Tag Archives: baseball history

In the Best Interests of Baseball: A Look at the Role of Baseball Commissioner

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By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor

(Originally published on August 12) On August 14, 2014, the owners of the thirty major league baseball franchises elected the tenth Commissioner of Baseball. Alan H. “Bud” Selig has held the position officially since July 9, 1998, but he held it as de facto commissioner from 1992 to 1998 while the post was vacant. His 22-year tenure is the second longest among commissioners.

The record of 24 years was set by the first man to hold the office.

The first Commissioner of Baseball assumed office in January, 1921. A former federal judge in Illinois, he was described as a firm, solid, decisive man and this description of his personality matched his middle name. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was born the year after the end of the Civil War when baseball was still a new game played and seen by relatively few people. Landis grew up on a farm in Illinois, and was born the sixth of seven children. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1891 and was appointed to the federal bench by Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 after building a successful corporate law practice. Landis was also prominent in Illinois state politics. He was known as a tough, colorful and sometimes unpredictable judge. For example, he frequently handed down harsh sentences to criminals but was almost impeached for his leniency toward the destitute. Not easily intimidated by powerful figures, Landis once levied a fine of 29 million dollars against John Rockefeller and Standard Oil. That steadfast quality would stand him in good stead when Landis became the first Commissioner of Baseball in 1921.

In the latter years of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, America grew and became an economic dynamo. The popularity of baseball grew with it, becoming the National Pastime. By 1903, major league baseball was organized into the National League and the American League with eight teams per league. The game’s popularity grew quickly.

The office of Commissioner of Baseball was created in 1920 in response to the so-called “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, when eight Chicago White Sox players were caught in a deal with gamblers whereby the players would throw the World Series. The owners of the sixteen franchises were prodded into action by the loud public outcry over the scandal and calls in the media to “clean up” baseball. Up to that time, baseball was governed by a three-man board called the National Commission, established in 1903 when the established National League recognized the American League as a an equal entity. The commission ultimately proved unworkable because its members all had vested interests in particular teams. For example, in its seventeen years of existence, the commission only had one chairman, August Herrman, who was also president of the Cincinnati Reds.

In response to the Black Sox scandal, the National League owners proposed establishing a non-partisan commissioner’s office as set forth in the Lasker Plan, named for its author, Arthur Lasker, who was a part-owner of the Chicago Cubs. The document recommended the election of a man of “unquestionable reputation in a field other than baseball, whose mere presence would ensure that the public interest is served…”

After reaching a compromise with the American League concerning the parameters of the new office, a new Major League Agreement was ratified to establish the office of Commissioner of Baseball and to provide rules for governing and administering the game. This agreement superseded the Agreement of 1903, and it exists today, in modified form, as the Major League Baseball Constitution.

Judge Landis was recommended in an article in The Sporting News, and he was formally elected on January 21, 1921. The legalistic framework of the Major League Agreement provided the structure and parameters within which the former judge would carry out his mission. Although Landis was a baseball fan his legal background gave him the necessary ability to be as impartial as possible in his day-to-day duties. Article I of the Major League Agreement specified the duties of the commissioner and provisions as to how a future commissioner was to be elected. Judge Landis himself drafted many of the conditions of his employment. His salary was set at $50,000 annually and it could not be reduced. The commissioner could not be fired. In addition, a decision by the commissioner could not be appealed—even to a court of law, in any jurisdiction—and those decisions were binding for all involved parties. Furthermore, the commissioner was to be the sole (and final) arbiter of any dispute or issue involving major league baseball, its players, franchises or other officials or entities.

