The vote has not yet occurred for which players will be inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I might write about that, when the time comes. In the meantime, I am writing about the selection of two inductees in the baseball executive category: John Schuerholz and Bud Selig.
Honestly, I don’t have much to say about Schuerholz. He was around a long time. He ran a couple of clubs (the Royals and the Braves) that were successful under him. Is this enough to put him in the Hall? Who knows? What is the standard for an executive? I have no idea. It isn’t obvious what sets Schuerholz apart from other guys who were around a long time running successful clubs. My guess is that he is personally popular among The Powers That Be, so they gave him a nice Christmas present. I can’t get excited one way or the other.
Selig is another matter. Anyone who has paid any attention to the business of baseball over the last quarter century is intensely conscious of Bud Selig. Here is the Hall of Fame’s bio of him. It is the happy talk propaganda version, and is quite dull. The more interesting stuff is, as is the nature of these things, left out.
The thumbnail version is that he made his money as a car dealer. He led the group that bought the Seattle Pilots in 1970 and moved them to Milwaukee. (So far as I can tell, not even fans in Seattle manage to get worked up about this.) He was active within the MLB ownership, especially as chairman of the owners’ Player Relations Committee. In 1992, MLB fired its Commissioner, Fay Vincent and appointed Selig interim Commissioner. The “interim” was removed in 1998 and he was the Commissioner until his retirement in 2015.
The thing to understand about the office of the Commissioner of Baseball is that he is an employee of MLB, which is to say of the owners of the major league clubs. When you hear talk of “the best interests of the game” you should understand that this is code for protecting profits. Don’t be fooled by the baseball-mom-and-apple-pie rigamarole. This is a smoke screen used to disguise the business realities.
Fay Vincent was fired because he overlooked this. He embarrassed the owners by admitting that they had colluded to lower player salaries in the ‘80s. He was too conciliatory while resolving the 1990 lockout. He negotiated with the players’ union in good faith. He had to go. Selig, unlike Vincent, was reliable.
This is hinted at in that Hall of Fame bio, which says he was “thrust into the battle between labor and management, which culminated in the 1994 strike and cancellation of that year’s World Series.” He had been leading that fight for the owners all along. This just made it obvious. The strike was the result of an attempt by MLB to break the players’ union, as the NFL had done a few years earlier with its players’ union. (The Wikipedia article I linked to does not make this clear, what with its neutral point of view.) When the Hall of Fame piece praises him for his leadership as “baseball slowly returned to normal” we should keep in mind that he was central to the whole sordid mess in the first place.
There is a lot more that could be said about Selig’s tenure. Consider the steroids debacle. Wherever you fall on the steroids issue, it is hard to argue that MLB’s handling of it wasn’t a cluster fuck. We could also talk about collusion. He wasn’t commissioner during the collusion of the 1980s–merely a participant–but people forget that MLB paid out another, smaller settlement in 2006. It had the traditional disclaimer of any admission of guilt, but let us not imagine the payment was made in a spirit of charity.
But this isn’t what I want to write about. I am here today to write about the major league baseball contraction of 2002. You may not remember that, and if you go look at the records you will find that MLB did not in fact contract in 2002. But this wasn’t for lack of trying.
Turn the pages of memory back to 2001. Baseball finances were a fraction of what they are today. Worse, they weren’t as strong as they had been previously. Attendance took a hit following the 1994 strike Selig had orchestrated, and had only recently returned to pre-strike levels. The strike had screwed up MLB’s television deals, taking years to sort out. Worst of all, the strike hadn’t even succeeded in breaking the union. Players still selfishly insisted upon being paid salaries based on their free market value. The owners were sad. (They would get sadder. The steroids scandal was starting to heat up. But that mostly came later.)
Enter the contraction idea. MLB would cut out two teams, the Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins. How would this help its finances? Those were two of the weak sisters, financially speaking, so there would be an element of culling the herd. (The Expos, by the way, had a six game lead in their division when the 1994 strike hit. Their subsequent financial problems were, in part, more fallout of the strike.) But the real point was leverage against the union. Contraction would throw 50 major league players into the market. (80, if we count the entire forty man roster.) This, in addition to being a nice “fuck you” in its own right, would lower player values.
It also would serve as a cautionary tale for cities contemplating not ponying up the cash for new stadiums. The Twins had been playing in the Metrodome, which by all accounts was a terrible venue, and wanted a new ballpark. They didn’t want to pay for it, of course. That would be crazy talk. But the state and local governments had uncharacteristically developed vertebrae, and refused to be shaken down. Letting this pass would set a bad precedent. At the same time, contraction would open up the Minneapolis market for future shakedowns of other cities. A team needs a plausible place to move to if it is to mount a credible threat. Tampa Bay had traditionally served that function, but then MLB actually put a team in there, ending that party. Having Minneapolis as an open market, yearning for the return of major league baseball, would be sweet!
