Selig: The Long Farewell Tour

Bud Selig is saying goodbye to Major League Baseball for all intends and purposes following the 2014 season. Selig is retiring as the game’s commissioner but will be on a farewell tour of sorts to polish up his image and maybe solve a few problems such as the need for new stadiums in Oakland (or San Jose) or the Tampa Bay market. Just because Selig is leaving doesn’t mean that all of baseball’s problems that he has helped create have been solved.

The city of San Jose is suing baseball because Selig and his staff, they believe, have shut the city out of getting the Oakland A’s franchise. That case will be heard soon. There is the Alex Rodriguez hearing over alleged steroids use and hindering Major League Baseball’s investigation of the people who allegedly sold banned substances to Rodriguez. It should be added Rodriguez never failed a drug test.

Selig was in the right place at the right time as the business of baseball grew. Selig had very little to do with the two mechanisms that allowed not only baseball but all big league professional and college sports to grow. The Reagan-era legislation — the Cable TV Act of 1984 — and the 1986 tax code reforms which gave sports incredible opportunities to grow. President Ronald Reagan’s signature on the 1984 cable bill created a basic expanded tier where all the networks were bundled as one and consumers were charged one price for a grouping and were unable to choose what networks he or she wanted. Sports networks were created and sports became the highest priced entities on cable and the owners were able to get a good chunk of cash, more than was ever available to them.

The 1986 tax code changed the way municipalities paid for stadiums and arenas. An owner, under the right circumstances could get 92 cents out of every dollar generated at every event directed to his or her business with the municipality taking eight cents on the dollar to pay down the debt on the facility.

Congressional acts and Presidential signatures made sports idiot-proof in terms of taking in revenues if an owner was smart. That had nothing to be with commissioners and baseball has made copious amounts of money off of TV and stadium leases.

Bud Selig is truly a baseball lifer. He has been in love with the game since he was a child, watching minor-league baseball in Milwaukee. In his 20s, Selig became the largest stock holder of the Milwaukee Braves, investing money he made from the family’s Ford automobile dealership. That team left Wisconsin after the 1965 season and relocated to Atlanta. But that didn’t stop Selig from finding a team to replace his beloved Braves.

In 1968 and 1969, Selig persuaded the Chicago White Sox ownership to play nine games a year in Milwaukee. He then bought the Seattle Pilots, after the team declared bankruptcy, in a rather complicated deal. Selig originally purchased the team directly from Pilots ownership – but the American League wasn’t keen on approving the deal. Selig’s lawyers suggested the Pilots ownership declare bankruptcy and that Selig could purchase the team that way.

Bud Selig may have a damaged legacy – and not just because the so-called Steroids Era took place on his watch, first as acting MLB commissioner and then as commissioner. His legacy could be tarnished by a number of decisions he made or agreed to as an owner.

Many commissioners have been elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Kenesaw Mountain Landis “cleaned” up the game after the 1919 Chicago White Sox, allegedly, threw the World Series. Landis tossed eight White Sox players out of baseball. But Landis failed to get baseball owners to lift their ban on Negroes playing Major League Baseball.

Landis’s successor, Happy Chandler, is in the Hall of Fame. Chandler’s tenure included the integration of Major League Baseball, in 1947. The story goes that Chandler was fired in 1954 because he seemed to favor the players in financial matters more than the owners liked.

Ford Frick is not enshrined in the Hall of Fame but his legacy lives on with the award of the annual Ford C Frick Award that honors a baseball announcer.

Bowie Kuhn is in the Hall of Fame. Kuhn’s tenure included strikes; an antitrust suit filed by King County in Washington over the Pilots’ move to Milwaukee, which was settled with the American League’s 1976 expansion into Seattle; and his stance defending the old reserve clause, which kept a player tied to a team in perpetuity.

Selig, it could be argued, also has a lengthy rap sheet of decisions which could be seen as detrimental to baseball.

In the late 1980s, Selig was one of 26 owners who were found guilty of collusion, for price fixing, and as a group had to pay $280 million in damages to the players. In 1995, Selig was one of 28 owners (a group that included the then Texas governor, George W Bush) who were found guilty of bad faith negotiations during the 1994-95 baseball players strike, at a court hearing before Judge Sonia Sotomayor in New York. Justice Sotomayor ended the strike.

Roughly at the same time, Selig began to campaign for a new stadium for his Milwaukee Brewers. He lost the first round, when Wisconsin voters said no to a new ballpark, but he continued to lobby Madison legislators and eventually a new stadium bill was passed, with the bulk of the money coming from a sales-tax hike in the five counties surrounding Milwaukee. Selig had pledged that the Brewers would be competitive with a new stadium, which they needed to keep up with other teams.

In 2004, Wisconsin legislators and residents were stunned to read that the Brewers, now run by Selig’s daughter, were cutting payroll and trading away the team’s top moneymakers, because the franchise was having financial woes. This was only three years after the Brewers opened the new park.

Selig was also the point man in the 2001 “contraction” talks, when MLB threatened to put two teams out of business. One of the teams on the chopping block was the Minnesota Twins; in 2002, a Minnesota judge ordered the Twins to honor their lease. Selig was still on the contraction bandwagon in February 2003, even though the collective bargaining agreement called for 30 MLB teams during the life of the deal. In a speech, Selig told Oakland businessmen that the A’s franchise was a contraction candidate.