Privately, the owners of the teams were reticent to allow Landis such unfettered power. However, they had boxed themselves into a corner by collectively stating in public that the game would be vigorously cleaned up and policed. They also were worried about their bottom line, fearing the public would begin to stay away from games in light of baseball’s tarnished reputation. Landis was certainly the man for the job in terms of his background and temperament and the owners were confident Landis would understand that he worked for them. As commissioner, Landis didn’t see it that way. His vision was that the commissioner would be the protector of the image and legacy of baseball as a cultural institution—a sort of trustee of the National Pastime. With his shock of white hair, solid jaw and steely gaze, Landis also projected to the public an image of integrity and honesty. As commissioner, Landis even had a sign placed on the wall outside his office. The sign read simply “Baseball.”

During his 24 year term, Judge Landis succeeded in cleaning up baseball regarding the gambling activities which had brought so much public scorn. The eight White Sox players were banned for life from professional baseball and their expulsion remains in force today. Gambling is still an issue the commissioner’s office takes very seriously. Following Landis’ precedent, Commissioner Bart Giamatti handed down a lifetime ban against Pete Rose in 1989. Rose’s was the first ban since 1943, when Landis expelled Phillies owner William Cox from the game after Cox was found to have associated with gamblers and bet on his own team. Fifteen other players were banned from baseball by Judge Landis in other gambling incidents.

Landis also put an early stamp on the game by suspending Babe Ruth for 30 games in 1922. Ruth and several other major leaguers had violated a rule against players “barnstorming,” playing exhibition games around the country in the offseason. Ruth ignored the commissioner’s warnings and organized a barnstorming tour. Landis recognized and respected Ruth’s importance to the game. Nevertheless, if Ruth was allowed to defy Landis, the commissioner might become a glorified office manager, or worse. Ruth was suspended. Ruth’s appeal was denied and he served the suspension.

There were other developments in the game during Judge Landis’ tenure as commissioner which exist today as part of his legacy. The “farm system” of minor league teams was formalized and rules governing the minor leagues were instituted. In 1933, the first All-Star game was played, an innovation Landis, an enthusiastic fan himself, encouraged. He attended every all-star game played during his term. Further, the commissioner’s office acquired full jurisdiction over any issues concerning the World Series. Kenesaw Landis loomed like a mountain over baseball for a quarter of a century. He accomplished his appointed goal of removing the influence of professional gamblers from the game and provided a largely impartial voice to issues regarding the game. The All-star game and the minor leagues were formalized into the game’s structure. Commissioner Landis also restored the game’s image in the eyes of the fans. Baseball also entered the “live ball” era, which greatly enhanced the game’s popularity.

With his formal, though autocratic powers, Landis had been tasked by the team owners to act “in the best interests of baseball,” as he interpreted them. It was a move for public show as far as the owners were concerned, as they viewed themselves as the arbiters of the game. However, Landis took the job seriously. His interpretation of the commissioner’s authority would ultimately prove to be problematic: team owners were uneasy with the powers they had contractually granted the commissioner. It is not an accident that the most powerful Commissioner of Baseball was also the first one.

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Wrigley Field at the Century Mark

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By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor

(Originally published June 7, 2014)  2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, also known as “The Friendly Confines.” Only Fenway Park in Boston is older than Wrigley Field. Of course, the team ownership has been marketing the stadium’s anniversary and Cubs fans have been turning out in impressive numbers as they typically do in any given season.

And, as in a typical season, the Cubs are struggling to field a competitive team. As of the middle of May, they are in last place and show little indication of significant improvement this season. However, the season is still young and hope springs eternal in baseball. The Cubs don’t have a very good team but they have a jewel of a stadium.

Wrigley Field, located at 1060 West Addison Street, opened on April 23, 1914. The stadium was constructed at a cost of $250,000. To put that cost in perspective, there is a current plan to renovate Wrigley at a cost of $500 million dollars. Team ownership would foot most of the bill.

Wrigley Field is a unique and iconic structure. It is known for the ivy growing on the walls of its outfield. The ivy factors into the ground rules for the field. If a batted ball is hit into the ivy and the outfielder signals with his hands that he cannot find the ball, the umpire can rule the play a ground-rule double. However, if the outfielder tries to find the ball or pull it out of the growth, the ball remains in play and the batter can advance along the bases. Other features are a red marquee over the stadium’s front entrance and unpredictable winds blowing in from Lake Michigan.

