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January 9, 2003

Breaking Balls

The Last Commissioner, A Baseball Valentine

by Derek Zumsteg

Fay Vincent was the Commissioner of Baseball in 1989 and was forced out in 1992 by Bud Selig, then Brewers owner, now Brewers owner-in-absentia and Commissioner of Baseball. In hardback, the book jacket price is $26, which would get you a great seat at any ball park for a game of baseball which will be more entertaining, educational, and may take longer to finish. Vincent mentions that all the money for the book is going to charity, which is good, because he certainly doesn't deserve it.


Purchase The Last Commissioner
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Last Commissioner uses a bit of style to make the ghost writer feel of the book more tolerable. In all cases like this, the credited author does a long series of interviews, and then the actual book is written by a real writer (in this case, Michael Bamberger, of Sports Illustrated). The result, common to baseball autobiographies, is a sort of disjointed feel, like instead of a story it's a chronologically threaded set of vignettes. This has the feel without the strict chronological organization. Last Commissioner alternates between extended discussions on a time, or place, or players, and a 'lineup' of tangentially related personalities. This is presented as the top- and bottom-of-an-inning-chapter, of which there are nine. It's cute, but it wears out quickly.

Much of the book is fluff. Chapter One, for instance, is 23 pages of Fay talking about how cool it was to hang out with Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams while he was Commissioner, and how they were his friends. Then 13 pages on how cool it was to hang out with other legends. Chapter Two is 20 pages of how cool Fay Vincent, Sr. was and Senior's abiding respect for the profession of umpiring, and then we get 12 pages of umpire tidbits. And so on.

Bart Giamatti hangs over Last Commissioner like a friendly but distracting ghost. Nineteen pages describe meeting Bart and Vincent's relationship with him. It's glowing praise, to an embarrassing point. Bart Giamatti is a literate and intelligent baseball fan, and I've enjoyed his baseball writing. He was also a union-busting blowhard. When Fay spends this much time praising Giamatti though, he sets himself up for comparison, and falls short.

The qualities that make Giamatti interesting are those Vincent lacks: where Giamatti was a writer, Vincent is telling a writer about Bart, and that writer will produce a book that Vincent will read and approve to bear Vincent's name. Bart, a Red Sox fan, looks at his team before the season and says "What I expect is that they will show up for this year for all their appointed games." But Vincent doesn't write anything half as witty, or as expressive of his mood. Bart offers an insight into why many fans pick ordinary players as their favorite when he talks about his affection for Bobby Doerr over Ted Williams: "I could imagine myself playing second base, but not hitting .400." Vincent, in the course of over 300 pages, doesn't say anything as interesting as something Giamatti tossed off.

Vincent is an interesting contrast, though. He's a rigid baseball thinker, believing that NL strategy without the designated hitter is chess, implying the AL is Candyland, and then he lauds Joe Miller as being "a purist, in the sense of the word." He doesn't like interleague play either. Vincent goes on to say that these noble purists of his "warned there wasn't enough quality pitching to stock four new teams." Vincent's simple-minded opposition to expansion and gloating on its supposed failure pops up repeatedly. He thinks that expansion isn't growing the sport, but dilution of a pie would, which is, and I'm going to be blunt, the stupidest thing he says in the book. If the sport never expanded, we'd have a country of 300 million and 16 teams. Does he really think baseball would make as much money, or be as popular, if half the country's major cities had no team at all?

For a throwback, he offers some strange ideas: Vincent proposes that Major League Baseball should be a publicly traded company, like GE, or AT&T, and that players, fans, and owners alike could own shares, some voting, some not, the players awarded equity. It's not very well thought out, needless to say. Similarly, Vincent looks forward to seeing media companies own more than one team at once, though this kind of thing has been a disaster in the past and would quickly become a disaster again. "At first glance the idea might seem collusive and dangerous, but in reality it's no different than having one corporation own many competing brands, or several different chains or department stores."

Fay: No large corporation competes with itself for long. They stratify their brands, so one target demographic shops at the Gap, the other at Old Navy. If they own two lines of soup, they'll be differentiated -- one for men, one for women, or one healthy, one cheap. By contrast, that's essentially impossible to do in baseball, since you operate as a regional concern that tries to reach everyone in that market, and at the same time compete in a national zero-sum game for wins. In addition, if Vincent thinks that companies, left to their own devices, will act in a manner that upholds the integrity of the game, he hasn't been paying attention to the wacky world of business in the last few years.

