The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball's Power Brokers, by Jon Pessah, Little, Brown and Company, 648 pages, $30
If not for Bud Selig, erstwhile owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and his single-minded determination to control Major League Baseball's costs by imposing a salary cap on players, George W. Bush probably would have never run for governor of Texas, much less president of the United States.
That is just one long-rumored story confirmed in Jon Pessah's The Game, a sweeping and comprehensive investigation of the business of baseball over the past three decades. Selig, along with former Players Association chief Donald Fehr and the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, is both credited and blamed for just about everything that has brought America's pastime into the modern era.
Once struggling to survive, Major League Baseball (MLB) now enjoys massive revenues, billion-dollar local TV contracts, and per-game attendance levels that are up by more than 5,300 over 1995, even after a recent slight decline. But the game also suffers from a confused legacy, with its record books (fetishized by its fans like no other sport's) tainted in the minds of many by the influence of rampant performance-enhancing drug use.
It is Selig whose legacy is most scrutinized. For all his successes, the second-generation used car mogul from Milwaukee comes across as a panicky, short-sighted crony capitalist who fleeced the taxpayers and fans of his home city and actively enabled other owners to do the same.
To tell the ultimate inside-baseball story, Pessah, a founding editor at ESPN: The Magazine, interviewed more than 150 people, including players, coaches, senior front office staffers, and three MLB commissioners—Selig, Fay Vincent, and the new guy, Rob Manfred.
The story begins in the early 1990s, around the time Selig led a coup against Vincent, whom the owners deemed insufficiently devoted to their interests. Selig used the popular and gregarious Bush—the public face of the Texas Rangers, though he was just a minority owner—to whip the requisite votes in favor of removing the incumbent commissioner. The two small-market owners had a quiet understanding between them: Upon ousting Vincent, Selig would serve as interim commissioner, then, once the battlefield dust cleared, yield the throne to Bush.
Though Bush was a friend and longtime supporter of Vincent, he agreed to rally the troops to support the vote of "no confidence" in the commissioner, based largely on the promise that Selig "would support his dream to become baseball's next Commissioner." It didn't work out that way. Selig would spend the next 22 years in Bush's dream job. He would preside over a players' strike that culminated in the only cancelled World Series in baseball history—something the Great Depression and two world wars couldn't accomplish—but then help engineer a renaissance, thanks to the boom in attendance at new retro-designed family-friendly ballparks (which replaced many cold and ugly '60s and '70s mixed-use behemoths), a surge in colorful international talent from places like Japan and the Dominican Republic, and, yes, the steroid-infused home run craze of the late '90s and early '00s. Selig was the proud steward of baseball's rebirth, but once the steroid jig was up, he would become the flustered face of indignation.
The commissioner's old ally in Texas, stuck with nothing else to do after Selig left him twisting in the wind for more than a year, never officially telling him that he had no intentions of abdicating, would be pushed by Karl Rove into running for governor. Bush unseated the incumbent in 1994, he launched a bid for the White House five years after that, and the rest is history.
Soon after Selig took the job, he was summoned before Congress for one of many hearings in which a committee of mad-as-hell senators threatened to revoke baseball's antitrust exemption if the sport failed to appoint an "independent commissioner" soon.
Congress' leverage over MLB lies in that exemption. Baseball is the only professional sports league to enjoy the privilege of a legalized monopoly, thanks to a 1922 Supreme Court decision declaring that baseball is "not interstate commerce." Pessah correctly calls this a "mistake" but is certain Congress will never reverse it—because then "what excuse would lawmakers have to hold hearings that give them invaluable face time on ESPN and headlines in the New York Times?"
As owner of one of the most moribund franchises in all of sports, residing in the league's smallest media market, Selig's modus operandi for nearly all of his tenure was to stress the dire financial state of baseball and the majority of its teams. He was particularly offended by owners, such as Steinbrenner, who unapologetically reinvested their profits into the product on the field, agreeing with other owners' characterization of the Yankee boss as an "economic bully" who was "bad for the game." When confronted with the evidence of a number of well-run and innovative small-market teams consistently finding ways to compete—the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays, for example—Selig brushed them off as short-term "aberrations." Pessah notes that Selig would never "consider that maybe he might not be very good at building a baseball team." He always insisted that the solution to fix the "broken" system was "taking more of Steinbrenner's money."
The commissioner would never deviate from this philosophy, despite the fact that MLB enjoys greater parity in the number of teams making it to the postseason than any of the other three major professional American sports leagues (all of which, it should be noted, have salary caps).
In the run-up to the disastrous 1994 players' strike, Selig pushed the mantra that fans of small-market teams need to have "hope and faith" that their teams would have a reasonable chance of competing for a championship. In Selig's worldview, billionaires should not and could not be expected to invest in their vanity projects or responsibly manage their finances. Instead, less successful franchises should be subsidized by the more successful teams, and the players' "out of control" salaries must be capped if the league were to survive.
