With Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig's retirement approaching, "Outside the Lines" interviewed three contemporaries about key aspects of the former Milwaukee Brewers owner's tenure that began when he was named acting commissioner in 1992. The three are his foremost supporter, Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf; his foremost adversary, former MLB Players Association executive director Donald Fehr; and former congressman Tom Davis, who chaired the House committee that conducted hearings into doping in baseball in 2005. The interviews are condensed for clarity and space considerations.
Tom Davis, chairman, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 2003 to 2007.
Q: When you reached out to baseball and said you were going to hold the 2005 congressional hearings on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, what was the response?
A: Well, they tried to stop it. They had owners calling members. Then [the] union got activated. I mean all elements kind of closed ranks to keep the politicians out of baseball.
Q: What was Selig's concern about the players and their role in the hearings?
A: The talent. What I found is that the owners are terrified of alienating the talent. They had been through strikes before that. Steroids really emerged a lot after the strike, people hitting it out of the park, owners looking the other way because the turnstiles were moving and the stadium seats were filling up. Nobody likes to disrupt a good party, and at this point, baseball was doing very well and this was being disruptive. But once we made it clear we were moving ahead, and remember, initially, some of the players said they weren't going to appear at the hearings -- they had others things to do. Once we made it clear they'd be in contempt of Congress, the commissioner and baseball were extremely cooperative and decided, "OK, this is our moment, we're going to make it work."
Q: What do you remember from those conversations with him?
A: He said, "Go after me." He was willing to sacrifice himself, and I just said, "Bud, we're not after anybody. We just want the game changed." The problem for commissioner Selig was he couldn't change this unilaterally. It would've had to be part of a collective bargaining agreement and that would've cost the owners something. For the players to give this up and to submit to the drug testing, possible suspensions and expulsions, the owners would've had to give something up at the bargaining table.
Q: The fact that he was willing be the piñata in this thing and make sure that [congressional] members did not go after [Mark] McGwire or any other players, what did that tell you about Selig?
A: He cared about the game over himself. He was in it to protect the game.
Q: Had it not been for congressional influence, what would have happened?
A: Nothing. Nobody was going to move because nobody was willing to give up what it would take to get the other side to move on this issue. I think without this push, nothing would've happened. I think he [Selig] really wanted to fix it, but he was powerless by himself, because the talent, or at least the union, was resisting the change. I'm sure the players were split. As we talked to individual players, a lot of the players resented some of these superstars out there taking steroids when a lot of members weren't using steroids, but the union is kind of the lowest common denominator and they were putting up the resistance.
Q: There have been a lot of people who have said, "OK, sure, Bud took that action afterward, but he's worried about his legacy." People, essentially, questioning his motives. You talked with him quite a bit. What was your take?
A: I think he cared about baseball. I never found him concerned about Bud Selig. When you sit in the back room, and you're talking to Don Fehr and you're talking to Bud Selig, and you get off the record, what they're thinking, and what their motivations are, I think everybody was trying to act on behalf of the group they represented, but they wanted it fixed. Look, it had gotten out of hand. This wasn't one or two players at this point, and when this starts affecting people that aren't in professional sports -- kids in high school, kids in college start using steroids and having bad health results, in some cases suicides -- I think it became wider spread and they recognized there was a problem.
Q: How did the impression that you came away with compare to the impression you had of him going into those hearings, when they were fighting you?
A: Selig, in my opinion, came out of the hearings very well. He was a good witness. He got pummeled by some of the members of Congress. He was willing to take the bullet to protect his talent. And at the end of the day, we have to understand he wanted the game changed. He wasn't sure how he could get there without congressional intervention and yet the last thing any industry wants is Congress involved in how it operates.
Q: What is Selig's legacy when it comes to steroids?
A: He was the commissioner that ended steroid use, that wrote in these tough policies, and after these policies were written -- I think this is important to understand -- they enforced 'em. They didn't just put 'em on paper. It was very rigid enforcement, and that's what changed the game. They could have gotten through these hearings and put policies in and been namby-pamby about enforcing it, but once these policies were in place and he had really the levers of authority, he utilized those levers of authority. Not every commissioner would've done that. Once we went through these hearings, I think he was 100 percent committed to making this thing work. They went ahead with the [former Sen. George] Mitchell investigation and the Mitchell report [on doping in baseball]. They've gone ahead with very strong enforcement of this, making sure this went down the line, but it needed a push to make it happen, and he was clearly amenable to being pushed and cooperative in every way once we made it clear we were going ahead. Prior to that time, I think he was limited in what he could've done, by the owners and, of course, by the union as well.