So far this is all pretty standard stuff. It’s hardball, but everyone knows the rules. Selig’s personal interest is what makes this interesting. Recall that he owned the Milwaukee club. It is a five hour drive between Milwaukee and Minneapolis, so there wasn’t a lot of potential for an attendance boost. But this was the era of the TBS superstation expanding the Braves’ television market, while WGN was trying to do the same thing with the Cubs’ weaker product. The idea of extending the Brewers’ TV audience into Minnesota was not implausible, and many people at the time assumed that this was Selig’s motivation.
This alone was a clear conflict of interest, but things get juicier. Selig was pals with Carl Pohldad, the owner of the Twins. Pohldad wanted out. There was that non-existent stadium deal making him sad, plus lousy attendance. The attendance was lousy partly because the stadium sucked, but mostly because the Twins sucked. The Twins, in turn, had a tiny payroll by MLB standards, so its not as if Pohldad had nothing to do with this suckage.
In any case, Pohldad wanted out. Of course he could simply sell the franchise. It was estimated to be worth about $100 million. That would be nice, but even nicer would be to sell it for more than it was worth. What was MLB going to pay to buy him out? Estimates vary from $150 to $250 million. I incline toward the lower figure, which is still well above $100 million. Why would MLB, meaning the owners collectively, overpay? There arguably are some structural reasons why this sort of deal gives the club owner additional leverage, but I don’t know about that. What is clear is that Selig was lobbying hard for this, and by all accounts Selig was a master. The mere fact that he corralled the herd of cats that were the MLB owners for decades speaks to his political skills. (Insert joke about car salesmen here.)
This brings us to the real conflict of interest. Selig, in the 1990s, was not wealthy by MLB owner standards. Pohldad had made a personal loan to him of $3 million in 1995. It was a short term loan and was repaid on time, but the fact remains that this was against MLB rules. It wasn’t disclosed as the rules required, and only came out through an act of journalism during the contraction brouhaha.
So in short, Selig was working to screw over (1) the players, (2) the fans, (3) the taxpayers, and (4) his fellow owners in what looks suspiciously like a hand-job to help out a guy who had done him a favor. What a sweetheart.
The contraction never happened, despite Selig’s best efforts. There was the inevitable race to the courthouse. The commission that operated the Metrodome won the race, and got an injunction. It turned out that the Twins’ lease ran another year, and the judge insisted that they actually fulfill their contractual obligations. It’s like we live in Russia!
A year later the moment had passed, and the contraction idea was dropped. The story has a happy ending, though. Eventually Pohldad succeeded in extorting a new stadium from the taxpayers, and God was once more in His heavens. By the time Selig announced his retirement, he was claiming he had never had anything to do with anything, saying “Baseball was really struggling at the time, losing a fortune as a sport. There were owners who believed that contraction might help. I wasn’t of that particular view, but the owners were searching around”
So why do The Powers That Be get all moist and tingly at the thought of Bud Selig, such that they voted to enshrine him with Babe Ruth? Because he made them money. Partly he rode the wave of the cable television sports boom. To this extent he simply avoided screwing up too badly. But he also continued to fight the good fight against player salaries. In 1996 player salaries were about 50 percent of MLB’s baseball-related income. By 2014 he had gotten this down to 38 percent. Selig did OK for himself, too. He eventually sold the Brewers for about $200 million and negotiated his salary as Commissioner up to $18 million a year. He clearly was worth this to the owners, and his election to the Hall of Fame is the final installment of his compensation.
Compare this with the Hall of Fame non-induction of Marvin Miller. Miller is a towering figure in the history of baseball. He made the Major League Baseball Players Association into the powerhouse union it remains to this day. He is largely responsible for ending the reserve clause in its traditional form, resulting in the players getting a piece of the action. The owners have never forgiven him. He was put up for election to the Hall of Fame in 2003 and 2007, but The Powers That Be managed to block it.
I have a mixed relationship with the Hall of Fame. It is really three institutions in one. There is the museum, the research center, and the room with the plaques. The museum is excellent. Sports museums all have their element of soft-focus sentimentality, but the Hall manages to keep this to a minimum, and the collection is superb. The research center is a serious research library, within its narrow focus, and the staff efficient and professional. The room with the plaques is, well, a room full of plaques. The people who run the museum and library parts don’t really have anything to do with it. (Take one of them out for a beer and ask what they really think of it.) I go there every year for an early baseball conference. They are lovely and gracious hosts. The room with the plaques? I pass through it on my way back to the library. I don’t slow down.
The criteria for induction in the Hall of Fame are only vaguely defined, for players and especially for non-players. Many people want it to be about people they have heard of. They want to go admire plaques of the heroes of their childhood and of famous players they have seen movies about. I find this supremely uninteresting. A more interesting approach is that it commemorates people we should remember: People who, if you want to understand the history of baseball, you need to know about. If this is the standard, then I have no problem with Bud Selig being included along with William Hulbert and Ban Johnson and Kennesaw Mountain Landis. They were sons of bitches, but if you don’t know who they were and what they did, you don’t know baseball history. Selig fits right in. But the same is true of Marvin Miller, except for the “son of a bitch” part. Include him and we have a history museum. Leave him out and we have an owners’ mutual admiration society and circle jerk. Excuse me if I avert my eyes.