Since Kennisaw Landis was elected commissioner of baseball in November 1920, nine different men have occupied the office. With only a few short-lived exceptions, they are not popular while serving.
They’re not supposed to be.
Fans want to watch the action on the field. The commissioner’s job is to handle everything off the field. We see billionaires trying to suck the fun out of a great game. We usually don’t see executive actions as being an essential part of that enjoyment.
Through that biased viewpoint, fans in most professional sports show their distaste for any sitting commissioner whenever he appears on the field, court, or ice.
This article is an attempt to evaluate the current commissioner of baseball’s most important decisions and accomplishments in the most objective way possible, even though the results of his actions won’t be fully recognized for years, and in some cases, decades.
Introduction of the Wild Card and divisional realignment: A+
It’s hard to imagine the fact that this was such a controversial idea back in the mid-nineties. For all of the fear that this would diminish the regular season, the result has been the exact opposite.
The MLB postseason is still the most difficult for which to qualify, and it is rare to see a poor team rewarded. Instead, it has given us great September races nearly every year, with a third of each league thinking their in contention on Labor Day. Before this change, some years had three teams in contention.
Introduction of Interleague play: A-
Everyone loves the regional rivalries in Chicago, New York, and the Bay Area. Sure, for every packed house at Wrigley there is an empty park in Kansas City when the Pirates come calling, but would it really make a difference if it were the Blue Jays?
The unbalanced schedule prevents this from being a solid “A,” but it injects some excitement into some otherwise dull midsummer weekends.
Moving the Brewers to the National League: C
Before steroids, the biggest complaint with Selig was the feeling the sport was being run for the benefit of the Milwaukee Brewers. Milwaukee was not a bad choice to change leagues, as it is an historical NL city. The rivalry with the Cubs has caught on, and the leagues both have an even (but not equal) number of teams.
Not a bad decision, but the Marlins to the AL would have been better. A potential for a rivalry with Tampa, and bringing the Red Sox and Yankees to South Florida a few times a year would help a struggling market.
Maybe this isn’t even mentioned if Selig didn’t have Brewer ties, but it just doesn’t sit well with me that the Brewers benefited the most.
Losing the antitrust exemption: Incomplete
In 1922, the famous Federal Baseball Club v. National League case gave Major League Baseball a virtual exemption from antitrust law because baseball games did not cross state lines and were not subject to federal law.
In 1953, Toolson v. New York Yankees specifically gave Major League Baseball the exemption, although the ruling claimed it was done in 1922 and was settled law. Even though the revenue structure had started to change, the case said that only legislation could override the earlier Supreme Court decision.
If you are so inclined, it is fascinating reading to review the majority opinion in each of these cases, but there is hardly the space to cover it here. Suffice it to say, the antitrust exemption mattered for seven decades in negotiations regarding player contracts, other leagues, and potentially dealings with outside agencies.
The Curt Flood Act of 1998 only applies to labor negotiations, and most experts think it is only lip service from politicians 30 years too late. Call it a hunch, but this will come back to be influential yet again. It’s hard to fault Selig too much for this, but if he’s going to get credit for the positive things on his watch, this deserves some mention.
18 New Stadiums: A
As someone who despises public funds going to professional sports stadia, I was appalled when I looked back at how many were built in the Selig era. When the Twins and Marlins move into their new playgrounds, it will be 20.
Factor in the expansion Devil Rays, and this is two-thirds of Major League Baseball playing in a ballpark built during Selig’s reign. Despite my opinions, Selig’s job isn’t the budget of the municipalities that host MLB games; his is the prosperity of the clubs.
Undoubtedly these new stadiums have helped to ensure profitability of the teams, and thus the stability of the game.
Revenue Sharing: B
Although an NHL-style hard cap would likely be more effective to ensure competitive balance, the fact that Selig got any kind of money to change hands was an unbelievable accomplishment.
The formula is a bit flawed with stadium money counting against revenue, and the fact that shared ownership of teams and the television network carrying their games is a blatant avoidance of the intent, prevent this grade from being an “A+.”
The fact is, 10 years ago only five or six teams had realistic title hopes leaving Arizona or Florida in March. Today, over half the league (and thus, half the fans) believe this is their year. It’s hard to ask for much more.
Pt. 2 can be found here.