NEW YORK — "The best interests of the game" is a nebulous phrase. Yet when invoked by baseball commissioners over the years, it has withstood all challenges in or out of courtrooms.
Baseball's self-governorship dates to 1920 with the appointment of a former federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, as the first commissioner. Standards set by Landis, who served until his death in 1944, remain at the disposal of Fay Vincent, who is expected to decide next week whether Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner violated the "best interest" clause with a $40,000 payment to Howard Spira, a self-professed gambler.
Steinbrenner faces a possible suspension and perhaps an even stiffer penalty: being forced to sell his controlling interest in the Yankees. The latter is unlikely, although there is precedent. Twice commissioners used powers endowed by their employers, team owners, to sever an owner's control of a team.
There has been speculation Steinbrenner may challenge an adverse decision by Vincent in the courts. This commissioner is not threatened.
"In situations where owners have been investigated by the commissioner, routinely they go to federal court," Vincent said recently. "Routinely, they lose in federal court."
Steinbrenner has questioned the commissioner's power and may be ready to prepare a case if the owner feels Vincent's ruling is too harsh.
At one point in the two days of hearings before Vincent, Steinbrenner told the commissioner, "The clause that deals with the best interests of baseball is a term with little or no definition in the 17 years I have been in baseball. It's been allowed to linger for many, many years. It's been there in an undefined, and in my opinion, kind of a dangerous state. It can be viewed as an omnipotent tool. And if it's used, and I underline 'used' and stress 'used,' it can become dangerous."
Vincent, a graduate of Yale Law School, acknowledges the concept is vague, but he told Steinbrenner, "I have always thought the best interests clause is like the clauses we know constitutionally: due process, equal protection. They are hardly self-defining. And we as lawyers know we have to make the best we can with not much guidance."
Nevertheless, Vincent has some guidance in this case because most disciplinary cases in baseball, the severest ones certainly, involved alleged comportment with gamblers.
Previous rulings by commissioners have generally covered four areas: gambling, personal conduct, tampering and drugs.
Gambling: From Landis' banishment of eight members of the Chicago White Sox who allegedly conspired to fix the 1919 World Series to A. Bartlett Giamatti's permanent suspension of Pete Rose last year for betting on baseball games, commissioners have meted out strong punishment for any association with gamblers.
Landis was hired by baseball owners to oversee the Black Sox scandal. Although the eight players were acquitted by jury, Landis banned each for life. His ruling read, "Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it will ever play professional baseball."
During his tenure, Landis also imposed lifetime bans on Phil Douglas, Jimmy O'Connell and Dozy Dolan of the Giants for gambling-related incidents and in 1943 ordered William D. Cox to sell the Phillies because it was learned he bet on ballgames.
Landis' successor, Happy Chandler, also dealt with a gambling matter, although his suspension of Leo Durocher for the 1947 season did not specify the Dodgers manager's transgression other than "accumulation of unpleasant incidents in which he has been involved which the commissioner has construed as detrimental to baseball." The ruling was believed to be because of Durocher's association with known gamblers.
Bowie Kuhn suspended the Tigers' Denny McLain the first month of the 1970 season because of the pitcher's involvement in bookmaking activities in Michigan. Kuhn also issued lifetime bans against Willie Mays in 1979 and Mickey Mantle in 1983 because of their work for gambling casinos. Both were retired players, but Kuhn's edict forbade them to hold baseball jobs or take part in Old Timers events. Peter Ueberroth, Kuhn's successor, reinstated Mays and Mantle in 1985 and issued guidelines for tighter control of future associations between baseball personnel and casinos. In 1987, Ueberroth ordered Buddy LeRoux to divest himself of interest in Suffolk Downs or the Red Sox or face suspension. LeRoux sold his interest in the Red Sox in February 1988.
Giamatti's lifetime ban of Rose last Aug. 24 followed an investigation into allegations dating to 1985 that the all-time hits leader bet on baseball games. Rose, recently sentenced to a five-month jail term for income-tax evasion, has yet to present an appeal.