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March 19, 2009

Being Like Bud

The Czar's Positives and Negatives

by Shawn Hoffman

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Seventeen years into his reign as commissioner, Bud Selig still hasn't found a way to sell himself to the public. When a tough decision was needed at the 2002 All-Star Game (in the House That Selig Built, no less), Bud shrugged his shoulders and walked off. He was the man who had to tell a generation of baseball fans that there would be no World Series for the first time in ninety years. He publicly lobbied for the elimination of two franchises, and called a successful small market team an "aberration." And most recently, he has beaten a dead horse back to life, telling anybody who will listen that it was the players union, not him, that allowed steroid use to proliferate.

Bud is certainly not the prototypical Landis-like commissioner; he is the protector of the owners, not the game itself. He doesn't have Landis's presence, or Bart Giamatti's public stature. Forty years after his car leasing fortune allowed him to buy his way into baseball, Bud still looks like a used-car salesman. As a public figure, it probably hurts him; in not being able to sell himself, he's also failed to sell many of his policies and positions to MLB's paying customers.

But there's another side to this story. Bud has done certain things extraordinarily well, including some that his predecessors failed to do. He is the first commissioner in the post-Miller era to truly unify the owners in regard to labor issues-the last two CBAs were the first ever to be signed without a work stoppage, and were generally more favorable to management than previous agreements. Bowie Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth were no less hostile to the union, but they were never able to get their own side in order (at least not legally).

Selig has also never shied away from making major changes to the game's core systems. Whereas Giamatti and Fay Vincent were seen as "purists" who seemed to put baseball's tradition above all else, and Bowie Kuhn simply wasn't a businessman, Bud has led one of baseball's most transformative eras. Adding the wild card to the post-season picture has given a significant boost to league-wide attendance, particularly during August and September. MLB Advanced Media has been a tremendous financial success, and it gives baseball a big head start toward an even more lucrative digital future. Bud was also front and center in building MLB's cable network (which launched to more homes than any other network in history), and has overseen the sport's greatest stadium boom. While interleague play has a more mixed record, it still took some serious chutzpah and diplomatic skill to finally implement, a trait that previous commissioners (aside from Ueberroth) sorely lacked.

All things considered, how does Bud's record stand relative to past commissioners from a business perspective? The table below shows MLB's inflation-adjusted revenue growth (MLB+) during each commissioner's tenure, as well as the the corresponding growth rate in US Real GDP (GDP+). The last column is MLB Growth/GDP Growth (MLB+/GDP+)-in other words, how well did that commissioner do relative to the rest of the country:

Commissioner    Term   Years    GDP+       MLB+    +/Year  MLB+/GDP+
Landis       1920-1944   16   108.80%     59.46%     3.72%    0.55
Chandler     1945-1951    7     6.01%     -6.95%    -0.99%   -1.16
Frick/Eckert 1952-1968   17    90.74%    143.90%    10.28%    1.59
Kuhn         1969-1984   16    59.16%     50.28%     3.14%    0.85
Ueberroth    1985-1988    4    15.98%     44.82%    11.20%    2.80
Giamatti     1989-1989    1     3.54%     17.54%    17.54%    4.95
Vincent      1990-1992    3     5.09%     12.86%     4.29%    2.53
Selig        1993-2008   16    58.83%    143.40%     8.96%    2.44

A couple of notes: the MLB financial data only goes back to 1929, so Landis's first few years on the job aren't counted (which is why it says 16 years, instead of 25). Also, the data for the mid-'60s is very weak, so I've combined Frick's and Eckert's tenures; if I had to guess, this probably hurts Frick a bit, but not by all that much.

Aside from Giamatti (who passed away during the first year of his term), Selig, Ueberroth, and Vincent were the only three commissioners to double the pace of US GDP. That shouldn't be all that surprising; all three had business backgrounds, whereas Landis was a judge, Frick was a writer, Eckert was an Air Force general, and Kuhn was a lawyer. In contrast, Vincent had been a top-level executive at both Coca-Cola and Columbia Pictures before becoming deputy commissioner under Giamatti, and Ueberroth started his own travel company in the 1960s, and ran the highly successful 1984 Olympics. But politics did them both in after just three and four years on the job, respectively. Neither was able to simultaneously appease all of the owners' separate interests at once, a task that Selig has consistently excelled at.

It is from among the long-term commissioners (Landis, Frick, and Kuhn, none of whom were overly creative) that Bud really separates himself. Landis and Kuhn failed to even match the US economy; Frick did a bit better, buoyed by television, several team relocations into more lucrative markets, and expansion. But Frick had to be dragged kicking and screaming into those changes, particularly the latter. Bud has not only accepted change, he's actively embraced and encouraged it.

What's most amazing about Bud's tenure is that no other commissioner, short- or long-term, has had Bud's massive pitfalls. Kuhn, Ueberroth, and Vincent had to deal with work stoppages, but none of them lost a World Series to one. Ueberroth had to deal with a drug scandal during his reign, but it involved recreational drugs, not so-called performance enhancers. And Landis never suggested that teams should be contracted, despite having to steward the game through the Great Depression. That Bud has been so successful despite all of his missteps is a major point in favor of business sense over political savvy.

