Ranking the Commissioners, Pt. I

Sometimes, when you take a good, hard look at Bud Selig sitting before Congress or some skeptical reporter, it's tempting to get steamed.

It's not just that baseball's top leader should strike a more impressive figure. The majority of baseball fans are forgiving types who are more than happy to overlook Selig's collection of rumpled suits and vast array of frowns, scowls, and sighs. Write off that stuff as mere apprearances and style.

No, what really gets to a lot of fans is the fact that Selig has such a sorry track record as Brewers owner and long-term Commissioner. This is a guy with a spotty track record marred by the 1994 strike, whines about a phantom competitive balance problems, and phony contraction threats. He's the ‘temporary' Commissioner who stayed in office for six years before formally taking a permanent role and a guardian of ‘the best interest of baseball' whose own bottom line always came down to his own smaller market team.

Bud Selig is Milwaukee's Worst.

All of this may be true, but it's not true to say that Bud Selig is the worst head honcho the game has ever seen. He may actually be . . . one of the best.

The sad truth is, the game has seen more than it's share of the good, the bad, and the ugly in the Commissioner's office. Usually it's been less of ‘the good' and more ‘the bad and the ugly'.

To paraphrase Bob Murphy, here's a not-so-happy recap of Major League Baseball's eight previous Commissioners, with a countdown from the mediocre on down to the terrible:

8) Bart Giamatti (1989)

Background: Giamatti was a former President of Yale University. He was also an eloquent baseball fan whose boyhood living quarters were once described as a small baseball museum.

Resume: Giamatti's five month tenure was dominated by the Pete Rose gambling controversy.

Exit: Giamatti died shortly after Rose agreed to an exile from the Majors in 1989.

In some respects, Giamatti was sort of the John F. Kennedy of baseball; a charismatic, bright guy who died far too young, and before a lot of trouble went down.

It's supposed that the well-liked Giamatti might have prevented a lot of the rancor and red ink involved in the 1994 strike, but that seems unlikely at best. Giamatti, a lifelong academic, left Yale in large part because he didn't have the heart to deal with labor/management blood feuds. And the struggles in New Haven's campus were garden picnics compared to the battles hard-line owners were cooking up for the 1994 strike.

Better than Selig?: Incomplete. At best, it's uncertain if he could have topped Selig's undeniable political ear and creative accounting about MLB's financial outlook.

7) Ford Frick (1951-65)

Background: Frick started out as a sportswriter and later became President of the National League.

Resume: Frick helped found the notoriously lax Veteran's Selection Committee in the Hall of Fame, and also lobbied politicians to save Major League Baseball's precious antitrust exemption.

Frick is probably best remembered for adding a special category in the record books for Roger Maris' 1961 home run record, due to the new record's 162 game season. This separate-but-equal policy allowed Babe Ruth, Frick's longtime idol, to remain in the official records. It was the only such category on the record books, and was eventually struck out. Today Frick's action is universally portrayed as a slight on Maris' achievement.

Frick constantly refused to risk making meaningful decisions regarding the game's future direction. Whenever a controversial issue like expansion or the reserve clause came up, his favorite excuse for inaction was the rote phrase "that's a League affair." "He never did anything," said Indians General Manager Gabe Paul, "all he did was show up for work."

Exit: Served out his two terms. Today, apart from his Maris insult, he's best remembered for an old joke: "an empty cab pulled up to the curb, and out stepped Ford Frick."

Better than Selig?: No. While Selig can rightly boast about accomplishments like interleague scheduling, wild card playoffs, and surging fan attendance, about the only ‘positive' about Frick is his lack of big negatives.

6) Fay Vincent (1989-93)

Background: Vincent was a corporate executive.

Resume: Vincent, who served as Giamatti's assistant, was the default choice to replace the Commissioner when he died in office.

Vincent was known for his alienating, heavy-handed style in dealing with owners and players alike. He made many enemies through his disbursement of expansion team fees, the clumsy investigation of the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner, the suspension of Yanks reliever Steve Howe, and unilateral changes to the Major Leagues' rules of procedure.

As Commissioner, Vincent attempted to dictate decisions on divisional realignment and scheduling, only to be over-ruled by the owners. When Vincent attempted to avoid another ruinous player strike, the owners hired a separate, highly-paid lackey to do the dirty work. Vincent wouldn't go along on that one either, which eventually led to his ouster.

Exit: Fired by owners. He threatened to sue in order to hang on to his job, but soon game up. Even as a retiree, the still-bitter Vincent has kept himself busy as a second-guesser and career Selig critic.

Better than Selig?: No. Vincent never had the current Commissioner's instinct for backroom deals and ego-stroking, which is exactly why Selig decided to take Vincent's job in the first place.

5) Spike Eckhart (1965-68)

Background: Eckhart was a retired Air Force general with zero background in business or labor relations.

Eckhart didn't know baseball, either. When he was voted into office, he hadn't seen a live game in ten years. Eckhart once expressed surprise that the Dodgers had once played in Brooklyn. This was barely ten years after the last game at Ebbets Field.

Resume: Eckhart was notorious for allowing baseball to play through the 1968 season with no pause for the shattering murder of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He was nicknamed ‘the Unknown Soldier' for his obscure background, colorless demeanor, and laughable public speaking bungles.

Exit: Fired with four years left in his term.

Better than Selig?: Say what you want about Selig's personality and track record- at least he's known and loved the game since he was a kid. Eckhart guy didn't have the know-how to run a Minor League club, much less the whole baseball industry.

In Ranking the Commissioners, Pt. II- a ‘bluegrass jackass', a racketeering conspiracy, a lawyer, and a czar.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Peter Handrinos our special guest columnist is the webmaster of www.UnitedStatesOfBaseball.com and a regular contributor to www.All-Baseball.com.

You can write to at pch@UnitedStatesOfBaseball.com.

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