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Monday, February 23, 2004

The Last Commissioner

Ron Hostetter recently loaned me Fay Vincent's 2002 book The Last Commissioner: A Baseball Valentine and I was able to read it over an extended weekend. Like Ron, I found the book both interesting and thought provoking.

His opposite depictions of Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams were interesting but left me with the impression of Joltin' Joe as a petty and parsimonious man in his dealings with others, even to the exent that he held a multi-year grudge against Vincent for a remark made by an employee of Major League Baseball when Vincent was commissioner. Vincent prefers to shrug it off by attributing it to Joe's Sicilian heritage and the excuse that "that was just Joe", but to me those excuses ring a little hollow. On the other hand his praise for the opposite attitude he witnessed in the likes of Stan Musial and Joe Garagiola are nice to hear.

As Ron mentioned, Vincent's recollections of the Rose investigation and his inside perspective should be required reading for anyone who still doesn't think Rose bet on baseball (he mentions that sabermetrician Bill James took issue with their actions against Rose. I was not aware of this before and don’t know what James’ position is today) or that he somehow has received a bad deal (the Dowd report can be found at ( Interestingly, Vincent points out that the Hall of Fame amended its rule to exclude players on baseball's ineligible list before Rose was banned but with the Rose situation in view since it first surfaced in the winter of 1989, with his ban being made official on August 24, 1989. I mentioned in an earlier post I think the HoF could allow Rose in as a player and baseball still ban him for his conduct as a manager. However, on page 127 Vincent quotes writer Hal Bodley (which he later denied) as saying that Rose did indeed bet on baseball as far back as 1981 when with the Phillies (I don't know what Rose's new book says on this subject). I suppose this isn't surprising that considering the arrogance of Rose he would have started betting on baseball only after becoming a manager. I do now agree with Vincent, although I didn’t at the time, that allowing Rose to participate in the festivities around the 1999 All-Star game as one of the all-time greats was a mistake by Selig and now only appears more so given the recent past.

I found fascinating Vincent's broad plan for baseball's future focusing on a partnership between the players and owners that includes a corporation that players, owners, and fans all have a stake in, in order to provide incentive for acting in the best interests of the game. He also thinks it likely and natural that more teams will be owned by media outlets like the Tribune Company that owns the Cubs and even thinks that perhaps the MLB rules could be amended to allow the same company to own multiple teams in a region (over many in the players union’s dead bodies I assume). He certainly understands the preeminence of TV revenue although he specifically notes that teams like the Royals would not be able to create a television network, something they did in 2003 and which seems to be working out well thus far. I find his vision for the game to be a much longer term view than those floated by Bob Costas in his book, the plan conceived by the "blue ribbon" panel that included one of the people I greatly admire, George Will, and the one baseball has begun to implement that includes revenue sharing and the luxury tax. Not surprisingly, he has a dim view of Bud Selig (doesn't everybody?) and appears to have been prescient in his assessment of Selig - namely that Selig was interested in the commissioner's position for himself even while ostensibly seeking other candidates including George W. Bush (who was seriously considering the position).

In the section on labor relations he notes that if the player’s union were broken or disbanded (which he sees as possible with his future plan) he thinks player’s salaries would increase across the board since there would no longer be a 6-year wait for free agency. I’m not so sure given the increasing realization that 90% of the players at the big league level are replaceable by minor leaguers. While the salaries of star rookies will certainly skyrocket, such a system may simply create a bi-level structure (which will happen to a lesser extent anyway as the new knowledge diffuses) where stars are paid 20 times what average regulars are paid.

On the topic of the Bush family, Vincent is incredibly complimentary and sees both Bush 41 and 43 as straight shooters, although notes that their styles differ and that Bush 43 has more of his mother's positive political skills in understanding and relating to people one on one.

He does a nice job of relating his run-ins with George Steinbrenner and the events that led to his 2 year exile from baseball. Nothing surprising given what everyone already knows about The Boss. Vincent also discusses at length his education regarding Negro League baseball and his admiration for several of the Negro Leaguers he got to know as commissioner. I wasn't aware of his efforts regarding minority hiring in the game and was impressed by his straightforward comments regarding what he perceived as unfair and bitter comments by Hank Aaron in a Nightline show they did together when he was commissioner. I've sensed the same thing from comments Aaron has made during the years and I don't think his statements are or were generally helpful to baseball.

Vincent is not bashful to admit how he and Bart Giamati ever only intended to hire a black president of the National League even while instructing the search committee to bring them three candidates, only one of which had to be black. He also admits that they settled on former broadcaster and player Bill White simply because he was black (Giamati barely knew who he was when he hired him and then lied about why he was hiring him) and then lived to regret White’s issues with authority. Although Vincent seems to take pride in his actions (he gives a defense of his reverse discrimination with an appeal to history and correcting a greater historical injustice), I don't think that's the correct position, or a fair one to the committee he lied to and Bill White and others who were hired simply because of their race. In my view, a person can’t correct historical wrongs, all he can do is make the morally correct decision today. He even noted that one black he hired (because he was black I should add) was doubting his life accomplishments because of prevalent reverse discrimination although Vincent doesn’t appear to take seriously his responsibility for those doubts.

Vincent also apologized to a gathering of Negro League players on behalf of baseball for their mistreatment a half century ago and before as he recounts in the chapter titled "Baseball is Sorry". While I applaud his efforts to reach out to Negro Leaguers (I have always enjoyed reading about the Negro Leagues, Satchell Paige was one of my heroes ever since I saw a TV movie made about his life when I was a boy and I'm a member of the Negro League Museum here in Kansas City) by recognizing their contribution to the game and assisting them with health care and pensions, I'm generally not a fan of apologies for historical wrongs like that given by President Clinton for slavery on behalf of western Europe and America. Maybe Judge Landis should have apologized since he had something to apologize for, but not Fay Vincent.

Although not directly related to baseball, the other perspective I took away from the book is the interconnectedness of people in positions of influence, wealth, and power and how there are a relatively small number of people that have such a great influence on institutions in this country. While I'm by no means one who thinks that all the tall stalks should be lopped off, it is a bit disconcerting and in the end perhaps this is what Vincent was combating when he attempted to hire based only on race.

For baseball fans I think the book contains some great perspectives and of course some great stories and remembrances and provides about the right mix of history, business, and sentiment to remain interesting.

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