This should probably be a lesson for MLB's owners when the time comes to pick a new boss; Bud is almost 75, after all. Selig has happily taken the role of MLB's CEO, which is more or less what the position has called for since Happy Chandler was dumped in favor of Ford Frick in 1951. But the public's ideal commissioner still seems to be someone like Landis, someone who will rule with an iron fist and "protect" the game. If the owners are smart, they'll look past such sentiments and go fo for someone more like Bud.

Shawn Hoffman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Shawn's other articles. You can contact Shawn by clicking here

Related Content:  Bud Selig

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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While I agree that Bug has presided over a great growth in the game, and that the wild card, as much as it is disliked by purists, is very good for the game, I am left with such a bad taste about the steroid era. Yes, I think the player's union are highly to blame - but I cannot shake the belief that the owners knew and turned a blind eye to it, in an attempt to bring the game back from the disaster of the 94 season.

This is the Selig legacy, in my mind - 10 years of baseball, with some important records being set, all tarnished. Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire happened on HIS watch. Roger Clemens, possibly the greatest pitcher the game has seen, is marred by scandal. This is the game - long term, what makes baseball great is the legends, the players. it is a game in our soul, in the poetry of the nation, and under bud's watch, the game was damaged, probably more than it has been since the 1919 Black Sox.

Of course, baseball will recover - it always does.

Mar 19, 2009 10:06 AM
rating: -3

While I agree that Bug...

he's not a bug, he's a feature!

Mar 19, 2009 16:55 PM
rating: 2

Bud's insistence on lying to the fans about a great many things (the popularity of interleague play, for example) makes him a very good commissioner for the owners.

But he's damaged the game. The unbalanced schedule is appallingly unfair, and it affects not only the wild card but also the draft.

And he's handled the steroid issue terribly, keeping it in the public eye to use as a tool against the union (I argued that the union should have done the same thing in 2003, but they backed down because they lacked Selig's congressional lobby).

Mar 19, 2009 10:39 AM
rating: 1

I have a hard time believing the man who froze at the 2002 All-Star game should be given any credit for the Wild Card, MLB Advance Media, and MLB Network (I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to learn interleague play WAS his idea, though).

And it's probably more accurate to say Selig's kept his job because the owners have been mostly on the same page for the past 16 years, instead of crediting Selig for keeping them together with a combination of Solomon's wisdom and Nestor's tongue (neither of which has ever been publicly displayed).

Selig has gone out of his way to trash everything about baseball except the owners whose interests he serves to the exclusion of all else. His legacy is that the owners' wallets come first, and the game can go to hell if it gets in the way.

The sooner Selig's gone, the better.

Mar 19, 2009 11:11 AM
rating: 2

Huge negative: not recognizing the favorable impact of the Olympics in the worldwide expansion of baseball. The mistake of trying to replace that (and IBAF's World Cup) with the Classic is that the latter is great promotion in countries in which baseball is popular already, while the Games are a showcase to the whole world, especially in places where baseball is unknown.
But it is natural for us in the US to be absolutely MLBcentric

Mar 19, 2009 11:49 AM
rating: 0

One weakness of the North American model of professional sports is that the league is the focus, not the game itself. The league is run as an invitation-only club, and the league sees itself as the benevolent dictator of the whole sport. There is no international baseball body with the teeth to enforce anything, so the de facto power is with Bud and his owners. And of course they're not going to cede power or financial advantage to anyone, be it the Olympics, other leagues, other countries, or the IBAF. So in other sports all of the varying leagues get together for a World Cup, but in baseball Bud puts together a WBC in such a way that MLB is showcased to as large an extent as possible. In other sports there's a consensus on how to make the Olympics matter. In baseball the sport gets kicked out, in part because MLB holds itself higher than any other competition or authority.

Great for MLB, not as optimal for spreading and growing the game around the world.

Mar 20, 2009 05:16 AM
rating: 0
Vinegar Bend

I noticed a small calculation error, I think.
If I'm understanding your table correctly, the +/Year for Frick/Eckert should be:

143.9% / 17 yrs = 8.46%, not 10.28%

Mar 19, 2009 12:06 PM
rating: -1

it should be 5.384% if geometric compounding is used. The 17th root of 2.439 (implying 143.9% growth over 17 years) is 1.05384. Similar to compound interest formulas.

Mar 19, 2009 16:59 PM
rating: -1

It would be interesting to compare MLB's growth the the NFL and NBA during the same time periods.

National TV contract values for all sports have exploded during Selig's tenure thanks to expanded distribution and competition. Combine that with the rise of regional cable deals and it seems that exploiting new revenue streams would make it easier for MLB to outpace GDP growth but not necessarily the NFL/NBA.

Mar 19, 2009 12:08 PM
rating: 0
Vinegar Bend

by the way, good article.

