Jon Pessah

Why Selig Became Commissioner

Excerpt from new book tells inside story how Selig, Fehr and Steinbrenner remade the business of baseball.

By - Aug 11th, 2015 12:43 pm
The Game

The Game

It’s the third day of September in 1992, and Milwaukee Brewers owner Allan “Bud” Selig turns his  black Lexus sedan south on Interstate  94 for the short drive to Chicago that’s been a long time coming. He’s called a meeting to decide the future of Commissioner Fay Vincent, the man he now considers the most urgent of baseball’s many problems. Most of the game’s other 27 owners want Vincent to resign, a rare display of unity, but Selig isn’t sure their resolve will hold. Nor is he certain they can fire Vincent without an ugly fight.

What Selig does know is this:

He has to persuade Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to share his rapidly growing  revenues, which Selig’s Brewers have no hopes of ever matching.

He has to force union leader Don Fehr to accept a cap on the players’ rapidly growing salaries, which his Brewers have no real hope of paying.

And he has to twist the arms of Wisconsin politicians to build a new stadium so he can pay off his rapidly growing debt.

There’s only one way to make sure all this happens: take control of the game. Now. The survival of his baseball team — and every other small market team — depends on it.

Vincent didn’t have to be shoved aside like this, Selig thinks as his car barrels down the highway. He’s been warning Vincent for months that his Commissioner’s job was in jeopardy if he didn’t agree to stay out of the upcoming labor negotiations.

Sure, there are other issues that have put Vincent’s job at risk. American League owners are still irate that Vincent gave them less than a quarter of last year’s $190 million expansion fees — $42 million to the National League’s $148 million — even though both leagues supplied the same number of players to stock the new Colorado and Florida teams. Of course the owners somehow forgot they’d asked Vincent to decide the split after they couldn’t agree among themselves.

And the Tribune Company is now taking baseball to court over Vincent’s decision to move their Chicago Cubs to the NL West along with the St. Louis Cardinals. Again, it was the NL owners who asked Vincent to make that call. But by next season the Tribune Company will pay seven teams for their broadcast rights, so that request was easy to forget, too.

Truth is, Vincent was never a comfortable fit for the game’s owners. He was already a wealthy man when he was swept into office two days after his close friend and Commissioner Bart Giamatti died of a sudden heart attack on September 1, 1989, after only five months in office. He was elevated to stardom a month later for the calm hand he displayed after a 6.9 earthquake hit minutes before Game 3 of the Giants-A’s World Series, killing 63, injuring  3,700, and paralyzing the Bay Area for days. Working with local authorities, Vincent and baseball played a key role in guiding a crippled San Francisco back to life. A dedicated baseball fan and star athlete until a fall in college left him hobbled, Vincent felt the Commissioner should tend to the interests of the owners and the players and fans. And that meant wading into labor negotiations when they stall, as they have like clockwork for almost two decades.

But the labor contract holds the key to fixing the owners’ problems, and labor talks have been Selig’s domain ever since he took over the Player Relations Committee, the owners’ bargaining unit, in 1985. Going up against Fehr and the union was his job. And Selig desperately wants Vincent out of the way.

Selig and his allies have no intention of allowing a replay of 1990, when they felt Vincent double-crossed them by meeting secretly with Fehr at his Greenwich, Connecticut, home during the owners’ long spring training lockout. Vincent undermined management’s position during that visit, taking their salary cap proposal off the table and giving in to union demands.  At least, that’s the way the owners saw it. The resulting agreement left free agency intact and player salaries continued to climb.

No, Selig isn’t taking any chances this time around. Not when he has so much at stake.

Quite simply, Selig knows he can’t keep things going in Milwaukee unless the game’s economics change — and change dramatically. He already has so many liens on his franchise that he was forced to take $35 million from baseball’s line of credit just to pay this season’s bills. He’s certain to lose a host of players to free agency in a few months, including his team’s biggest star. And he needs a new stadium, but those talks are going nowhere with the game’s financial structure in doubt.

Fehr’s solution: move the Brewers to a bigger market. Selig was a 31-year-old car dealer and the largest nonvoting shareholder of the Milwaukee Braves when his team packed up and moved to Atlanta for the 1966 season. It took four years for him to beg, borrow, and all but steal a team out of a Seattle bankruptcy court to bring Major League Baseball back to Milwaukee. He’ll be damned if his home- town will lose a baseball team for the second time.

Selig’s mind turns to his relationship with Fehr. Nothing infuriates baseball’s owners more than the media calling Fehr the game’s most powerful man.  Selig believes all Fehr really cares about is getting big money for his players. And that’s why he has to be stopped, if not driven from the game completely.

