How Bud Selig Almost Ruined Baseball

In a scathing and often surprising new book, the former baseball commissioner comes off as a greedy manipulator who did little to clean up baseball while Steinbrenner looks, well, better.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Chicks may have dug the long ball in the ’90s, but as the game of professional baseball entered the 2000s the story became less about the home runs and more about the reason behind all those home runs—steroids.

This shift was overseen by one of the more controversy-prone commissioners in recent sports history—Bud Selig. During his tenure as baseball commissioner, the sport witnessed treasured records broken, a resurgent Yankees dynasty, a curse-free Red Sox, ungodly gobs of money, and steroids—and all of it now captured in the fascinating The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball’s Power Brokers by journalist Jon Pessah.

“There’s no question sex sells,” writes Pessah about the famous Heather Locklear “chicks dig the long ball” commercial. “But in baseball, history sells even better.”

This juicy read focuses on three men who shaped that history over these two decades—Selig, union head Don Fehr, and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

Over the course of nearly 600 pages, Pessah shines a harsh and unforgiving light on the contentious tenure of Selig, and at various points comes just shy of calling him outright corrupt. Conversely, Fehr, long a punching bag viewed as protecting pampered athletes, comes across as a well-respected champion of all players constantly under assault by a duplicitous Selig and other owners. But the most surprising part of the book is without a doubt the portrait of Steinbrenner. While still rendered as an insatiable tyrant, the Boss—and his willingness to put his money where his mouth is—is a breath of fresh air.

The tale begins with one of the many controversies in Selig’s career: his coup against Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1992.

Selig was the team president and one of the owners of the perenially cash-strapped Milwaukee Brewers. In Pessah’s telling, Selig orchestrated the coup largely for selfish reasons. He wanted somebody who would curb player salaries and increase revenue sharing (both of these would benefit the Brewers and thus Selig’s wallet) and didn’t think Vincent was up to the job. The story follows Selig as he stage-manages the coup—playing George W. Bush, corralling owners—and then watches as he consolidates power as soon as he takes the reins.

From here on in the book, Selig’s actions as commissioner are viewed largely through two lenses. The first is that he continued to have a stake in the Brewers while commissioner, and put his daughter in charge of the team. This meant that anything that helped the Brewers’ bottom line, or increased its value for a sale, helped Selig. The second lens is that any action he took outside of the financial realm was made by a man obsessed with his legacy, most notably when it came to steroids.

For instance, Selig has little compunction about making taxpayers pick up the bill for a new Brewers stadium, but refuses to put it downtown to help revitalization efforts. Instead he wants it outside “in an empty valley … where food sales and parking fees maximize profits.”

In 2001, after he squandered the goodwill engendered by the Yankees and 9/11 by threatening cities with contraction, it’s revealed that just as he is claiming poverty, the Brewers were the most profitable team in the league.

Pessah points out a particularly embarrassing moment for the Seligs in 2004, when the team’s value had soared with a new stadium. His daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb, claimed they were “not at all” thinking about selling the team, only to have a report they gave to potential investors leaked that detailed their plans to cut the budget for the next three seasons.

Pessah is particularly unrelenting when it comes to Selig’s mismanagement of the Brewers. While Selig often cries foul about how hard it is to have success, Pessah cuts him down by declaring that “like most owners of losing teams, Selig refuses to consider that maybe he—and now his daughter—might not be very good at building a baseball team.” Pessah points to the 1999 Reds, whose payroll was $10 million less than the Brewers, and yet were in contention. Or that midway through the 2000 season, “it’s Jerry Reinsdorff’s White Sox—whose $31.7 million payroll ranks 26th—who have the game’s best record.” Other teams that year that rank 17th, 18th, and 24th in payroll are also contending, and teams with the 14th, 17th, 24th, and 26th ranked payrolls would make the playoffs. The 2000s would become the decade of “Moneyball” made famous by the mid-market Oakland A’s, who were competitive each year despite a crappy stadium and a financial situation not dissimilar from that of the Brewers.