I think it's obvious Bud has been good for the game's bottom line. One thing you could have added was his success in helping teams obtain substantial public funding for new stadiums. Those things are cash cows for the game.

From a fan's and taxpayer's perspective, I do not care for Selig. His work has made the game less enjoyable for people like me, but you have to admit he has helped make a lot of people very rich.

Mar 19, 2009 12:14 PM
rating: 0

Bud Selig is a disaster. One good thing that happened on his watch is the wild card, but he's screwed up enough of the other things that I'm happy to believe that somebody else came up with his good ideas.

STEROIDS - go ahead and complain about the PA, Bud, but don't act like they had you by the balls. If you paint the PA as pro-steroids, as the only hurdle to comprehensive testing, they won't get very far in the court of public opinion. If Selig had called a press conference in the mid-90s and publicly demanded that the PA submit to immediate olympic-style testing, the PA would have caved. Maybe not immediately, but he had the moral high ground and an unequivocal public. He could have at least given testing a patina of inevitably that would have undoubtedly discouraged a lot of cheaters, and parlayed that into a testing system.

MLB NETWORK - gee whiz, you finally rolled it out like two years after NFL managed to? Congrats. How many points awarded for 'better late than never'?

PETER ANGELOS - you're really going to bribe this clown so that you can put an orphan club in the most obvious destination?

WASHINGTON NATIONALS - and then you're going to let the DC council jerk you around?

FLORIDA MARLINS - the yearly talent liquidations are disgusting. find a real owner.

DIVISION ASYMMETRY - there's no way to slice it so we have 5 teams in each division?

08 WS GAME 5 - disaster averted somehow, despite the Bud-bungling that everybody knew was going to happen.

ALL STAR GAMES - if you're going to make them count (which admittedly I like), find a way to make them end after nine innings.

Mar 19, 2009 12:53 PM
rating: -2

i love how ur PA (Player's Association) is linked to plate appearances. just amusing

and continuing on the Marlisn and Nationals front, Selig really has screwed over the poorer franchises. if it weren't for the genius of GMs like Beane, Beinfest, Huntington, etc..... Selig seems to love having big shot teams do well because they drag in all the money

and not being a nationals fan, even i think Selig played a huge part in screweing over the Expo fans and screwing that franchise even to this day

Mar 19, 2009 15:23 PM
rating: -1
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

Pietaster -- if Bud had his way, there would probably be more revenue sharing and a lower luxury tax threshold. Small market teams have never had a better friend than Bud -- he was a small market owner, after all. The fact that the big teams are doing well is just a symptom of the sport doing well as a whole. The small market teams are all better off than they were when Bud took over.

Mar 19, 2009 15:29 PM
Richard Bergstrom

The "big shot" teams would drag in all the money anyway, even if they didn't do well. The only real extra revenue generated from the Yankees, for example, winning the World Series is the additional tv revenue. However, a team like the Rockies or the Rays that hits the World Series not only gets additional tv revenue, it also gets an attendance bump, and in the case of the Rays, an argument for a new stadium.

Mar 19, 2009 16:58 PM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

I don't think Bud has gotten a fair shake because he often looks (and sometimes acts clueless), but he really went out on a limb on interleague play, realignment, the wild card, the WBC, and other areas which all invoked a lot of criticism, yet in the end, they've seemed to help the game.

That being said, I wouldn't give him, or the post-Kuhn commissioners, too much credit. for the increased revenue I think the additional revenue is related to the development of cable tv (and cable tv sports channels like ESPN, Fox Sports, etc). All those extra advertising dollars probably make the difference for MLB's revenue growth.

Mar 19, 2009 16:56 PM
rating: 0

He both knew about and ignored steriod use. He brought the Wildcard, which is great, but he's had more than his fair share of hiccups.

Personally, I can't see him being that hard to replace.

Mar 19, 2009 21:09 PM
rating: 0
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Not to mention he's just an asshole.

Mar 19, 2009 21:19 PM
rating: -5

"You're not wrong, Walter..."

Mar 23, 2009 13:59 PM
rating: 1

NFL commissioners Rozelle, Tagliabue, and Goodell have all proven that one can be both a financially savvy chief executive officer AND continue to keep the best interests of the game, morally and historically, as a priority. Suggesting that owners should look for someone who fulfills just one of those two goals simply because that's what Bud has done is settling for the merely acceptable rather than reaching for what can be achieved by one more capable.

Mar 19, 2009 23:36 PM
rating: 3
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Wow, a lot of ignorant commentary here, as if the people on this site don't like baseball or worse, are loser NFL fans.

Selig has done a very good job growing baseball. One just had to witness and acknowledge the rise and fall of the NBA during Selig's tenure. When was the last time the NBA was relevant? Don't get me started on the NHL, is that still functioning?

Finally, MLB is set to surpass the NFL in terms of revenue in the coming year. So for all of you NFL fanboy's get lost.

Mar 20, 2009 02:20 AM
rating: -10

Look in the mirror.

Mar 20, 2009 07:20 AM
rating: 0
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