Not that Selig hasn’t already tried and lost. It was Fehr who took the owners to arbitration — ­three­­times — after they stopped bidding on free agents for three seasons in the late ’80s. Each time Fehr accused the owners of collusion, and each time an arbitrator agreed. It cost the owners $280 million — almost $11 million each — to settle all cases. Selig is still working to pay off that bill.

Selig glances in his rearview mirror and sees the man who negotiated that settlement, Foley & Lardner lawyer Bob DuPuy, sitting in the backseat of the Lexus, behind Bud’s daughter Wendy. DuPuy looks a bit nervous, and Selig jokes that they both need to relax instead of worrying about how fast he’s weaving his car through traffic.

Was it only last May that he instructed DuPuy to work with a growing number of owners who wanted to sack Vincent? What began as a group of six teams grew to 18, and Selig had DuPuy monitor their meetings, coordinate with their lawyers, and report everything back to him. When Vincent got word of these meetings, he told them what they were considering was meaningless — the game’s constitution clearly states that a sitting Commissioner can- not be removed. It became DuPuy’s task to find a hole in Vincent’s argument, a task that turned into a full-time job.

Selig glances over at his daughter. He’s been grooming Wendy to run his team almost since the morning his then 10-year-old little girl burst into his bedroom, tears streaming down her cheeks, demanding to know why her father had traded pitcher Marty Pattin — her favorite player! — while she was fast asleep. Now 32, Wendy is smart, driven, and as big a Brewers fan as her 58-year-old dad.

Milwaukee was a great baseball town when Selig was young, setting attendance records and celebrating Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn when the Braves won a World Series title back in ’57. But that was before free agency made winning far more complicated — and a whole lot more expensive.  And long before the size of a team’s television market mattered more than the number of tickets sold.

The cable television explosion in the late ’80s changed every- thing. Steinbrenner’s record-setting $486 million, 12-year deal with the MSG Network in 1988 was just the canary in the mine, warning owners like Bud of the trouble that lay ahead. Now, in 1992, 60 percent of America is wired for cable, a number that’s growing fast. The cable monopolies are in need of programming to fill their 24/7 systems, and baseball offers 162 reality shows a season.

But Milwaukee, bound by Chicago to the south, Minnesota to the west, and Lake Michigan to the east, is an old Rust Belt town with a shrinking population. Cable television will bury Milwaukee, not save it — unless Selig can persuade the Steinbrenners of baseball to share their growing profits.

Selig thinks about the clashing agendas he’ll encounter in Chicago. Most of the owners don’t care much for each other — too much wealth, too many egos — but Bud is a friend to them all, a skill he learned long ago as a salesman for his father’s Ford dealership. He doesn’t mind the dysfunction — hell, he’s learned to benefit from it — but he does hate the way most of them do business.

Seven teams — the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Cubs, and Orioles — earn the lion’s share of baseball’s bounty, a record $1.2 billion this season. And they want to keep it that way; revenue sharing isn’t in their vocabulary. Teams in the middle — the Cardinals, Rangers, Indians, and the like — spend wildly when they think they can win. But too often, they simply get burned.

Seven others — the Pirates, Expos, Twins, Padres, Royals, Mariners, and Bud’s Brewers — have just about given up hope. With the wealth gap growing ever larger, Selig would just as soon follow the advice of his close friend, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and use a lockout to shut down the game and force a change rather than continue fighting a losing battle.

Selig’s thoughts shift back to Vincent. He’s been in baseball for all of three years, and thinks he has all the answers. Bud’s been in base- ball for 32 years, longer than all but three owners, and no decisions are made without his blessing. Yes, baseball’s constitution allows the Commissioner to weigh in on any issue, but all Vincent’s predecessors understood they worked for the owners. Rarely did a Commissioner cross them. And when they did — “Commissioneritis” is what the owners call it — they were dismissed at the end of their terms.

Damn, Vincent just never listened. Vincent is already threatening to take them all to court if they try to fire him. But he’s crossed so many owners in his three years that most of them have been calling Selig regularly for months, demanding Vincent’s head. Let him sue, they’re telling Bud. We’ll take our chances. The Commissioner still has his supporters, including one whose father sits in the White House, but as Selig and his two passengers approach Chicago, he knows a tipping point has been reached.

It’s time for Fay to go.

And time for Bud to take charge.

© Excerpted from the book The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball’s Power Brokers. Copyright © 2015 by Jon Pessah. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

Jon Pessah was a founding editor of ESPN the Magazine. He has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, managed the sports departments of Newsday and The Hartford Courant, and edited, wrote, and ran the investigative team for ESPN the Magazine., @jonpessah

Categories: Books

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