Bud Selig, Hall of Famer? A Historical Look at his Chances

Oct. 14, 2016
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Earlier this year, I reviewed the history of former Brewers on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot and speculated about who might be the next to be inducted. However, I neglected to consider the possibility of any non-players getting the call. Last week, the Hall of Fame announced the ten finalists for the first-ever ballot of the revamped Eras Committee (formerly the Veterans Committee). The ballot covers the “Today’s Game” era, 1988-present, and is sure to be a conversation-starter among Hall of Fame bugs. Among the candidates is long-time Brewers president/owner and recently-retired MLB commissioner Bud Selig. Will Selig be the next Brewers-associated figure inducted into Hall? Let’s take a few minutes to consider his chances.

First off, Selig would be a Brewer inductee only in the “spiritual” sense. His time as president/owner of the Brewers is not nearly enough to have him elected. Even with a mixed cast of owners among the Hall of Fame’s executive members, Selig cannot really compare (although he did win as many world championships as long-time Red Sox chief Tom Yawkey, who was somehow inducted in 1980).

Selig is under consideration for his 22 years as commissioner. Of the eight men who served as commissioner before Selig, four have been inducted into the Hall, including every commissioner who served more than five years. So, there certainly is a precedent for Selig to get the call. Kenesaw Landis was both the game’s first commissioner, serving for 24 years. Landis was elected by a special vote of the Hall’s “Old-timers” committee just 15 days after his death in 1944. The shine has faded considerably from Landis in the decades since his death. He almost single-handedly built the commissioner’s office into one of the powerful institutions in sports and did much to keep gambling interests out of the game, but he was also instrumental in keeping the game all-white. Were the concept of inducting executives to be introduced new today, there would likely be a much livelier debate over Landis’s candidacy, mostly because of his stance on race. Still, his place in the game’s history is undeniable.

Commissioner Landis in 1940.

Landis’s replacement was A. B. “Happy” Chandler. As a former senator and governor from Kentucky, Chandler was an unlikely candidate for advancing the cause of Civil Rights in the game. But as commissioner, Chandler pledged his full support to the Brooklyn Dodgers in their effort to bring Jackie Robinson to the majors, despite the owners of every other Big League club being opposed to integration, and later threatened disciplinary actions against teams or players engaging in race-baiting behavior. He also oversaw a post-war attendance dive and a challenge to Baseball’s monopolistic practices by several players defecting to the Mexican Baseball League for higher pay. Chandler ended up resigning his post in 1951 after the owners refused to extend his contract. In 1982, after electing a number of executives in the previous few years, the Veterans Committee gave Chandler the nod. Although integration was the primary part of his legacy, it is not mentioned on his Hall of Fame plaque.

Chandler’s replacement and fellow Hall of Famer, Ford Frick, was elected as much for being one of the Hall’s founders as he was for his time as president of the National League and his 15 years as commissioner. He was a caretaker commissioner during the game’s so-called “Golden Age,” doing little while attendance fell, aging ballparks crumbled, and teams (like Yawkey’s Red Sox) dithered in promoting black players to the majors. Frick was elected in 1970. His plaque lists only his founding of the Hall of Fame as an accomplishment.

The oft-bested Bowie Kuhn.

The most recent commissioner to be elected is Bowie Kuhn, who served from 1969 to 1984. Kuhn’s election was a contentions one, and will probably most mirror the debate that is likely to surround Selig’s upcoming vote. Kuhn oversaw perhaps the greatest era of change in the game’s history, but was usually on the losing side of its most important conflicts. He reigned during a huge spike in attendance and a spate of stadium building, but also during labor and drug crises (sound familiar?). Kuhn certainly has his defenders, but he was wrong on way too much for his election to the Hall to make sense. Emma Span argues here that Kuhn was wrong on “basically everything,” and makes a great case that the progress of his era was in spite of him rather than because of him. Kuhn was elected in 2008.

So this leaves me with two thoughts: 1) No commissioner should be in the Hall of Fame and 2) Those who vote for commissioners on the Hall ballot have incredibly low standards. Even with the black marks on Selig’s record – mainly the surge in PED use and the canceling of the 1994 World Series – he has overseen and been responsible for many positive developments, including strict drug testing, a historic attendance boom, new ballpark building, and over two decades of labor peace. Even acknowledging the worst of his detractors, Selig is supremely qualified for induction using the historical standards for commissioners.

But will he get in? To do so, he will need 12 votes from the 16 Today’s Game committee members. The committee itself was created to help bring more focus to recent players, managers, and executives, who are pretty badly underrepresented in the Hall’s overall population. Selig is one of three executives on the ballot with long-time Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and general manager John Schuerholz. Steinbrenner was up for election on the old Expansion Era ballot in 2010 and got less than half the support needed. It seems unlikely that he will get any closer this year. Schuerholz was the first general manager to send both AL and NL teams to a world title and his success in Kansas City in the 1980s and Atlanta in 1990s makes him a good bet. The players on the ballot (check them out here) certainly deserve more extensive discussion than I have room for, but I don’t see any of them gaining enough support for induction. In short, this will not be a crowded ballot for most voters.

So that leaves us with precedent, a standard that Selig easily exceeds, and a ballot with only one other candidate who is likely to garner serious support. This all points towards Bud Selig being Milwaukee’s next inductee into Cooperstown. We will learn the results of the vote on January 18, 2017.

Check out Matthew J. Prigge’s new book, Outlaws, Rebels, & Vixens: Motion Picture Censorship in Milwaukee, 1914-1971 – Available now!

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