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Selig also became rich, stupendously rich, as commissioner. Not only did he end up selling the Brewers for more than $200 million thanks to a new stadium and revenue sharing, but he turned the commissioner’s job into a princely position. In 2001, he got a new contract paying him $14.5 million a year through 2006. This is followed by a three-year extension averaging $18 million a year. In 2009, when he earns more than $18 million, “only 10 players will take home more than the game’s commissioner.” By becoming commissioner and consolidating power, Selig will have gone from making low six figures as a minority owner of an impoverished franchise to “an estimated net worth in excess of $200 million.”

And when it comes to the issue of steroids in baseball, the book is only further proof of what many baseball fans have long thought—Selig was just one of many only too happy to look the other way as home runs rescued baseball from the disastrous cancelled 1994 season.

Even worse, in Pessah’s telling, are Selig’s attempts to rewrite history, often at the expense of players.

In 2005, he claimed that in the ’90s he tried to find out information about steroids, but claimed not a single person told him. But Pessah points out that former Padres GM Randy Smith spoke out about them in 1995. Pessah also claims that many of the owners were skeptical of the investigation Selig commissioned by Senator George Mitchell, but “no one [was] willing to say out loud what some think Mitchell’s investigation is really about: cleaing up Bud Selig’s legacy.” Which of course, it doesn’t.

Selig claims in 2009 in an interview with Newsday that, “Starting in 1995, I tried to institute a steroid policy,” but Pessah notes that Selig had previously claimed “he never heard a word about steroids until Andro was discovered in Mark McGwire’s locker room in 1999.”

And when it comes to the most recent steroid scandal, the 162-game suspension for Alex Rodriguez, Pessah sides with those who interpret the episode as Selig trying to fix his legacy.

“Selig,” Pessah writes regarding the crackdown on A-Rod, “likes to frame everything in historical context. What history will show is the ninth commissioner of baseball bungled the final act of his 22-year career.”

And toward the end of the book, Pessah claims “there are those in the game who wonder what might have been had Selig taken responsibly when all the trouble started and pledged to clean up his game.”

The book is not only about Selig, as there was another figure who loomed over baseball in this time period. As hard as it is to admit as a Red Sox fan, I came away from the book with a grudging respect for George Steinbrenner.

“I’m a charitable guy, but I don’t like the idea of a socialist state,” the book quotes Steinbrenner ranting at an owners meeting about revenue sharing and a luxury tax. “The Yankees shouldn’t be punished for their success.”

And it’s hard to disagree with a man who, along with his management team, is constantly hustling to think of new ways to bring in money. But the biggest reason Steinbrenner cuts such a sympathetic figure is the same thing he was so often vilified for—his payroll.

That gargantuan payroll that metastasized into the hundreds of millions, may be a sign of baseball’s inequality, but it is also a signifier of what set the Boss apart—he put the money back into the team because he wanted to win. This stands in direct contrast to many of the small-market teams who so often complained.

Pessah notes that in 1999, “the Expos, Twins, and Royals all pocketed their revenue sharing checks instead of putting the money back into their team the way Steinbrenner does with his profits.” In that year, the Expos payroll was smaller than their revenue sharing check, and thus turned a profit. In 1997, a chunk of the teams are using their revenue sharing checks they claimed they so desperately needed to pay down debt or pocketing them rather than using it to stay competitive. In fact, Steinbrenner “suspects that Selig’s doing the same thing with the Brewers’ revenue sharing checks.”

The third major player in the book is the head of the MLB Players’ Association, Don Fehr. In large part because of how Selig is portrayed—as a less than honest negotiator, egotistical, and possibly behind the owners’ collusion in the ’80s—Fehr comes across as reasonable and on the right side of the argument.

Selig was one of the more powerful and best paid individuals in all of professional sports for the last 20 years. Despite his attempts to powerwash the grime of scandal from his legacy, how he handled, or rather mishandled, that issue of steroids will likely be his legacy. However, his lasting effect on the game may be the collateral damage. By trying to place full blame for steroids on the players, he has taken out an entire era of icons. In a sport where history, not sex, sells—that’s devastating.