Wrigley Field has the distinction of being the last of the major league baseball parks to add additional, modern lighting. At a cost of $5 million, and after a protracted political fracas over the question of whether the new lights would ruin the iconic stadium, high-intensity lighting was installed in the spring of 1988. On August 8, Chicago Cubs fans packed the stadium to watch their beloved Cubs play the Phillies in improved lighting, but ironically the game was rained out after only a few innings. The first complete game under the new lighting was played the next night.

The stadium also is known for its quirky outfield dimensions, which are essentially unchanged from 1937 when the outfield bleachers were renovated. These dimensions give Wrigley the deepest foul lines in the major leagues but a relatively small ground foul area. These characteristics, along with the winds from Lake Michigan, have given Wrigley the distinction of being a hitters’ park, meaning it tends to be easier on hitters and harder on pitchers.

One extreme example of this tendency was a game between the Cubs and Phillies on May 17, 1979. Considered to be the wildest game in modern baseball history and the holy grail of high-scoring games, the Phillies defeated the Cubs by the football score of 23-22. The combined forty-five runs are a modern record and haven’t been approached since.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Crash Landing: The 1969 Seattle Pilots; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; March 5, 2014.

Remembering Tony C and the Impossible Dream; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; October 26, 2013.

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Crash Landing: The 1969 Seattle Pilots

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By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor

As the tumultuous decade of the 1960’s drew to a close, America had witnessed significant social upheaval and change resulting from the war in Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement and other events, including the zenith of the American space program. Against this backdrop of change and uncertainty, many people sought comfort in familiar activities and habits such as baseball.

Baseball is regarded as the major sport most rooted in tradition and the most prone to gradual, incremental change. During the early and mid-1960’s major league baseball had expanded to twenty teams from the original sixteen. In addition, the National League had returned to New York after the Dodgers and Giants moved to California and baseball’s western momentum had seen teams added in Los Angeles and Houston. The population of the western United States had grown and the interstate highway system had expanded as well. Baseball’s regular season had been increased to 162 games to reflect the greater number of teams. Otherwise, the structure and pace of the game remained largely intact and baseball was still the game which many fans had grown up enjoying.

By late 1967, the urge to expand had returned to the major leagues and was motivated, in part, by the potential legal ramifications of the move of the Kansas City Athletics to Oakland. The A’s owner, Charlie Finley, had moved the team after several seasons of futility and financial hardship in Missouri. Stuart Symington, an influential Missouri senator, threatened action in Congress to abolish baseball’s anti-trust exemption, which tied a player to an organization in the era before free agency.

Although voters approved a bond issue for a new stadium in Kansas City, Finley moved the team to Oakland, where construction of a new stadium was already underway. Senator Symington blasted Finley on the floor of the Senate and uttered his threat against the antitrust exemption. Major League Baseball responded by announcing another round of expansion, guaranteeing an American League franchise to Kansas City. American League owners selected Seattle as the second expansion franchise. The National League, not to be outdone, added Montreal and San Diego.

During the 1960’s the city of Seattle had enjoyed sustained economic growth—developing and maintain major defense contractors, avionics, and airplane manufacturing, to name but three—and the city hosted the World’s Fair in 1962. The fair turned a rare profit. The exposition left behind several cultural and sports venues, including the 605-foot Space Needle. One purpose of the fair was to provide a glimpse or gateway into the potential of the future in terms of lifestyle and technology.

Many Seattleites believed their city was ready to shed its provincial reputation. The world’s Fair was one method for doing so. Major league sports was seen as another avenue for civic pride and image-building. To that end, Seattle was awarded an NBA expansion franchise, the Supersonics, in 1966. The future appeared bright for the prospects of major league sports in Seattle.

