The business of baseball and the nation’s business used to be conducted in Washington with similar skill. The Washington Senators were run by Clark Griffith, who said: “Fans like home runs, and we have assembled a pitching staff to please our fans.” Today, however, Washington’s team is a model of best practices. The government? Less so.
The nation had what historians have called a “critical period,” and so has the national pastime. The nation’s was in the 1780s, after the Revolution but before the Constitutional Convention, when the 13 states were linked, barely, by the Articles of Confederation, which George Washington called “a rope of sand.” The federal government was too weak to collect adequate revenues or to assure the free flow of interstate commerce, and disparities between bigger states — Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York — and the rest produced a weak sense of common national endeavor.
The solution was James Madison, not the flashiest of the Founders but the one who, at this moment, mattered most. By subtle increments that were cumulatively momentous, he guided the Constitutional Convention in putting America on a path from “the United States are” to “the United States is.”
Now, as baseball’s Madison, Commissioner Bud Selig, retires, consider how he steered baseball through its worst crisis. Twenty years ago, baseball was in a trough more dangerous than the one into which it tumbled during the Black Sox scandal, when some White Sox players colluded with gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series. Baseball’s solution was a prodigy who had come to baseball from a Baltimore orphanage — George Herman Ruth.
In January 1995, baseball was prostrate. What began August 12, 1994, lasted until April 2, 1995. The 232-day strike and lockout — the eighth work stoppage in Major League Baseball history and the third in-season stoppage in 22 years — canceled the remainder of the 1994 season and the World Series.
When Selig became acting commissioner in 1992, baseball still had an economic model that antedated television, radio, flight, and the internal combustion engine. Most revenues were generated locally, and few were shared. As local broadcast revenues grew, so did revenue disparities and competitive imbalances between the large- and small-market teams. Selig engineered a new equipoise that would encourage the teams’ competitive strivings while enhancing the essence of a sports league — competitive balance, wherein every well-run team has a regularly recurring, reasonable hope of playing in October.
Since 1992, baseball has created four new teams; opened 21 new ballparks; adopted interleague play, instant replay, and drug testing; expanded the postseason with two wild cards in each league; gone 20 years without labor troubles interrupting play; and has vastly expanded revenue-sharing and has implemented a “competitive balance tax” on team payrolls above a certain threshold. And on September 1, 2014, in the last season of the Selig era, 17 of the 30 teams were within five and a half games of a playoff spot.
The average attendance at MLB games last year was 30,437, compared with 13,466 in 1955, in baseball’s supposed golden age. Last year’s worst per-game attendance (the Tampa Bay Rays’ 17,857) was better than that of the 1955 World Series–winning Dodgers (13,423).
Selig’s leadership has resembled Dwight Eisenhower’s. He conducted what one scholar called a “hidden hand” presidency. Eisenhower got his way most of the time, but it was unclear how. After years of danger — the Depression, World War II, the Cold War with a hot episode in Korea — Eisenhower administered eight years of peace and prosperity. Voters gave him vast affection; the intelligentsia, which usually is the last to understand things, gave him condescension.
Although Eisenhower often was syntactically challenged, sometimes his grammatical fender benders were guileful. When a worried aide anticipated possible news conference questions about a delicate problem, Eisenhower placidly promised, “I’ll confuse them.”
Selig has sometimes resembled Alan Greenspan, who supposedly once said, “If I’ve made myself too clear, you must have misunderstood me.” It is easier to make an unassisted triple play than to diagram some Selig sentences, but opacity has had its uses when managing the clashing egos and interests of the hyper-competitive people of the 30 teams’ ownership groups.
Baseball has a spring in its step as spring approaches, thanks to one of the four most important people in baseball’s history: Alexander Joy Cartwright (the genius who in the 1840s placed the bases 90 feet apart), Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and a fan from Milwaukee. Which is what Selig has been, first and always.
— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2015 The Washington Post
NOTE: In the late 1990s, George F. Will was one of four members of the Commissioner’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics.