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The Office of the Commissioner, Part I: How we got here

Out of scandal, an office of once-supreme authority.

Baseball Opening Day Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Obviously we’ve spent a lot of time this winter talking about the role Rob Manfred plays in the administration of American baseball. Manfred’s official title is Commissioner of Baseball, and if you can stomach the saccharine profile has for him, you might come away with the idea that he has sweeping power and individual authority to govern the game, and indeed, I think a lot of fans think he’s much more independent than he is.

In reality, the current Commissioner of Baseball isn’t in charge of a commission at all, rather he’s the public face of a consortium of 30 ultrawealthy men who own baseball teams. His authority ends where that consortium says it ends and his independence is, at best, fictional. He exists to represent the consensus views of 30 people with wildly different goals and advantages — Hal Steinbrenner lives a very different life than Dick Monfort — not to provide the best viewing experience for fans or most sustainable economic model for all stakeholders.

But the commissioner wasn’t always so deferential to ownership, and in fact, that’s what I want to explore over the next two weeks. The original Office of the Commissioner was instituted to bring together the two most powerful professional baseball leagues at the turn of the 20th century, as the American and National Leagues sought to squeeze out competition through merger, even though real power lay not with the commissioner, but in the hands of AL founder and President, Ban Johnson.

Enter the Black Sox, the culmination of troubles baseball had in the 1910s and ‘20s with gambling in-game. Not dissimilar from the way we talk about the Steroid Era today, accusations of gambling by players were thrown around the game sometimes with merit and evidence, and sometimes not. Whatever you think of the roles played by Joe Jackson or Charles Comisky in the throwing of the 1919 World Series, the Black Sox scandal was the most public and humiliating instance of baseball’s integrity problem.

Much like we’ll see later in this series, a scandal of this size drove MLB to reform — the NL invited the White Sox, Red Sox and Yankees to jump leagues as a show of no confidence in the National Commission. The five opposing AL franchises, seeing the potential disaster on the horizon, pushed for a new commission, one staffed with men from outside baseball, with independent authority, and led by federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Landis came with a few conditions — namely, a lifetime appointment and unilateral authority to reshape the game as he saw fit. In essence, every owner and player in MLB now came under the direct oversight of the judge. Eight White Sox players were booted from the game, and indeed, over the next 20 years Landis made it his personal mission to “clean up” baseball, purging the sport of players he felt had “undesirable reputation and character”, banning Giants pitcher Phil Douglas, who struggled with alcoholism his entire adult life; Jimmy O’Connell in 1924 for offering bribes to the lowly Phillies to throw games; and in 1942 Landis banned then-Phillies owner William Cox for betting on his squad.

Wrigley Field Plaque

Of course Landis also played a significant role in the maintenance of segregation at the highest levels of baseball. Successor Happy Chandler recounted that “for twenty-four years Landis consistently blocked any attempts to put blacks and whites together on a big league field”, and Bill Veeck accused the judge of blocking Veeck’s attempt to buy the Phillies once his plans of integrating the club became public. Kenesaw Mountain Landis saw himself as the sole authority in baseball, and his hammer fell on anyone who disagreed with his idea of How Baseball Ought To Be.

There hasn’t been a commissioner like Landis since. Chandler was unabashedly a pro-player authority figure, implementing a pension system for the players and shepherding the integration of baseball — notably Chandler’s position on integration likely cost him a second term as commissioner, if the 15-1 owners’ vote against integration in January 1947 was any indicator. Although he was a significant departure from the arrogance and attitude of Judge Landis, Chandler followed his predecessor in seeing his job as guiding baseball to a better version of itself, albeit with a subjective opinion about what that better version was.

After two non-baseball men were appointed baseball’s top job, ownership began to see the advantage of having a boss that owed his success to them. Despite the promise of 1919 that the new commissioner would be independent, the head of the National League, Ford Frick, became the game’s third chief executive. No commissioner can ever be completely unbiased or objective, but Frick was the beginning of the understanding that the job was to represent the views of ownership, rather than execute a personal vision for improving the game at its highest level — with a premium focus on expansion and the resulting revenues that would come with it.

To further this belief, William Eckert — succeeding Frick upon a personal recommendation from lunatic Curtis LeMay — drawn from the general staff of the US Army, was perhaps the biggest failure as commissioner, resigning three years into his term in the face of public distrust and a looming labor dispute.

There are fun anecdotes about successive commissioners like A. Bartlett Giamatti, a Yale poetry professor (and father of a certain well-known actor) before working for the National League, but the overwhelming trend in the second half of the 20th century was a pull toward and in line with ownership. The days of an independent commissioner were long gone, with former MLB chief counsel Bowie Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth dominating the office in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Ueberroth in particular underscores the way the Commissioner’s Office has fully become the public wing of ownership, as he oversaw the collusion cases of the 80s, telling owners they were stupid to lose money in pursuit of a World Series championship, and that long term contracts to veterans were inefficient uses of their money — claims that 40 years on are still major sources of tension between ownership and the players.

Peter Ueberroth Photo by John Biever/Getty Images

We’ll never know for sure, but ownership was likely quite sad to see Ueberroth go at the end of the 1989 season. Although the PA had filed successive charges of collusion against MLB, the commissioner both strengthened the positions of owners as a bloc, and brought in sweeping new revenues and profitability strategies that led to every single one of the then-26 clubs at least breaking even by the time he left office, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in 20 years.

And I think that’s a really important moment to hone in on. For most of baseball history, most teams were not expected to turn a profit year over year. Owners were either rich enough that the team could be a passion project, in a Charles Foster Kane sort of way, or wait for the sale of their stake in the team and the resulting capital gains. Outside of a couple of franchises, you were just in the red year-to-year. Peter Ueberroth changed that expectation, and above all else is probably his defining impact on the governance of the game today.

This history of the Commissioner’s Office spans 70 years, moving from a domineering, all-powerful federal judge to a businessman dedicated to unlocking annual profitability. A year after Ueberroth came Fay Vincent, a looming labor shortage, and a completely new direction in what owners expected of their chief representative. That’s the story we’ll cover tomorrow in Part II.