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.")