and 1960s, was a former sportswriter, yet is best-remembered as the commissioner who with nonsensical intent wished to put an asterisk next to Roger Maris’ 61 homers that broke Babe Ruth’s single-season record.
When Frick retired in 1965 the field for a successor was wide open. Somehow the owners settled on William Eckert, an Air Force general. His three-year reign was so ineffectual that sarcastic sportswriters referred to him as “The Unknown Soldier.”
Bowie Kuhn, in the job from 1969 to 1984, presided over tumultuous times, with the first labor disruptions, the end of the reserve clause creating free agency, and drug suspensions. There was a controversy a minute.
Peter Ueberroth was on a high after serving as boss of the Los Angeles Olympics and the owners fell over themselves to hire him in 1984 (he stayed until 1989. There was plenty of controversy on his watch, too, with owner collusion being a low-light.
The next commissioner was A. Bartlett Giamatti, whose most significant move was suspending all-time hits leader Pete Rose for life for gambling. Giamatti, who was both a former National League president and president of Yale University, was viewed as a highly literate man with great potential, but he sadly died less than six months into his term.
He was succeeded by deputy commissioner Fay Vincent, but Vincent held the job only until 1992, when dissatisfied owners ran him off.
Selig took over as acting commissioner, but he stayed on and eventually was made permanent commissioner. Selig will forever be associated with the mishandling of labor issues in 1994 when the World Series was called off. To his credit, Selig has presided over years of co-existence between owners and players since.
His has not been a joy ride – think All-Star game tie and steroid scandals. But in the end the sport instituted a drug-testing program and has attempted to make the All-Star game more meaningful. Overall, with the influx of riches from regional and locale TV contracts, the sport has never been financially healthier despite the regular awarding of illogical, obscenely generous multi-year contracts to players.
But there is plenty for Manfred to do. Some will clamor for either adding the designated hitter to the National League or deleting it from the American League. Long games mean rules must be implemented to prevent pitchers from wasting time on the mound and to prohibit hitters from hopping in and out of the batter’s box as if they are dancing.
No matter what change Manfred spearheads he won’t make everyone happy. As long as he keeps the owners pleased he will have a job. If he irritates them too much they will get rid of him and start all over again.