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.