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Office of the Commissioner, Part II: The Owners’ Pit Bull

Fay Vincent gets canned, and the business changes drastically.

Sports Contributor Archive 2019 Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

If you’re a fan of a certain age, and I mean, if you are older than me, you probably know quite a bit about this second phase of the Commissioner of Baseball. Fay Vincent is put in the job after A. Bart Giamatti’s death, and in his first six months in office, oversees the 1990 spring training lockout, and the lifetime ban of George Steinbrenner — that ban later was overturned, of course, but at the time, the dude was supposed to be gone.

The banishment of the sport’s most famous (or infamous, I suppose) owner might be the most catchy thing about Vincent’s tenure, but the most important thing is that 1990 lockout. Don Fehr, at the time the head of the MLBPA, feared that negotiations on a new CBA would ultimately lead to a salary cap, restricting player movement and putting downward pressure on salaries leaguewide. In a neat bit of foreshadowing, owners also proposed a pay-by-performance system for players who hadn’t yet reached free agency — the rankings wouldn’t be determined by WAR, but the guts are the same as the proposal in this 2022 lockout.

Fay Vincent saw himself as at least partially responsible for mediating the conflict, positioning himself both publicly and in closed door meetings as the bridge that could join the two sides. Spring training was wiped out but players got away with no salary cap...and it probably cost Fay Vincent his job.

The no-confidence push didn’t happen right away, of course, but an unsatisfactory resolution to the lockout, as well as dwindling television ratings at a time when TV was moving from the domination of the Big Three broadcasters to cable and satellite, was enough to build a coalition of owners unhappy with their representation. The third charge was rapidly increasing salaries, which in particular had exploded under the then-new CBA:

Source: Notre Dame School of Law

It’s worth pointing out that, even though salaries do continually rise through the 80s and early 90s, the only points of real stagnation come right around the time Peter Ueberroth convinces owners to worry about year-over-year profitability, and immediately after Vincent is ousted.

It took two more years before the Great Lakes Gang — the owners of the Brewers, White Sox, Cubs, Twins, and Dodgers — led the coup against Fay Vincent, and after losing a no-confidence vote by two-thirds, Vincent resigned. Bring on Bud Selig.

Others have documented the career of Selig better than I could — the strike of 1994, the Wild Card, steroids, expansion, the relocation of the Montreal Expos — as he ultimately served in the job longer than any chief executive, save Judge Landis almost a century before. There are lots of places where you can read up on the major accomplishments and events under Selig’s tenure; what matters to me is the centralization of control over the Commissioner’s Office. Neither Selig nor Rob Manfred, who is basically Bud Selig if you took away his ownership experience and any semblance of personal warmth, see themselves as the bridge joining the two sides of baseball. They are the attack dogs of ownership.

We’ve seen over the past two posts that the role of Commissioner has gradually shifted towards favoring the owner, after the initial aspiration of independence. Some of them have made it more explicit than others, but once Selig took the job, the plausible deniability, for anyone paying attention, went away.

But that last bit is the key, you have to be paying attention. MLB still markets the Commissioner as though he were above it all — his title is Commissioner of Baseball — and even though his direct counterpart is head of the MLBPA, Tony Clark, the union doesn’t receive the press or adulation that the commish gets. Tony Clark isn’t handing the World Series trophy out in November.

A century ago, baseball found itself in need of fundamental reforms, and afforded a wide degree of leverage and authority to a single man, who reshaped baseball in his own image. If the overall trend of salaries in the game has crept up, the overall relationship between owner and Commissioner has grown closer and closer, until eventually an owner himself took the job.

This level of closeness not only undermines the spirit of the Office of the Commissioner, but it presents a competitive imbalance in the relationship between owners and players. Commissioners are groomed; we went from an actual owner of a team in the role, to his hand-picked deputy, and Dan Halem has to be the odds-on favorite to replace Rob Manfred. The closeness between Commissioner and ownership allows for a kind of stability the union doesn’t have — where they swerved from the Company Man, labor lawyer type to Tony Clark.

I don’t think that Tony Clark is stupid, or over his head. He was deeply involved in union activities as a player, but there’s a cohesiveness and continuity to MLB governance that I just don’t think happens at the PA level. Not to mention, Rob Manfred has to be the pit bull for 30 men, 30 men who are all excessively wealthy, who speak English, who probably would be brushing elbows with each other at country clubs and auctions if they weren’t members of the same monopoly. Tony Clark has to be the pit bull for 1,200 people, on very different ends of the income spectrum, from all over the world, some of whom would be mechanics or restauranteurs if it weren’t for a scout seeing them in high school.

The Office of the Commissioner, such as it exists today, does little for the overall integrity of the game. If Judge Landis wasn’t such a racist, power-mad despot, one would almost pine for the return of an independent chief executive. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m going to propose next week.