What: The Commissioners: Baseball's Midlife Crisis by Jerome Holtzman
Publisher: Total Sports
In his history of the commissioner's office and the men that have filled it, Jerome Holtzman includes an excerpt from a New York Times analysis of one ousted commissioner:
"He was more a victim than a failure. The office for which he was chosen was already an anachronism. The men who run baseball--the owners of the major league clubs--would have preferred no commissioner at all but could not face the public relations consequences of abolishing that which stood for baseball's integrity."
Fay Vincent in 1992? No, William Eckert in 1968. The names and dates change, but the same tension affects every commissioner, the need to balance the public appearance that the commissioner works in the best interest of baseball--fans, players and owners--against the private reality that he serves the owners, those who elect him.
When appearance and reality collide, Holtzman shows repeatedly, reality wins, and commissioners lose. Peter Ueberroth angered owners by joining labor negotiations; Vincent enraged owners by proclaiming unilateral but logical realignment and forcing revenue sharing onto the agenda in the name of competitive balance. Neither served a second term. Vincent, in fact, failed to serve out his first.
If the owners wanted a strong commissioner, they could have elected Gen. Douglas MacArthur from a list of five finalists in 1951. Instead, they selected the inoffensive Ford Frick.
Finally, after six years of Bud Selig's interim stewardship, owners abandoned the facade last month and elected Selig commissioner. Holtzman calls Selig the "quintessential insider," one who refuses to make any decisions without slowly building a consensus among fellow owners. In response to Vincent's insistence on independence, Holtzman writes, owners "not only forced his resignation but virtually abolished the office in favor of a chairman of the board."
Holtzman, longtime baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, presents an interesting collection of anecdotes, but his writing is poorly organized, and the book falls far short of a definitive historical volume. As a distinguished journalist and member of the Hall of Fame, Holtzman should be more gracious than to brand the New York Times a paper that "pretends it has an exclusive on the truth" and less pretentious than to suggest that fired management negotiator Richard Ravitch could have saved his job "had he worn suspenders, as I often suggested."