Donald Fehr, MLBPA executive director, 1983 to 2009
(Fehr declined to answer any questions about performance-enhancing drugs and the handling of the issue by MLB and the MLBPA.)
Q: Why do you think so many people were dismissive of Selig's capabilities and looked at it as though he sort of stumbled into where he was or was manipulated by somebody else?
A: Bud ran foursquare into the mythology that the commissioner is something different than the CEO of the industry, something different than the owners' chief spokesman, somehow stands above and beyond, has a special relationship with the American public and is supposed to be the judge, jury and executioner of whatever problems are out there. Against that backdrop, if someone is seen to be as Bud was, an owner who came out of that group, and though serving the owners' interest was something he ought to be doing, there will have been among the public and also I think among the media a tendency to discount that in some way.
Q: What did those experiences [as an owner] do that made him different from those who preceded him?
A: He had been very influential for a very long time before he assumed the role, at least a decade. He had been an owner in a small market -- he had to sell tickets, sell sponsorships, get TV and radio packages done [and] encourage the corporate community to support. He had to find a way to encourage players to come to Milwaukee when a lot of people would've said there were other more attractive places to come. Since baseball is a local revenue sport, he had a lot of first-hand experience as to what that means, which no other commissioner in any sport has had, with the possible exception of Al Davis in the first two years of the AFL when he was both an owner and a commissioner. I think that turned out to be one of the most valuable attributes or experiences that he brought. He had a very well-developed set of relationships with most, if not all of the other owners. He had an ability to develop and manage the owners as a group, a board of directors. That's not an easy task and so that made him fundamentally differently prepared than any other commissioner that had ever come into baseball. Baseball commissioners historically had said, "We're not of the owners, we're apart, we're above, we're special, we're different." Bowie Kuhn even testified in a lawsuit in 1981 that he didn't represent the owners, even though he was hired by them, could be fired by them and would be paid by them. That position had never been taken by the commissioners in the other sports and Bud dispensed with it and I thought that was fundamentally much more honest and fundamentally to his credit.
Q: Most people came to know him through the events of '94 [players' strike and owners' cancellation of the season and World Series]. What did you see in dealing with Selig?
A: Up through '94 there had been eight successive negotiations in which there had been a work stoppage, several lockouts, a number of strikes -- one long one in 1981, several attempts to secure a salary cap which the players didn't want any part of, plus we had collusion in the late 1980s which all the owners were involved in and which was a pretty awful thing to live through from the players' side. And so when Bud came in it was pretty clear pretty early that they were engaged in an attempt to secure a hard salary cap and/or break the union. Any doubt that we had about that dissipated after the strike began because players went on strike in August in an attempt to allow a negotiating window to save the season. In retrospect, that was a mistake, because it's clear now that they never had any intention of making a deal. My assumption has always been that Bud believed in the strategy, believed in the position and was instrumental in rallying the owners to fight that fight, because otherwise, I don't think it could've been done.
Q: Selig still insists they [the owners] didn't [collude], and that the [1987 NLRB] decision was wrong.
A: He has persuaded himself of something entirely contrary to the facts.
Q: Selig has said repeatedly that canceling the '94 series is his biggest regret. But when I asked him, "What do you regret," he says, "Nothing, I didn't have another choice." What do you think of that?
A: All I can tell you is that we have long assumed that that was part of the [owners'] plan from the beginning. I don't know whether we're right or not. I wouldn't bet against our being right. Labor laws require you to bargain in good faith, but they don't tell you what that is.
Q: Selig said, "I wonder if the strike wasn't necessary for us to reach the years of labor peace that we've had." What do you think of that statement?
A: I think about that a lot, too, and I've actually talked to Bud about it occasionally. It is pretty easy to make the argument that it was cathartic enough to get everyone's attention. And at the same time, we ended up two years later with a framework of an agreement in which if you bargain and tinker with it, sort of within the box, you've got a reasonable shot at getting an agreement done, and if you go outside it you don't. But the box was big enough so that you could stay within it, and you can make the argument that what's happened since '96 is the negotiations have been inside the box.
Q: What abilities did Selig have that benefited him as a leader at that time?
A: Bud, by all appearances, and I've never seen anything which suggests to the contrary, is an extraordinarily adept internal politician. He talks to everybody. There's actually a known internal joke that everybody that talks to Bud, even if they're on different sides of the issue, thinks he agrees with them, and what he's usually done is he hasn't committed to anybody. And then, eventually, a consensus will arise. That has served him extraordinarily well. In terms of his tenure as commissioner, it's probably far and away the most important asset that he brought.
