Bud Selig, newly elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, has been called the greatest commissioner of all time.
Among his laudable accomplishments: making Major League Baseball more profitable than ever and helping to introduce revenue sharing and an expanded playoff system that affords smaller market teams (and fans) the hope that they will have a chance to dance in October. If making money for your employer and expanding the business are the most important metrics of success, then Selig has made all 30 of his team-owning bosses very happy for over two decades.
But nothing comes without a price.
Selig became commissioner (technically “acting commissioner” from 1992-1998) after establishing himself as one of the game’s worst owners. As boss of the Milwaukee Brewers, he illegally colluded with other owners by refusing to sign each others’ free-agent players, thus artificially keeping salaries down. He shook down local taxpayers to pay for a new stadium for the Brewers (who are still paying for its maintenance) then rewarded them by cutting payroll. He led the obstructionist wing of MLB ownership that ousted the last truly independent commissioner, Fay Vincent, and then assumed the role for himself.
Once Selig was named “interim” commissioner, he transferred ownership of the Brewers to his daughter, who proved to be just as an inept an owner as her father. For his part, Selig refused to accept that some people are better at running a baseball business than others, and decided that a hard salary cap was the only way to achieve parity throughout the league. This posture—which came to be known as “billionaires vs. millionaires”—led to the devastating 1994 players’ strike, which wiped out that year’s World Series, something two World Wars and the 9/11 terror attacks weren’t able to do. Despite the lost season, Selig failed to get his salary cap.
When baseball came back in 1995, things looked bleak for the mogul of Midwestern used-car salesmen. But then something magical happened: Home runs started flying out of ballparks at a record pace.
By the time of the great home-run chase of 1998, baseball was in a full-fledged renaissance. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa obliterated Roger Maris’s 37-year-old single-season home-run record, TV ratings were up, ballparks were once again well-attended, and the strike seemed a distant and regrettable memory.
It wasn’t until Jose Canseco published his tell-all book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big in 2005 that Selig was forced to confront the house of cards that his kingdom rested on.
Congressional hearings were held, performance-enhancing drug (PED) testing was slowly implemented, and Selig did his best Captain Renault impression—even making a showy display of standing and putting his hands in his pockets rather than applauding when attending the game where notorious steroid suspect Barry Bonds tied Hank Aaron’s all-time home-run record. He’d later commission the Mitchell Report, which named and shamed a number of players linked to PEDs. After that, Selig hired ex-cops and federal agents to hunt down evidence linking Alex Rodriguez and other players to the Florida PED-dealing “anti-aging” clinic Biogenesis, even paying known criminals in cash for stolen documents to prove how serious he was about protecting the “integrity” of the game.
Yet, Bonds isn’t in the Hall of Fame, despite seven Most Valuable Player awards. Neither is Roger Clemens, despite seven Cy Young Awards. Forget about McGwire and Sosa, they’re in danger of falling of the Hall of Fame ballot altogether. The universally disliked A-Rod’s 696 home runs won’t be enough to get him into Cooperstown. Even players who haven’t even been linked to steroids, such as Jeff Bagwell, have thus far been frozen out of the Hall of Fame by voters who’ve decided to appoint themselves the PED morality police, casting an especially skeptical eye on any slugger who played during the “steroid era.”
But the “steroid era” is “the Selig era,” and it’s simply ridiculous to place a blanket judgment on the players who had their best years when a great many of their colleagues were cheating, yet accept Selig’s mealy mouthed regrets about not “doing more” regarding PEDs. Worse, Selig continues to get away with the bald-faced lie that he was unaware of steroid usage in baseball during the power surge of the late 1990s, despite the FBI explicitly telling MLB officials (who worked for Selig) of McGwire’s PED usage as early as 1993.
Selig’s election to the Hall in his first year of eligibility lays bare the incoherence of sanctimonious Hall of Fame voters with regard to PEDs. If the argument is that Selig’s accomplishments shouldn’t be clouded by his legacy as overseer of the most notorious period in post-integration baseball, then Clemens and Bonds—respectively the best pitcher and hitter of their generation—should be elected to the Hall of Fame, as well.
In all likelihood, Hall of Fame voters will continue to freeze out anyone even tangentially linked to PEDs. That is, until David Ortiz is eligible for the Hall.
Despite Ortiz’s name appearing on a list of failed PED tests from 2003, current MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred made the unprecedented move to urge Hall of Fame voters to disregard the test and “look into their conscience” to determine whether or not “Big Papi” is worthy of enshrinement in Cooperstown.
Ultimately, PED moralism only extends as far as the popularity of the person in question. Ortiz is widely adored, while the obnoxious Bonds, surly Clemens, and pathologically needy A-Rod are loathed.
Selig—for all his hypocrisy and mismanagement—made a lot of rich people richer, and some of them were on the 16-member committee that voted him into the Hall of Fame. The lesson: in baseball, popularity absolves all sins.