The Selig-led cadre of owners, many of whom were found to have illegally colluded during the 1987 offseason to not sign each other's free agents, demanded both a salary cap and revenue sharing, which Selig called "inextricably linked." To which Fehr, the players union leader, retorted, "The real linkage is the big market owners won't share with small market owners unless the players give them back the money."
A talented politician, Selig was able to unite all the owners, including the large-market Steinbrenner, into pushing his agenda. Though the 1994 strike would lead to a cancelled World Series and apocalyptic public relations while yielding no salary cap, the amenability of large-market teams to consider revenue sharing was established.
Revenue sharing would indeed help teams like the Oakland Athletics, whose General Manager Billy Beane revolutionized the game using advanced analytics to determine players' true value. The A's regularly reached the postseason despite playing in a universally loathed stadium ill-suited for baseball, housed in an economically depressed city, with one of the lowest payrolls in the league.
But too many other teams would simply pocket their revenue sharing funds, including the Florida Marlins, who Deadspin reported were turning a league-leading $50 million in profits over two years when their payroll was at or near the bottom of the league. Another team taking in more revenue than it invested on payroll was Selig's own Brewers. (After six years as acting commissioner, Selig transferred ownership of the team to his daughter Wendy so he could maintain the pretense that he was an "independent commissioner.")
Though critical of a great many aspects of Selig's management, Pessah gives credit where it is due. Not too long after the players got back on the field in 1995, baseball's popularity boomed. As an owner, Selig's management was pathetic. As commissioner, he saw the game enjoy a renaissance, though it would come with a cost.
The rekindling of America's romance with baseball was sparked in large part by the great home run chase of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa smashed Roger Maris' 37-year-old single-season home run record. Home runs were up all over the league, and fans lapped it up, filling up stadiums and spending tons of money on beer, hot dogs, and memorabilia while they were there. The game was back, and very few in the media (and certainly no one in ownership) raised an eyebrow about the cartoonishly growing biceps of baseball's slugging class.
By 2002, business was very good, but Selig continued to maintain the fiction of "chronic problems of competitive balance," creating a "blue ribbon panel" to address it. The panel included George Will, Paul Volcker, and Sen. George Mitchell (D–Maine), who were brought in to add legitimacy to Selig's perpetual "sky is falling" alarms.
Pessah plainly calls the panel's findings "a farce…based on financials solely provided by MLB. No outside input was permitted." He points to a Forbes article that debunks both the accuracy and the "overreactions" in the report's recommendations.
Questioned about the report by Congress, Selig once again refused to reveal baseball's finances. Instead he set out on a new mission to drive down operating costs: eliminating two teams. Knowing full well that the union would never allow the loss of so many players' jobs without a fight, Selig persisted, telling the media that teams with a "long record of failing to operate a viable major league franchise" must be contracted.
Selig's Brewers perfectly fit this description of a failing franchise, but they were never suggested as a possible candidate.
Pessah describes the threat of contraction as "extortion," adding that it sent "a loud message to the players about the growth of wages and to any city that refuses to build a taxpayer-financed stadium: give us what we want or we may fold your team."
At another congressional hearing soon after, then–Gov. Jesse Ventura, whose home state Minnesota Twins were one of the teams threatened with contraction, pulled no punches when he told Selig to his face that the owners' perennial claims of poverty were "asinine," adding, "These people did not get wealthy by being stupid."
Ventura also noted that when the state builds a public library, it doesn't charge the public for admission. Why then should the public build a stadium for Twins owner Carl Pohlad, the second-wealthiest owner in the game, only to have Pohlad charge the public to enter it and reap the profits himself?
Common-sense logic from a professional wrestler turned populist politician proved no match for rich guys begging for bailouts. Taxpayer-subsidized stadiums would be the order of the day for the next decade, with more than half of all MLB teams receiving new publicly financed stadiums.
In addition, revenue sharing would be substantially increased, with Steinbrenner's Yankees kicking in 92 percent of collected luxury tax revenues, totaling in the hundreds of millions, to help finance small-market teams. No requirement that the luxury tax money be spent on payroll was ever implemented.
In The Game, Steinbrenner comes across as a fascinatingly complicated figure. Born wealthy, but not nearly as personally rich as most of the other owners, Steinbrenner valued winning over financial gain (though he loved his money too). Thin-skinned, vicious, and prone to manic fits of both rage and sentimentality, "The Boss" would twice be banned from (and reinstated to) baseball. A micromanaging miser when it came to small raises for budding superstars like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera early in their careers, he could also be a reckless spendthrift when it came to aging veterans from other teams.
Though Steinbrenner's spending was always baseball's go-to boogeyman, blamed for driving up salaries league-wide, Pessah credits him as a visionary, one who showed other owners how much they "grossly undervalued their franchises." Steinbrenner's cable TV and marketing deals raised the bar of prosperity for all of baseball, to the point that the Los Angeles Dodgers could be sold for $2 billion largely based on the weight of their local TV contract.