I picked up Last Commissioner for a couple of reasons -- I wanted to read his take on Rose, labor issues, and Vincent's own ouster.

The story of Bart Giamatti and Pete Rose is the book's longest half-chapter, at 34 pages. I've spent more time on the Rose investigation and related issues than I wanted, so none of it was new or interesting to me. It's notable when Vincent stops the narrative to go through and answer common questions about the investigation, why gambling on baseball is bad, and so forth. There's another section where he talks about why baseball players aren't overpaid, and at both these points the book suddenly reads much better, as if Vincent took the time to sit down and type them out himself. They're arguments you've read here at BP.com if you've hung around for a while, but I was heartened to see Vincent take the time to offer meaty and persuasive arguments in both cases.

And there's a great quote from Johnny Bench -- "Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame when he's innocent."

Vincent's coverage of labor issues is interesting. Peter Ueberroth's role in suggesting collusion, and Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf's subsequent organization of the owners to destroy the free agent market still affect labor negotiations today. As Vincent points out, today's Commissioner of Baseball was the ringleader of a gang that stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the players in naked violation of their labor agreement. Vincent talks about how collusion poisoned the relationship with players and owners, and how the inability of owners to recognize that the union won't break has led to constant labor disputes, strikes, and lockouts.

Vincent faults Marvin Miller for making union issues moral as well as economic, and so making it harder to keep a cool head in negotiations. Vincent fails to see that economic issues are political and moral ones as well, and always have been. The widespread exploitation of any group, like baseball players, is not based on numbers but a power imbalance wielded to the advantage of one side. Miller recognized this and was able to forge the players into a bargaining unit that could win better pay and working conditions. Blaming Miller for the nature of labor disputes is a shortcut, like blaming women for being mad about not being able to vote.

When Fay Vincent turns to his own ouster, saved for the last chapter of the book, he gives us nothing. It's boiled down to "Reinsdorf was spreading lies about me, and Selig conspired to get me out. Eventually, the owners held a no-confidence vote, which was meaningless because they couldn't force me out. I decided not to fight it and quit."

No details of the fight, Selig's craven betrayal of Vincent when Selig took the responsibility of negotiating with the union away from the Commissioner as part of his long-term plan to destroy the office, and then step in and save it. Fay Vincent seems ignorant of the reasons behind his ouster. He touches on one, only briefly. "It was a mistake for me, among other mistakes, to have pressed hard for realignment in 1991, over the Cubs' objections." Vincent attempted to force NL realignment for no good reason, ignoring historical rivalries and scheduling concerns alike. That took care of the NL.

Vincent lost the AL by bungling expansion. For the first time, all teams in both leagues would have to give up players to the two expansion franchises. In every expansion previously, only the league adding teams gave up talent. The AL teams, having to bear an equal burden in players (and the organizational cost to draft, sign, and develop them), asked for an equitable share of expansion revenues. Vincent gave them 25% of the expansion money. Between both disasters, Vincent had no allies, which meant even a pair of two-bit scuzballs like Reinsdorf and Selig were able to knock him over.

Vincent never talks about this. You wonder if he didn't know, which would make him remarkably stupid to have not figured it out, or if he would prefer not to talk about it so he can be remembered as a stand-up guy. Nearly everyone in the book is a friend, or a close friend. There's a lot of butt-kissing in the book, some of it totally undeserved. Steve Greenberg, son of the great Hank Greenberg, is described as "one of my closest friends today", a respected lawyer and agent. Vincent says Greenberg had a "long, positive history with Donald Fehr, the players union chief." He laments that "one of the biggest mistakes baseball has ever made - and baseball has made some whoppers - was not to make my deputy, Steve Greenberg, commissioner after I left office." And hey, while we're piling it on, "I have never heard a single negative word about Steve from anyone and I am not being hyperbolic."

He's not being hyperbolic, he's lying. Steve Greenberg was the agent for Bill Madlock for 14 years. Greenberg screwed Madlock, losing about $1 million (in 1981 money) of Madlock's money, putting much of it into a "supposedly revolutionary device known as the Terra-Drill, which never made it beyond the drawing board and which the IRS deemed to be a tax-avoidance 'sham.'" Olson [the arbitrator in the Madlock-Greenberg suit] ruled that Greenberg was guilty of a "failure to exercise proper care and skill on Madlock's behalf" and that Madlock never would have invested in the Terra-Drill without the "counsel and suggestion of Greenberg." [Sports Illustrated, 8/12/1991, p.7] While the arbitrator found Greenberg responsible, he rules that Madlock had filed the lawsuit too late to win.

Fay Vincent then wrote a letter to the owners where he said that his deputy commissioner had "prevailed on all counts," and made it seem like Madlock had gone crazy and finally had his frivolous lawsuit dismissed, when that was not at all the case. Madlock then had to go the IRS with the judgment he won and work out a deal.

All of which is to say that the book should not be read (if at all) by the gullible or the easily led. Lies of omission are still lies, Fay.

This is not to say that the book is without interesting nuggets, especially if you pay attention to baseball's power structure today. After Bart Giamatti's funeral, Carl Pohlad calls Vincent as Vincent is riding home to see if he wants to take over the job. Marge Schott tells Vincent to go f himself. Barbara Bush asks Schott how long she's loved baseball and Schott replies, "I hate it." Barry Bonds talks to Vincent about his poor public image in 1990, and it's interesting to learn that even then, Bonds was trying to find a balance between his distaste for interviews and his desire to better his relationship with the fans, something he didn't make progress at for another decade.

Vincent maintains that the magic word to get tossed from a game isn't any vulgarity but rather "you", that a player can say a call was this, or that, or that the ump's doing a bad job in colorful language, but can't say, for instance, "you suck". The only funny scene in the book is when the Players Association brings in a deaf lip reader to determine if Roger Clemens swore in general, or specifically in relation to what an ump was.

George Steinbrenner's irrational vendetta against Dave Winfield is the most interesting section. We get to see an owner using his relationship with the press to get negative stories run, then using his friends to get investigations started. It's fitting that Steinbrenner, who was convicted of a felony for his illegal donation to a Nixon campaign, was a decade later engaging in the same kind of conduct that led to Nixon's downfall. Vincent's story of the negotiations leading to Steinbrenner's two years on the permanently ineligible list is one of the high points of the book, the only place where his insider perspective is fresh and interesting. It's also a low point - outside of the book, Vincent was trying to sell the Yankees to Sony from under Steinbrenner, and one of the angles he was reportedly working was to be hired as team president at the expiration of his term as Commissioner. Nice cushion if you can get it.

Another unsettling theme, unrealized and not commented on, is the pervasive power of wealth and connection. Everyone in the story seems to be tied by friendships forged in exclusive prep schools and Yale. Vincent knows President George H-W Bush by way of Bucky Bush, who went to school with Vincent, Vincent invests in fledgling oilman and future President-By-Court-Order George W. Bush's venture not because he needs the money, but because he's a friend of the family, and later among Commissioner Vincent's few loyal supporters is George W. Bush, heading the Rangers. When Giamatti decides to quit as Yale President, his advisory committee is Fay Vincent, President of Columbia Pictures, Max Frankel, op-ed editor of the New York Times, and Franklin Thomas, the head of the Ford Foundation. Last time I was out of a job my advisory committee was my future wife's foot in my butt.

Vincent seems ignorant of wealth - when he negotiates Giamatti's contract as Commissioner for $650,000 a year (in 1988), Giamatti calls Vincent to report he'd bought a Mercedes, and says "You have a Mercedes, why shouldn't I have a Mercedes? You've made me rich." Vincent responds "You're not rich and neither am I. But we're living well." (p85) I understand that many wealthy people don't regard themselves as rich. People who make $250,000 a year don't hesitate to call themselves middle class. But here's a quick-and-easy home wealth test: if you've got a private jet with crew and catered meals you can use to fly your friends around, you're rich. Reading that kind of a statement when I'm trying to figure out how to pay for next year's season tickets makes me sigh and remember William Gibson writing on asking the rich about the nature of wealth: "asking Virek would be like interrogating a fish to learn more about water. Yes, my dear, it's wet; yes, my child, it's certainly warm..."

And that's really the ultimate flaw of Last Commissioner. Vincent doesn't really know what to give us, the common reader. So he's given us a little of everything. Bite-sized anecdotes about former greats, the occasional glimpse into how the game works. Omissions of uncomfortable failures and confrontations. He writes at length about those things that move him: his father, his admiration for Giamatti, but he's unwilling to offer a meatier book on any one subject, like the problems that face the game and their history - issues he clearly knows a lot about. What we get is a $26, 322-page book soup, transcribed in a light conversational broth, with occasional tasty vegetables and precious little meat, with a comprehensive ingredient list in the excellent index.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Fay Vincent

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