Seattle had a rich history of minor league baseball, dating back to 1890. Seattle fielded a team, the Rainiers, in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) from 1919 to 1968. The team, in brief interludes, had also been nicknamed Indians and Angels. Seattle’s PCL team won seven league championships during those years and enjoyed impressive attendance from 1938 to 1952. They also won the league pennant in 1966. However, in the late 1950’s attendance at minor league games declined in general, due in part to increased television coverage of major league games.

Local brewery magnate Emil Sick purchased the team in 1938 and a stadium was built for the team. Sick’s popular “Rainier” beer was sold at the games which certainly did not hurt attendance at the new venue. The stadium was named “Sick’s’ Seattle Stadium” after the owner. The name “Sick’s” became highly appropriate by the time major league baseball arrived in 1969.

Seattle’s new major league team, the Pilots, was owned and operated by two brothers, Dewey and Max Soriano. The Soriano brothers were lifelong residents of Seattle and both of them had worked for the Pacific Coast League, Dewey serving as league president. The brothers had extensive experience in the business aspects of professional baseball but the Sorianos lacked one vital resource – money. Most of the money used to pay the expansion fee and to pay the team’s start-up costs was borrowed from a man named William Daley.

Dewey Soriano met William Daley in 1965. Daley was the former owner of the Cleveland Indians and had once considered moving that team to Seattle. He continued to believe that the city could be a viable market for major league baseball. The Sorianos asked Daley for a loan to pay the expansion fee and offered him a significant ownership stake in the franchise. He agreed and the Soriano brothers undertook to run the day-to-day operations of the team.

Although the fledgling franchise was initially greeted with enthusiasm it was beset with problems from the start and a dark cloud seemed to hover over it like the rain clouds prominent in the Seattle sky. The aforementioned stadium, Sicks, was at the center of the problems. The Pilots were handcuffed by an onerous lease which compelled team management to charge high ticket prices. Thus, fans paid major league ticket prices to attend games in a run-down minor league venue. Voters in Seattle and in King County had earlier approved a bond issue to construct a new, domed stadium which was supposed to open in 1972; an affirmative vote on the issue had been a prerequisite for major league approval of the franchise. In the meantime, the Seattle city government promised renovation of Sicks to bring it up to minimum major league standards, including an expansion in capacity to 25,000 fans.

The renovations began only in January, 1969, a mere three months before opening day. Work began in the midst of the worst Seattle winter in decades and the weather seemed a metaphor for the already frosty relations between team management and the city. City officials were determined to complete the work as cheaply as possible as cost overruns became apparent. As of opening day, seating capacity was only 17,000 and the stadium’s low water pressure was problematic all season and caused problems flushing the toilets. Most of the seats were either wooden benches or folding metal chairs and many of the seats had obstructed views of the playing field. In addition, the teams’ clubhouses were second-rate. The Pilots attendance reflected both the decrepit stadium and the team’s woeful on-field performance – Sicks failed to sell out even once in 1969 and saw only a few crowds in the 20,000 range.

Extensive renovations of Sicks weren’t made previously because the stadium was purchased by the city in 1965 in anticipation of the property being utilized for the new Thomson Expressway. Another problem was that baseball expansion was expected around 1971. When the planning was moved up to 1969, the issue of the condition of Seattle’s stadium became magnified. However, the city council and mayor were of the opinion that their responsibility was simply to furnish a stadium, not attract a baseball franchise. The mayor, Dorm Braman, never attended a Pilots game. Baseball was a low priority for the city government and the city frequently clashed with the main contractor responsible for stadium renovations.