Selig was doing Twins owner Carl Pohlad a favor and trying to create leverage in his bid for a new stadium. What was conveniently left out of the discussion was that Pohlad had lent money to Selig when Selig was running the Brewers. It could also be argued by eliminating Minnesota, the Brewers’ territory would revert to the old Milwaukee Braves territory; Selig’s Brewers would then be able to pick up fans from western Wisconsin and Minnesota, without the Twins’ competition.

There are also still some questions about Selig and his fellow owners’ actions surrounding the sale of the Boston Red Sox to the then Florida Marlins owner John Henry. The deal took place in January 2002 and had several moving parts. Henry and his group were in an auction to buy the Red Sox, Fenway Park and the New England Sports Network from the Yawkey Trust, following the death of Jean Yawkey. Henry submitted a bid of $660m which was the third highest in the process, behind Miles Prentice and a Charles Dolan-Dr. John McMullen joint bid. Major League Baseball wanted Henry in Boston. To accomplish that, Henry sold his Marlins to the Montreal Expos owner, Jeffrey Loria, and Major League Baseball took over and ran the Expos in 2002, 2003 and 2004 – before relocating the franchise to Washington DC.

The Massachusetts attorney general, Tom Reilly, talked of launching an investigation of the bidding process, but dropped the probe after making sure the Yawkey Foundation and charities got an extra $30 million. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball destroyed the Montreal baseball market.

Selig and his staff have decided that Mets owner Fred Wilpon, his brother-in-law Saul Katz and son Jeff Wilpon are suitable to own a baseball team, despite their having done business with the convicted fraudster Bernie Madoff. The Mets ownership settled with a federal trustee before a court case was to begin and agreed to give $132 million to a trustee for Madoff’s victims. Wilpon, who needed new partners to help with the Mets’ finances, brought Steven Cohen into the fold. In July, the Security and Exchange Commission called Cohen’s SAC Capital Advisors “a veritable magnet of market cheaters”, with federal prosecutors announcing criminal charges against Cohen’s hedge fund. Cohen was not charged with any crimes, though he could be barred from trading in the future. Wilpon continues to align himself with bad apples but that seems to not matter to Selig and Major League Baseball.

In 1997, Selig and his baseball owners began the process of removing Marge Schott from the ownership of the Cincinnati Reds, because of the use of racial slurs and some concern over allegations that she falsified the sales of cars at a car dealership she owned. In 1999, Schott sold the Reds.

Wilpon is part of baseball’s inner circle. Schott was not.

Selig has “modernized” baseball. In 1992, Major League Baseball didn’t want any foreigners with wealth to own a Major League team.  Seattle Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan sold his baseball team to a group of Seattle-area businessmen, led by Nintendo chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi, in the middle of the 1992 season. Yamauchi put up 60% of the $125 million purchase price. Commissioner Fay Vincent was part of the vanguard that tried to stop the transaction. There was a sever backlash and Vincent/owners retreated.  But the owners put a number of restrictions on the deal that effectively kept Yamauchi away from the day-to-day operation of the team. It’s hard to imagine baseball, which is in a globalization mode, ever pulling that again especially when there is foreign money in ownership in other United States teams.

The cable TV money is flowing into the sport at record rates. More markets are getting into post season baseball and that is partly due to the fact the owners decided that 19th century and purist rules no longer applied. There are multiple levels or playoffs and the two separate entities–the American and National Leagues have been combined into one large group. The purists and the die hards may hate interleague play but baseball had to go beyond the core constituency to survive and thrive in an environment where baseball is just an entertainment option.

In Selig’s youth, baseball was the king of American sports. At the onset of the television era, roughly 1950, American sports were dominated by baseball, boxing and horse racing. By 1965, mainly because of television, the National Football League became the number one sport in the country. Baseball had to adept or the business would have been faltering.

In Selig’s dotage, baseball has to compete for corporate and entertainment dollars in the summer with soccer. In Selig’s youth, there was no National Basketball Association, college basketball didn’t have March Madness and baseball’s spring training was a huge story. That’s not the case anymore, college basketball owns March weekends, the NBA season lasts into April and there is a long playoff grind that last two months. The National Hockey league has a national American footprint. But Selig knows all of this; his owners in baseball have a vested interest in both the NBA and NHL as does Major League Baseball which has a significant presence on the business side with both the NBA and NHL in television arrangements.

Selig is trying to be the baddest sheriff in the land cleaning baseball corruption among the players—drug usage—-and showing the public he is determined to make baseball a clean sport. Of course, only the die hards care because if steroids usage was a problem, the money would not be pouring in from cable TV partners and corporate customers and marketing alliances. Major League Baseball would be toxic.

Selig will probably be enshrined into baseball’s Valhalla in Cooperstown (most commissioners have been put into Baseball Hall of Fame—deserving or not–) and historians will debate his influence on the game. But for now, he is taking the last lap trying to shine up his legacy.

Evan Weiner can be reached at evanjweiner@gmail.com. His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at Amazon.com and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/americas-passion-how-coal/id595575002?mt=11),  From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/from-peach-baskets-to-dance/id636914196?mt=11)  and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/business-and-politics-of-sports-evan-weiner/1101715508?ean=2940044505094) are available

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