Q: How much of a role did he play personally in changing the mood from the bitterness that existed to what you've said was the more mature relationship that's been the case since?
A: After '94 and the agreement that was finally reached in December of '96, there was an overt effort made to try and limit dispute and to find ways to do things together. Some of it was fledgling, there were fits and stops, there were problems, there were issues. The 2002 negotiation and 2001, which was aborted because of 9/11, were not easy negotiations, but over time, the relationship matured. My assumption has always been that that could not have happened unless he wanted it to. He didn't tell that to me. We never had that discussion, but I can't imagine it being otherwise. It was his show. It wasn't anybody else's.
Q: What did you see as the differences between a public persona that he's this sort of bumbling, absent-minded professor, and the guy who was leading those owners?
A: Early on there were press reports to the effect you've mentioned about that kind of a personality and lately you see personalities saying, "Well, look at all he achieved, he must be praiseworthy," and like all of us, he's somewhere in between the two. But if I was going to describe what he had accomplished, I think it would come down to this -- he managed to be the CEO in a significant period of time, for a very long time, and maintained the trust and confidence of his constituents. That's pretty high praise in my book.
Q: How would you say the state of the game is now compared to when he came in?
A: Oh, it's remarkably different. The revenues, the distribution of revenue, the scope of broadcast coverage, the possibilities of international expansion are all vastly greater. Now you can say, of course, that these were dominated by large-scale economic trends in the country generally in the development of new technology and somebody else would've done just as well or it was [MLB Advanced Media president and CEO] Bob Bowman or [the late Yankees managing general partner George] Steinbrenner that figured out how to negotiate the packages or all the rest of it, but Bud was in the eye of the hurricane, and you can't forget that.
Q: What would you say was Selig's biggest success?
A: I guess it would be this -- after a period of a lot of instability and ups and downs and multiple commissioners and all kinds of issues about finance of the league, not to mention the fractured labor relations and collusion and all the rest of it, by the time he announced his resignation, there was an overall sense that that had changed. You very rarely hear owners talking about money problems anymore. You've gone through several negotiations without a strike or a lockout. The waves of changing technology have been navigated reasonably well, it appears. If the next 15 or 20 years are as serene as the last have been, which doesn't mean you don't have problems, just they're not cataclysmic, then I suspect he'll be given credit for changing the mood and all the rest of it. If it isn't, it may well be that the changes will be seen to be personal. Time will tell.
Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of Chicago White Sox since 1981
Q: What did you think Selig's selection said about who the commissioner is in that role?
A: [Former MLBPA executive director] Marvin Miller was the first one to say that the commissioner is not the commissioner of the players. The prior commissioners, but Bowie Kuhn in particular, felt that the commissioner was the commissioner of the owners, the players and the fans, and Marvin used to say, "No, he's the representative of the owners." And that was very true and it was under the Selig regime that we owned up to what really was the fact.
Q: How do you think coming from a town like Milwaukee shaped his views?
A: He was fully aware of the problems with small-market teams, and one of our biggest problems was the revenue disparity between the large-market teams and the small-market teams. If that disparity were allowed to continue, then it would be detrimental to the game and we probably would lose some teams, and so he was aware of the problems with small-market teams and that they had to be solved.
Q: You have heard it ever since those days, this narrative out there that Selig wasn't in charge, you were in charge.
A: I really wish that were true. Look, Buddy and I were very good friends, we're still very good friends, we talk a lot, but the only time he ever listened to me was when he felt I was right. I mean, he is one of the most stubborn people [laughs] that I know, and when he focuses on something and thinks he's right, he's going to go ahead with it. Believe me, I never controlled him, and there were times when I wished I had controlled him.
Q: When's a time you wished you controlled him?
A: Well, many, many times. During the strikes and certainly when it came to picking the next commissioner [laughs], I wish I had controlled him.
Q: Friends and foes alike say that people tend to underestimate him. Why does that happen?
A: I think people tend to underestimate him because he does come from a small town, because he was a car dealer and people look down their noses at car dealers, and also [former MLB commissioner] Fay Vincent made the comment that he was a small-town schlepper, and I think that type of thing led to underestimating him. But people who have underestimated Bud Selig have done so at their peril because this is a very smart guy, a very determined guy and also somebody who loves the game, who has devoted his life to this game. Part of being smart is not to tell people you're smart, and Buddy's method of operation always has been to make everybody feel like they were included, everybody is part of the process. He likes to hear everybody out, but at the end of the day, he makes his own decision.
