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Ranking the commissioners: Selig's No. 1

1/23/2015
Other than the steroid era and the strike, Bud Selig's 22-year tenure featured prosperity and peace. Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun/Getty Images

Ranking the commissioners is a bit like a watching a game between the 2003 Tigers and 1962 Mets: There's not a lot of talent on the field. But here are the nine commissioners of baseball, ranked from best to worst.

1. Bud Selig (1992-2015)

Who was he? Owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Notable events during his term: Cancellation of the 1994 World Series because of a players' strike (the owners wanted to institute a salary cap); realignment from four divisions to six, and creation of the wild card; interleague play; instant replay, the last of the four major pro leagues to use it; disregard, willful or not, of the steroids era, eventually followed in the mid-2000s with a stronger drug testing program and stiff punishments; more revenue sharing and luxury taxes to help small-market teams; tried to contract the Twins and Expos; All-Star Game tie; now the All-Star Game "counts!"; 1993 and 1998 expansions that created four new teams; new stadium boom; World Baseball Classic in 2006; allowed the Expos to move to Washington in 2005, the first franchise move since the Senators decamped to Texas in 1972; a return to an unbalanced schedule in 2001; revenues soared, from $1.4 billion in 1995 to a record $9 billion in 2014.

In the Hall of Fame? Not yet.

Selig served as "acting" commissioner until 1998, when he finally took the official title. For years, he rallied against the game's inequities and rising salaries. Meanwhile, revenues continued to increase year after year and he leaves the game in greater financial strength than ever, as lucrative local cable TV rights and new dollars from sources like MLB Advanced Media have allowed owners to make record profits and hand out shocking contracts. The owners are happy, the players are happy and everyone is counting their money.

But are the fans happy? Attendance, while very strong, hasn't quite reached pre-1994 per-game levels; World Series TV ratings aren't what they once were; games are long and concerns about younger fans losing interest are legitimate.

Nonetheless, Selig guided the sport out of the World Series cancellation, and while he initially dropped the ball on steroids, it's hard to argue against the success of the wild card and interleague play, two revolutionary concepts for stodgy old baseball. Giving home-field advantage to the league that wins the All-Star Game remains an embarrassingly dumb idea, and he failed to resolve the stadium issues in Tampa Bay and Oakland, although those franchises have managed to remain successful on the field.

In the end, I'd argue that the on-field product is better than ever. Revenues are high, and there's nothing wrong with that. Ballparks are fun places to go to, and fans have access to more games and highlights than ever. Parity is at an all-time high. It's hard to get past that 1994 World Series, but I have to say that Bud Selig is the greatest commissioner the sport has had.

2. Happy Chandler (1945-51)

Who was he? A former U.S. senator and governor of Kentucky. After leaving baseball, he won a second term as governor.

Notable events: Oversaw the signing of Jackie Robinson and first steps to integration; worked with the players to establish a pension fund; suspended Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for "conduct detrimental to baseball" (he had consorted with gamblers and married actress Laraine Day amid allegations that he had stolen the actress from her ex-husband); banned players who defected to the Mexican League for five years (although those bans were later rescinded); World Series games broadcast on television for the first time.

In the Hall of Fame? Yes.

Obviously, Chandler's legacy is backing Branch Rickey and Walter O'Malley in breaking the color barrier. Chandler would later write that he was eventually forced out of the job because of that decision, although historians tend to disagree on that matter. What's indisputable is that Chandler's actions supported the Dodgers. He could have voided Robinson's contract but didn't. He threatened punishment for Phillies manager Ben Chapman and his players after they taunted Robinson early in his first season. Chandler also supported NL president Ford Frick's indefinite suspension of players on the Cardinals who threatened to strike because of Robinson.

The question is how much credit Chandler deserves. Robinson debuted in 1947 but by 1951 only six teams had used a black player, so I'd argue that while Chandler didn't stop the Dodgers, he didn't exactly push the other owners towards further integration. In the end, that rests more on the owners -- the Red Sox under Tom Yawkey were the last to integrate in 1959 -- but a strong commissioner would have been more proactive.

Still, Chandler had one historically important decision to make. He made the right one.

3. Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1920-44)

Who was he? A federal judge most famous for fining Standard Oil more than $29 million in 1907 (his ruling was later overturned), Landis was hired as baseball's first commissioner and charged with dealing with the fallout from the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal. Landis was born in Ohio but his father had been wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia during the Civil War, thus the unusual name.

Notable events: Helped clean up the sport's gambling problem with his lifetime bans of eight White Sox players; continued to enforce the color barrier; suspended Babe Ruth for illegal barnstorming; freed several minor leaguers throughout his tenure for what he deemed illegal arrangements between major and minor league franchises (including declaring 70 Cardinals minor leaguers free agents in 1938); supported the first All-Star Game in 1933; opposed night baseball; suspended Yankees outfielder Jake Powell for racist comments about beating up blacks while serving as a police officer in the offseason; ordered Phillies owner William Cox to sell his share in the team after he was found to have bet on his own team.

In the Hall of Fame? Yes.

Landis' long reign, during which he ruled with more authority than any other commissioner, is marked by two important outcomes, of course: his tough rulings on gambling and his unwillingness to push owners into breaking the color barrier. One great achievement, one historical failure. Was he racist? Bill Veeck believed he was, although Landis once said, after Dodgers manager Leo Durocher charged that black players were being kept out of the sport, that "Negroes are not barred from organized baseball by the commissioner and never have been in the 21 years I have served. There is no rule in organized baseball prohibiting their participation and never has been to my knowledge. If Durocher, or if any other manager, or all of them, want to sign one, or 25 Negro players, it is all right with me. That is the business of the managers and the club owners."

Nonetheless, after Landis' death in 1944, it took less than two years for Branch Rickey to sign Jackie Robinson, who debuted in the majors in 1947. It seems clear that Landis did little to encourage the sport to integrate.

4. Ford Frick (1951-65)

Who was he? A former sportswriter and newspaper reporter, he became the National League's public relations director in 1934 and then its president later that year.

Notable events: Oversaw the first franchise relocation in more than 50 years, when the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee; the majors reached the West Coast in 1958 with the moves of the Dodgers and Giants; the American League and National League expanded in 1961 and 1962, adding four new teams; fought off the creation of the Continental League, a proposed third major league; ordered an asterisk be placed next to Roger Maris' single-season home run record (Frick had been Babe Ruth's ghostwriter at one time); took away the All-Star vote from fans after Reds fans stuffed the ballot box in 1957.

In the Hall of Fame? Yes.

It's often written -- usually by people who grew up in New York in the 1950s -- that the '50s were baseball's glory decade. That's far from the truth. For much of the decade, attendance was in decline. With the advent of television, the minor leagues were dying. Attendance had declined from nearly 21 million in 1948 to 14.4 million in 1953. The ballparks, many built 40 to 50 years earlier, were old and crumbling. Even the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers had seen their attendance decline from a high of 1.8 million in 1947 to just over a million by the mid-50s. Anyway, baseball moved west and then it expanded, the two primary events under Frick's watch. Attendance was up to 19 million again by 1959 and over 25 million by 1965.

Not a whole lot else seems to have happened during Frick's time in office. He left just before the players' union began fighting for more rights, so he avoided the conflicts that began developing in the late '60s and early '70s.

5. Fay Vincent (1989-92)

Who was he? Friend of Bart Giamatti and deputy commissioner of baseball when Giamatti died.

Notable events: World Series earthquake in 1989; began the process for the 1993 expansion to Colorado and Miami; lockout in 1990 that wiped nearly all of spring training; banned George Steinbrenner for life for associating with known gambler Howie Spira (Steinbrenner was later allowed back in the game); attempted to realign the National League by making the Cubs and Cardinals switch divisions with the Reds and Braves, but the Cubs sued, eventually dropping the lawsuit after Vincent resigned as commissioner.

In the Hall of Fame? No.

Vincent resigned after the owners gave him an 18-9 no-confidence vote. They were upset that he had intervened in the 1990 lockout and that -- shockingly -- salaries were skyrocketing. As if the commissioner were to blame for that. The owners didn't like that a new TV deal wasn't as lucrative as the previous one (CBS had lost nearly $500 million on that contract). He titled his autobiography "The Last Commissioner," kind of a jab at Bud Selig, one of the owners who had campaigned for his removal.