In the early 2000s, Jeff Novitzky, a crusading agent from the Internal Revenue Service, began the federal government's investigation of BALCO, a Bay Area laboratory and performance-enhancing drug outpost. A flood of revelations ensued about steroids in baseball.
Naturally, Selig and the owners blamed the problem on the players union's reluctance to acquiesce to drug testing. That is accurate to a point. But no one in ownership was agitating to "clean up the game" until the government, wielding the antitrust exemption as a cudgel, got involved.
And did they ever get involved. In 2004, Novitzky led federal raids on two private laboratories, seeking drug test results from 10 players implicated in the BALCO scandal. Instead, agents seized results from hundreds of major leaguers who had participated in what was supposed to be anonymous survey testing. (If more than 5 percent of players tested positive, random drug testing would be introduced into MLB the following year. That threshold was met, and testing began in 2005.)
More than five years of court battles over these results resulted in players such as Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Sammy Sosa being implicated as drug cheats thanks to illegal leaks whose provenance would never be determined.
In August 2009, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the feds to return the results to the labs and the union. Judge Alex Kozinski called the government's tactics "an obvious case of deliberate overreaching" and "an effort to seize data as to which it lacked probable cause."
But government's efforts to litigate the steroid era wouldn't end there. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform—a committee, Pessah reminds us, that "failed to hold hearings into torture at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison" and "never looked into how the Bush administration could send troops to war in Afghanistan and Iraq without proper armor"—once again held hearings on baseball.
Humiliated by the drug revelations, the legacy-obsessed Selig would spend his autumn years as baseball's boss desperately trying to redefine himself as a dogged steroid hunter. The man who enthusiastically celebrated the tainted McGwire/Sosa home run derby of 1998, Selig made a show of standing with his hands in his pockets when the steroid-implicated Barry Bonds tied Hank Aaron's career home run record in 2007.
That same year, former Sen. Mitchell, a longtime Selig ally (and Boston Red Sox executive), released his eponymous report, billed as the comprehensive history of the steroid era. It delivered on its promise to name names. But despite the millions Mitchell personally made on the report (paid for by MLB) and the two years it took to create, the document was mostly a retread of information already gleaned in the BALCO investigation.
The only significant scoops came from two snitching drug dealers who were able to cut deals to avoid prison by cooperating with Mitchell: New York Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski and former New York Yankees/Toronto Blue Jays trainer Brian McNamee, both of whom implicated dozens of players, including arguably the best pitcher of his generation, Roger Clemens.
For all its hype, the Mitchell Report would not be the last word on the Steroid Era. In 2013, the South Florida–based "anti-aging clinic" Biogenesis was revealed to have been peddling performance enhancing drugs to numerous players, including such stars as Ryan Braun, Bartolo Colon, and Nelson Cruz—but none so drew Selig's ire as much as Alex Rodriguez.
Unlike the three aforementioned players, Rodriguez had not failed a drug test, but the overwhelming evidence that he bought drugs from Biogenesis for years, plus his determination to obfuscate MLB's investigation, led to open warfare between the commissioner and the player many once hoped would pass Barry Bonds on the career home run list and be anointed baseball's "clean" home run champion.
As loathsome as the serial liar and recidivist cheat "A-Rod" is, Selig was determined to give him a run for his unethical money. He enlisted MLB's "investigative team," consisting of dozens of former police officers and even a head of the Secret Service, to nail the slugger at any cost—and baseball's private cops would engage in plenty of legally questionable tactics to do it. Though the "I-Team" would succeed in securing demonstrable proof of Rodriguez's years of drug purchases from Biogenesis, baseball would have to consort with known criminals, sometimes paying them cash for stolen documents in shady backroom deals, to preserve the "integrity" of the game.
Pessah describes these efforts by Selig as having an ironic effect. Rodriguez's legacy was already irreparably damaged, his name mud. But Selig's personal quest to nail the fallen star only kept steroids and baseball prominently featured in the headlines for longer than they otherwise would have been.
Since the 1994 strike, baseball has enjoyed zero work stoppages. Players' salaries continue to rise, but so do team revenues. Though he's especially rough on Selig, Pessah ultimately credits him, Steinbrenner, and Fehr as titans of their time, all worthy of the sport's Hall of Fame.
But with a fan base that grows older by the season, will future generations care about a game with a deliberately leisurely pace, one that has thus far failed to market its newest stars as effectively as the National Football League and National Basketball Association? Will they be entertained by the markedly decreased offensive output of the post-steroid era? Has the age of publicly subsidized stadiums finally come to a merciful end?
The Game can't answer those questions, but it can help explain how we got here. This fascinating book demonstrates how an uneasy marriage of punitive socialism and barely restrained capitalism made MLB more profitable than it had ever been but left its future cloudy and uncertain.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Baseball Commissioner Who Made Bush President".