Q: This is a guy who somehow got George Steinbrenner to agree to revenue sharing. He got Jerry Reinsdorf to agree, OK, a hard [salary] cap is not the way to go. How does he do that?
A: That's a really interesting [laughs] question. I'm not sure that you could say there's one way that he accomplishes what he wants to accomplish. He's not a Lyndon Johnson, who had something on everybody, that's how he'd get them to go along. Buddy just likes to talk, hear you out, give you the other side, but then, what he does is he lines up the votes. So if it's going to be 29-to-1, you don't want to be the 1. Even if it's going to be 27-to-3, he'll tell the 3, "Well, do you want to be out here by yourself? Or do you want to go along with everybody?" And he's able to demonstrate to everybody that it's very important to the game that the owners be in lockstep. So even though you're not getting what you want in this one particular instance, you ought to go along, because you know there's going to be another time when you're going to be in the majority and you're going to want the minority to go along with you, and that's very important. The [MLB players'] union is a difficult adversary, particularly in the Don Fehr years, and it's very important that the owners be united, and he was always able to unite everybody. He's the toughest guy I know because once he makes up his mind, you can't shake him. He just continues and continues. If he's got a 26-to-4 vote, in his mind it's got to get to 30. I mean, he won't stop. He'll keep on working everybody until it gets to be 30-to-nothing. I've told him many times, there's nothing wrong with a 25-to-5 vote, and he says [laughs], "No, it's got to be 30-to-nothing," and virtually every time he's gotten it.
Q: What's an example?
A: The World Baseball Classic is one. I was very much opposed to the World Baseball Classic, and there were five or six of us that were, but he kept working on it and working on it until everybody gave in. In that instance, it turned out he was right.
Q: Does he wear you down?
A: He doesn't wear you down. He just delays things and he truly believes that you don't have to make a decision, a hard decision until you have to make it. You don't have to make it prematurely, because if you wait and if you give things time, usually new facts become available and the decision becomes easier. So if there was a difficult decision or there was going to be rancor or a split in the ownership ranks, he would try to delay things until everybody got on the same page.
Q: From the time he became acting commissioner to when he was voted into the job, when do you feel he really came into his own?
A: He really didn't come into his own until he became the permanent commissioner in 1998, I think, because while he was the acting commissioner he really didn't have the absolute powers of commissioner. Once he became commissioner, that's when he really began to assert himself. Getting rid of the two leagues as separate entities, for example, getting three-division play, which was something he had wanted for a long time -- things like that he was able to accomplish after he became the full-time commissioner.
Q: Selig keeps saying his biggest regret is losing the World Series, but when I asked what he regrets, he said, "Nothing. What could I have done differently?" What's your thought?
A: The only thing we could have done differently was to have the contract expire at the end of a season, and if we weren't going to make a deal, we could've locked them out. Allowing the union to strike in the middle of a season was obviously a mistake, but it was a mistake really, I think, that came from the lawyers more than it came from Bud.
Q: What role did Selig play in all those years [of labor peace] since then?
A: Well, he hasn't been at the bargaining table. I think he played a great role, first of all, in formulating what we were going after, but also in letting the union know that he was not a guy that was going to back down. They knew he was a formidable adversary and, therefore, they better take him seriously. They thought that when they called a strike in August, we'd buckle before the season was over in order to save the World Series, and he showed them that if you want to call off the World Series, you can call off the World Series. That showed 'em he was a pretty tough guy.
Q: He's gotten a lot of criticism that he didn't react quickly enough to performance-enhancing drugs. What did you think about his reaction to the issue?
A: To say that Bud Selig didn't react fast enough to PEDs is really not fair. First of all, I don't think any of us were aware of them as early as people think we were, but then, once we were aware of it, he tried to move on the drugs and the union fought him every step of the way. We couldn't put a program in place without the consent of the union, but he kept at it and he kept at it, and finally, I think what got us over the hump was that the vast majority of the players said to their union, "We want something done about this. We don't like the idea that people are doing things to enhance their performance." But there was nothing that he could do without the consent of the union.
Q: It was on the table. It was part of what the owners were asking for. Why not push harder in the late '90s?
A: The union made it clear that if we were going to insist on testing, that was a strike issue, and nobody wanted to go out on strike at that point.
Q: Jumping ahead to about 2003, when Barry Bonds' name came up in the BALCO scandal, in the next few years he's chasing some pretty big records. He passes [Mark] McGwire [for the single-season home run record]. And he passes Babe Ruth and he's approaching Hank Aaron. When he was going after that [career home run] record, and people knew he was connected to this clinic, personally, what was it like for Bud to watch that?