6. Peter Ueberroth (1984-89)

Who was he? The organizer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the first privately financed Olympic Games, which turned a profit of $250 million.

Notable events: Encouraged collusion among the owners in an attempt to hold down player salaries (the MLBPA later won a settlement of $280 million in fines); suspended several players for cocaine use; negotiated a landmark $1.1 billion television deal with CBS (and a $400 million deal with ESPN); in 1985, settled a players' strike after one day; initiated the investigation into Pete Rose; urged the Cubs to install lights at Wrigley Field; reinstated Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, who had been banned from the game for working at casinos.

In the Hall of Fame? No.

Ueberroth was hired for his business acumen, and there's no denying baseball's bottom line changed dramatically during his tenure. According to MLB.com, when he took office 21 of the 26 teams were losing money; by his last year, all 26 teams made a profit or broke even. Of course, collusion probably helped in that regard. But attendance climbed throughout the decade. In 1980, the 26 teams saw 43 million fans go through the turnstiles; in 1989, it was up to 55 million. During this time, crowd control and alcohol management were also improved at ballparks, making them much more family-friendly places to go.

Ueberroth kick-started the game into the modern era, emphasizing marketing and business relationships and big TV contracts, and helped clean up the game's cocaine problems. But his lasting legacy will be collusion, which increased the distrust between players and owners and laid the foundation for the labor problems that led to the 1994 strike and the cancellation of the World Series.

7. Bowie Kuhn (1969-84)

Who was he? A lawyer who worked as legal counsel for the owners for many years before becoming commissioner.

Notable events: An unending string of battles with Marvin Miller and the players' association, leading to significant strikes in 1972 and 1981; the dissolution of the reserve clause and creation of free agency; an unending string of fights with A's owner Charlie Finley; suspended Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for illegal campaign contributions; called Jim Bouton's "Ball Four," published in 1970, "detrimental to baseball" and demanded that Bouton rescind the book; first World Series night games were played; memorably sat through one 1976 near-freezing World Series game in his field-level box seats without a hat and only his suit jacket; wasn't present when Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record; oversaw the 1969 expansions to four cities and the 1977 expansion to Seattle and Toronto (although that was one brought on primarily by lawsuits); designated-hitter rule instituted in the American League in 1973.

In the Hall of Fame? Yes.

Yes, Kuhn is in the Hall of Fame -- he was elected nine months after his death in 2007. Was he a good commissioner? Probably not. His negotiations with Miller resulted in one loss after another, and he could have created a better system of free agency for the owners if he been more willing to compromise rather than try to hold on to the reserve clause. He's laughable in many regards -- his comments about "Ball Four," sitting in the cold weather -- but the game did grow during his tenure. Attendance had stagnated in the late '60s and early '70s but would spike from 27 million in 1969 to 45 million in 1983, thanks in part to the new cookie-cutter stadiums that were built. But is he a deserving Hall of Famer? Keep in mind that Bowie Kuhn is in the Hall -- but Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens aren't.

8. A. Bartlett Giamatti (1989)

Who was he? Former president of Yale, Red Sox fan and president of the National League.

Notable events: Hired lawyer John Dowd to investigate Pete Rose; in August 1989, Rose voluntarily agreed to permanent ineligibility from the baseball, with baseball agreeing that it would make no formal findings regarding Rose's betting on baseball. The next day, Giamatti said Rose had bet on baseball. A few days later, he died of a heart attack at age 51.

In the Hall of Fame? No.

Would Giamatti have been a good commissioner? Hard to say. He was hired in part because of a hard-line stance he had taken against Yale's union while president there, so I'm guessing that the 1994 labor strike would still have occurred under Giamatti's watch.

9. William "Spike" Eckert (1965-68)

Who was he? A former lieutenant general in the Air Force, Eckert had served as a consultant to the aviation industry after his military duty. He was a surprise choice; owners were looking for a commissioner with business experience. Still, he reportedly hadn't been to a major league game in 10 years when he was elected.

Notable events: Not many.

In the Hall of Fame? No.

The owners quickly realized they had made a major mistake and forced Eckert to resign after three years. Rob Neyer included a chapter on Eckert on his book "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders." Eckert didn't know business and certainly didn't know baseball. Just think if baseball had hired somebody else who was on the original list of candidates: Richard Nixon.