Happy 10th Anniversary, Bud!

This month marks the tenth anniversary of Bud Selig's ascension to the Commissionership. I've written plenty of bad things about the Commissioner in this column, but if you're reading this, odds are the labor dispute has been settled. Let's mark the occasion by thanking Bud for not repeating some past mistakes.

The Selig era is the second time that Major League Baseball has been ruled by an owner. The first was 1903-1920, when baseball was governed by the National Commission. The Commission consisted of three members: the president of the American League, the president of the National League, and a chairman chosen jointly by the league presidents. Whenever the two leagues disagreed, the chairman's vote decided the dispute. But instead of a true neutral serving as chairman, for seventeen years the position was held by Garry Herrmann, president of the Cincinnati Reds.

Herrmann, a senior lieutenant in the Cox political machine (Cincinnati's Republican version of Tammany Hall), was as jovial as Selig is sour-faced. He was the life of the party, and always picked up the check. But the structure of the Commission and Herrmann's own personality combined to produce ethical lapses and conflicts of interest far beyond anything charged by Selig's worst enemies.

For example, in 1906 Herrmann, as president of the Reds, asked waivers on an obscure player named Ed Phelps. Before the 10-day waiver period had expired, Herrmann sold Phelps to the Red Sox...but on the 10th day Phelps signed with the Pirates. The Commission's rules provided that disputes between an AL and an NL club over rights to a player were to be decided by the Chairman alone -- which put Herrmann in the position of reviewing his own conduct.

Herrmann claimed that he had obtained Phelps' permission to sell his contract so long as the Reds paid Phelps half the sale price. Phelps denied ever giving Herrmann the right to sell his contract. In upholding the sale, Herrmann credited his own version of the dispute over Phelps's, to the frustration of both the player and the Pirates .

Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss was understandably dubious about the Phelps decision. A week later, he was stunned to learn that Herrmann had also bet $6,000 that Pittsburgh would not win the NL pennant! Herrmann admitted making the wager, which he termed a "serious mistake" and promptly called off, but added, "You know that I did not solicit the wager -- in fact, it was brought about after a good deal of jesting."

For "jesting," read "drinking." The friendship between Herrmann and AL president Ban Johnson, a fellow Cincinnatian, had been cemented in saloons across the Queen City. In 1909, after losing yet another dispute, Barney Dreyfuss fumed to The Sporting News: "The Commission is a joke, just as anybody in baseball knows. Its members do too much drinking."

Dreyfuss and Herrmann clashed again in 1916. This time the stakes were higher: rights to future Hall of Famer George Sisler, the decade's best college prospect. Sisler had signed a professional contract at age 17, while still underage, then repudiated it a year later to preserve his college eligibility. Pittsburgh acquired that contract, but Sisler signed with the St. Louis Browns to play for his former college coach, Branch Rickey.

The dispute between the Pirates and Browns went to the National Commission. Herrmann had to decide whether to award Sisler to one of his own rivals or ship him off to the other league. Although his decision in favor of the Browns was legally correct, the obvious conflict of interest did not escape Dreyfuss or the other NL owners, many of whom soon tried to force Herrmann to choose between the Reds and the Commission.

When no replacement for Herrmann could be found, the Commission was left virtually paralyzed to head off baseball's greatest scandal. Early in the 1919 World Series, Charles Comiskey of the White Sox heard rumors that some of his players were throwing the Series. He refused to take the matter to Ban Johnson, with whom he was feuding. He couldn't appeal to Herrmann, who was president of the opposing team. That left NL president John Heydler, who listened to Comiskey but was powerless to act.

The Black Sox scandal finally convinced the clubs that the conflict of interest inherent in having baseball's most important decisions made by an owner could not be allowed to continue. They abolished the National Commission in favor of a neutral Commissioner. For the next 72 years, Major League Baseball was governed by a series of men who, whatever their faults, could never be accused of running MLB for their own personal profit.

Since becoming Commissioner, Bud Selig has moved his own club from the AL to the NL, tried to eliminate the team which competes with his for fans in western Wisconsin, and pressed for a revenue-sharing formula that made his Brewers MLB's most profitable club in 2001. But he hasn't bet on a pennant race, shifted the balance of power in his own division or ruled in his own favor on a grievance.


Copyright © 2002 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the September 2002 issue of Boston Baseball.

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