A: It was very difficult for Bud. He worships Hank Aaron. They were friends going back to the time when the Braves were in Milwaukee, and he just has a reverential view of Henry Aaron. I know he even thought about not being present, but as the commissioner of baseball, and no rule at that time that could stop Bonds, he went and was there when Bonds [tied] Henry's record. But it killed him. It really did. It was something that really bothered him because he knew that Henry Aaron had done it legitimately. He knew what Henry Aaron had gone through when he was closing on the Babe and the death threats and things like that, and it really bothered Buddy that here was a guy that was going to pass him, but wasn't doing it honestly. Nevertheless, as the commissioner he had to be there.
Q: What did you think of those [2005 congressional] hearings when Selig was up there?
A: I thought he acquitted himself well. It's very difficult to be in front of a bunch of people who are not polite, but yet have power, and he never lost his cool. I thought he did a great job. He took a tremendous beating and in his best Jake LaMotta style, he took it and he didn't go down.
Q: What role do you think Congress played by calling those hearings?
A: I think Congress played its usual role -- nothing. We would've gotten to where we got without the intervention of Congress. Don [Fehr] couldn't have cared less about Congress. What Don always cared about [was] one thing -- his players, and he was always clear about that. It took the players to get us to test 'em, not Congress.
Q: Tom Davis said that he thinks in the years before that, owners were content to keep making money while players were juicing and hitting the long ball. What do you say?
A: Well, that's absurd, because by players being juiced and running up their numbers and hitting more home runs or having higher batting averages, we had to pay 'em more money [laughs]. They inflated their statistics. We had no interest in the game being a dishonest game.
Q: But didn't it bring people to the ballpark, to see Mark McGwire, to see Sammy Sosa?
A: Oh, I'm sure it did. The McGwire/Sosa year brought a lot of people to the ballpark, but we were slow to recognize it, all right? We can be criticized for not recognizing PEDs early, but we didn't recognize them. At no point in time did people say, "Hey, this is great, these guys are on juice and they're running up the numbers." And in Bud Selig's case, as a student of the game, as a lover of the game, the last thing in the world he wanted to see was guys on juice breaking the records of the players he grew up idolizing.
Q: More recently, there was the Biogenesis investigation. What did you think about the way they [Selig and MLB chief operating officer Rob Manfred] pursued that investigation?
A: I know there's been a lot of criticism about the things that were done, but everything that was done was legal. Nothing was done that wasn't cleared with outside counsel, and it worked [laughs]. It worked. They all pleaded guilty, with the exception of A-Rod. So at the end of the day, isn't the final score what counts, as long as you don't break any rules, as long as you don't do anything illegal? I think that's one of his best days.
Q: Where does Selig rank in the history of commissioners?
A: Oh, he's No. 1. I mean he's definitely the unquestioned best commissioner that we ever had. Now we haven't had a lot of good ones [laughs], but he clearly is the best one that we've ever had. Look what's been accomplished during his tenure. The creation of the Internet company [MLB Advanced Media]; the baseball network; three-division play; now the double wild card, which is keeping teams in contention and fans coming out to the ballpark to watch teams who wouldn't be in contention if we didn't have the double wild card; the growth and the revenue of the industry from a billion-and-a-half to somewhere around eight-and-a-half-billion dollars, and there's a whole list of things. I could go on and on. So many good things happened under his tenure that you have to say he was No. 1.
Q: If he was so far and away the best, why did you oppose his chosen successor?
A: Being the best commissioner doesn't mean that you're necessarily correct in picking your successor. I wasn't against Rob Manfred, I was for [Red Sox chairman] Tom Werner. There's a difference. I felt that Manfred didn't have the right credentials. He was a lawyer. He didn't come out of a business background. I felt we needed a visionary, somebody who would know how to grow the game. When I looked at Tom Werner, I saw a guy who had an incredible career in the entertainment business. He had "The Cosby Show," the Roseanne Barr show, "3rd Rock From The Sun," a whole series of successful television shows, and what that showed me was that Tom Werner had his finger on the pulse of the American public, and that's what I felt we needed. I didn't think Rob had that qualification. But I wasn't against Rob, I was for Tom.
Q: The fact that Rob Manfred was chosen as Selig's successor, what does that say about Selig's legacy?
A: I don't know that it adds or subtracts from his legacy. But what it says was that he has a great influence over the ownership and if ownership believed that that's the guy he wanted, they were going to go along with him, because they always went along with him. But I don't think that's a part of his legacy. He made it a better game than it was before he became commissioner. The growth of the game and all the things he did for the game -- that's his legacy, and the elimination of drugs.