Is The Baseball Commissioner Necessary?

This is the 90th year since the famous Black Sox Scandal that put a permanent stain on major league baseball. One of the things that came out of this scandal was the office of Baseball Commissioner. In 1920, the baseball owners elected Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to be their commissioner, and rid baseball of corruption. He is largely seen as a hero, but was he?


The idea of the commissioner actually started in 1903. Back then the American League and National League were trying to reach a truce. They did so by creating this commission, which consisted of the presidents of each of the leagues, and a 3rd party commission chairman. After the 1919 debacle, the owners decided that the commission needed to be independent, and it needed to be made of non-baseball people. When Landis was asked to be the chair of the commission, he said he would take the position only if he were the one and only person with power. He also wanted absolute power. The owners were desperate to get this embarrassment behind them, so they agreed to Landis’ terms.


The problem with this arrangement was that Landis now had the ability to operate as he saw fit, without much in the way of accountability. Prior to being commissioner, Landis got Jack Johnson banned from professional boxing for taking a white woman across state lines. This attitude continued, as Landis blocked all attempts to allow African-Americans to play baseball. Since he served until his death in 1944, he became the primary reason fans never saw Satchel Paige playing while at the peak of his career, and why fans were never able to find out if Josh Gibson could break Babe Ruth’s home-run records in the major leagues.


Still, Judge Landis’ job was to clean up baseball. He began by banning the 8 men who had knowledge of the 1919 World Series fix. What’s interesting about this is that players came to the defense of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson by stating he did not help throw the series (and his statistics from the series will corroborate that). Judge Landis banned him for having knowledge of the fix, and not telling anybody that a fix was on. In other words, Joe Jackson is banned from baseball for not being a rat.


It is also interesting to note that once this scandal had been dealt with, the owners fully expected Judge Landis to step down from the office, so baseball could resume as it had prior. The commissioners office was never intended to last longer than the emergency period that was in place. Somebody forgot to tell this to Judge Landis, who held on to the office for 24 years. The commissioner was smart to demand the powers he now had, because the owners could do nothing to him now that the scandal was over with.


The banning of the White Sox players did prevent this type of event from occurring again in the sport, as many of the players had no other means of income, and didn’t want to lose the ability to make money at the only they really knew how to do well. Still, it is interesting that Judge Landis did not ban Ty Cobb or Tris Speaker, who also in 1919 had bet on baseball. This ultimately is the flaw with the office of baseball commissioner – his whims become gospel.


Now let’s fast forward to today. Bud Selig, the current commissioner is a former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. How is it that an office which was created to be independent of baseball men now has a former baseball owner running it? That goes back to a 3-year period from 1985-1987 when owners colluded against players, but agreeing (behind closed doors) to keep salaries down for free agents. In 1990, a settlement for this activity was reached, and the owners had to pay $280 million to the players who were free agents in those 3 years. Fay Vincent, then commissioner of baseball was very much on the side of the players, and railed against the owners for stealing from the players and getting caught. Bud Selig was one of the owners named by Vincent.


Because the commissioner is voted into office only by the baseball owners, soon the owners voted Vincent out of office, because owners felt he favored the players over them. While they searched for a new commissioner, Bud Selig filled the role as “Chairman of the Baseball Commission.” In 1998, he was given the title of commissioner.


I write all of that to ask what is the role of the baseball commissioner? The number one rule for the commissioner is to see to the “best interests of baseball.” Is the office of commissioner in the best interests of baseball? I am curious why after 90 years we still think a dictatorship is in the best interest of baseball. The original intent of the office of commission was to have a 3 person panel make decisions which would shape baseball. I say we take it further, and make a larger panel of the commission office – similar to what we have in the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s have a player representative (active or retired) from each league, an owner representative from each league, the presidents of each league, and a non-baseball chairman who meet, discuss issues, vote, and act for the best interests of baseball. Maybe then we could at least give Joe Jackson and Pete Rose their “day in court.” Maybe then we could get this performance enhancing drug issue dealt with properly. Maybe then we could get a little more equality between the teams in the league, so the Yankees don’t make the playoffs every year based off the amount of money they spend alone. Let’s start making sense of the office of commissioner with a team of people who can constructively come up with solutions together, instead of relying on the opinions of 1 out of touch dictator to decide what is and is not right for baseball.


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