As of opening day, April 11, part of the right-field fence was incomplete and some fans were watching the game, for free, through the gaps. The scoreboard installation was only completed the night before and carpenters were still installing wooden benches after the game was underway. Fans who had paid for reserve tickets ended up sitting wherever they could find a seat. The condition of the park and the huge delays in the renovations had created an atmosphere of animosity between team ownership and the city. The team claimed from day one that the city was unresponsive to complaints about the stadium and the city would accuse the team ownership of trying to renege on the lease.

Bill Sears, the Pilots public relations director, once related in an interview an example of the stadium’s issues in microcosm. He told of an incident when a drunken fan had become accidentally locked inside a portable toilet after falling asleep. Sears offered the story as symbolic of the Pilots’ season. He also stated that the condition of the stadium was a deterrent to fans attending games. The Pilots also had a very limited marketing and advertising budget. The team had secured a favorable radio contract but was unable to negotiate an equitable television deal. According to Sears, the local TV stations claimed the team’s owners wanted too much money. Also, the cost of the AT&T line was high enough that advertisers were leery of paying the fees for the broadcast lines. Thus, team revenues were to become more dependent on ticket sales. That’s a valid idea if the team performs well on the field.

The team won its inaugural opening game at home, 7-0 over the White Sox, after the Pilots had split two games with the Angels in Anaheim. As late as June 28th, the surprising Pilots were only six games out of the division lead. But then injuries hit, the team roster’s lack of depth caught up to it and the mediocre attendance dropped precipitously. The Pilots were a dismal 15-42 over July and August, including a 0-10 homestand. They finished the season with a ledger of 64-98, in sixth place, 33 games out of first.

In early September, the team’s creditors began to go public regarding money they were owed. Principal owner William Daley also went public and issued what amounted to an ultimatum – “Seattle has one more year to prove itself,” he stated to the press. Privately, he had already decided to not invest any more money into the sinking ship. His ploy with the media backfired as resentful fans continued to stay away. The issues regarding Sick’s stadium showed no sign of being solved soon and construction on the new stadium hadn’t even started. The dark clouds following the team all season had turned black.

At the conclusion of the season, Daley and the Soriano brothers decided that the only viable option was to sell the team. Initially they attempted to find a local group to keep the Pilots in Seattle. When several groups were found wanting for various reasons, the Sorianos filed bankruptcy. During the 1969 World Series, they agreed to sell the team to Milwaukee businessman Bud Selig (currently the Commissioner of Baseball) and the Seattle Pilots became the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Pilots are an obvious example of how not to operate a baseball franchise. They are the only team in the modern baseball era to move after its inaugural season. Ultimately, they were grounded by a series of blunders, bad decisions and misfortune. The owners were seriously over-leveraged, under-capitalized and could never catch up due to bad attendance and a roster in continual transition. The city failed to properly renovate Sick’s Stadium which led to a contentious relationship with Pilots ownership and motivated the fans to stay away. In addition, the team was never adequately marketed. Finally, Seattle had experienced an economic downturn in 1969 which combined with the high ticket prices to further impede attendance.

In spite of a legacy of mismanagement and shattered expectations, the Seattle Pilots retain an odd mystique. The ephemeral quality of the team is certainly a factor. Pilots uniforms and caps are popular with collectors. Many former players recall fond memories of their time in Pilot’s blue and gold. Jim Bouton’s book “Ball Four” has also contributed to the team’s legacy. Former Pilots outfielder Mike Hegan, recently deceased, once said “it’s like the Pilots have a cult following or something…” Outfielder Steve Whitaker once stated “We were the orphans of the league, the mutts.” Jim Gosger added “The Pilots were quite a collection of guys, very laid back and very likeable. There was no pressure because we knew the team wasn’t very good.”

1969 was the season on the fly for the Seattle Pilots. The ultimate reason for the demise of the Pilots was baseball’s rush to expand for the ’69 season. If the original plan for expansion in 1971 had held, the franchise might have begun its life on a more secure foundation. Assembled in slap-dash fashion to be ready in 1969, the Pilots were undermanned, underfunded and, perhaps, underappreciated.

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