Review: In the Best Interests of Baseball? Governing the National Pastime, by Andrew Zimbalist

This is the text of the pre-publication print of: Matthew L. McDowell, Review: In the Best Interests of Baseball? Governing the National Pastime, Sport in History 36 (3) (2016): 413-15. There may be small textual differences between this version and the published version. Any reference made to this paper should refer to the published version.

Andrew Zimbalist, In the Best Interests of Baseball? Governing the National Pastime (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2013). Pp. 266. £19.99 (pb). ISBN: 978-0-8032-4535-8

If you are reading this journal, chances are that Bud Selig is a patron of the sub-discipline in which you work. Andrew Zimbalist even mentions this gift in his book: the Allan H. ‘Bud’ Selig Chair of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And Selig, after his roughly two-decade (give or take his ‘acting’ years) term as the commissioner of Major League Baseball (MLB), is indeed history, having now retired, and passing the trappings of his office to long-time lieutenant Rob Manfred. Events in Andrew Zimbalist’s 2013 paperback edition of his 2006 book, In the Best Interests of Baseball? Governing the National Pastime, end in the months leading up to Selig’s retirement. This specific edition features a preface and an epilogue discussing the intervening years. Essentially, the book combines history and economics, along with a bit of biography, to describe the politically-charged role of the commissioner within US baseball’s history. A large portion of the book is devoted specifically to Selig: his years owning the Milwaukee Brewers, his slow rise to power, and his unusually long reign atop the ‘national pastime’.

Zimbalist writes in a fairly populist, journalistic style, which in theory would be highly suited to a broad audience. There are problems here, though: much of this book assumes a familiarity with the major events and characters of baseball. It would be brilliant for an undergraduate module of sports management in a US or Canadian university, but far less so for a European one, whose models of sports ownership and governance barely resemble the relegation-free monopoly of MLB and North American sporting leagues more generally. This might seem like an odd point for a book clearly intended for North American markets; but, given that the world of baseball includes the Caribbean, Latin America, East Asia, and Europe (the Netherlands in particular), such an approach might unnecessarily limit its target audience. (Zimbalist’s previous work with football economist Stefan Szymanski indicates that such accessibility would be by no means a stretch.) Where is the World Baseball Classic in the epilogue?

And, given that MLB and its clubs themselves have issues around doping and exploitation of youth talent, can one say that its many problems are necessarily unique? The former especially gets short shrift in Zimbalist’s rather perfunctory epilogue. Here, Selig is perceived to have done a decent job of managing the implementation of doping tests, but his ubiquitous media presence during the record-breaking (and possibly chemically-enhanced) exploits of Mark McGwire and later Barry Bonds indicates him taking more of an ethical triangulation than Zimbalist lets on. Social scientists of sport can rightfully snicker at the self-righteousness of the anti-doping ‘lobby’, while still being bemused by Selig’s apparent hypocrisy on the issue. When reading this book, one finds out a great deal about the top of the MLB pyramid, but very little about the minor leagues. Overwhelmingly, spending time with the commissioners and owners of baseball means, with few exceptions, being in the company of middle- to older-aged white men, a story that grates hard against baseball’s multi-racial tapestry (and, conversely, its history of racial segregation).

In making the above points, I do not want to detract from what is otherwise an informative, entertaining read; and, overwhelmingly, Zimbalist does get a lot right. His history of the office of the commissioner of baseball, for instance, is strong. The office of commissioner, as we understand it today, did not exist until after the 1919 World Series bribery scandal involving the Chicago White Sox. The previous National Commission, established to keep the peace between the rival National and American Leagues from 1903 onwards, was an owner-led and owner-manipulated venture doomed to failure. This narrative thread would run through the story of baseball’s governance for many years, eventually culminating in the 1994 players’ strike which saw the cancellation of the World Series: namely, a continuous struggle for supremacy between those who govern baseball and those who own the clubs. As is hinted at in the title, Zimbalist routinely calls into question the independence of baseball’s historic commissioners, a motley crew of mostly unremarkable judges, politicians, and businessmen whose appointments represented grubby compromises on the part of owners, who were in charge of the selection process. Even Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first and longest-serving commissioner, is portrayed as someone whose tough, take-no-prisoners public persona belied an unwillingness to take on owners over labour rights and their unofficial control of the ‘farm system’ talent pipeline.

Selig, however, is the main focus. Even before the 1992 owners’ coup d’état against ineffectual commissioner Fay Vincent, Selig had already accrued a great deal of power with baseball. The son of Romanian and Ukrainian immigrants, the car salesman, history graduate (!), and owner of the Milwaukee Brewers was omnipresent within MLB’s major ownership committees. Selig’s ubiquity made his appointment as acting commissioner after the 1992 putsch a fait accompli, albeit a controversial one which explicitly gave up any pretence of commissioner’s office being independent of – rather than the tool of – the game’s owners. As per my earlier comments on baseball’s many scandals during the past twenty years, Selig’s press image has always been somewhat milquetoast: that of a small-town administrator unable to take on neither the New York and California clubs’ owners and their profligate spending, nor the likes of baseball’s more ruthless players’ agents. Zimbalist argues the opposite here: that, for all of Selig’s faults, his governance of baseball has been rather more ruthless and sure-handed. This includes the aftermath of the 1994 strike, which brought unprecedented labour peace to baseball. The commercially-savvy Selig, furthermore, introduced three-tiered playoffs, American and National League reorganisation, and inter-league play to baseball in the mid-1990s. Along the same vein, under Selig’s watch, MLB has vastly improved its marketing: for years, baseball was complacent towards its own marketing, and had to play catch up with more aggressive rivals: i.e. the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). Even the presence of a drug testing regime – any drug testing regime – is viewed by Zimbalist as an achievement, given the relative power of baseball’s players’ and umpires’ unions.

Should Zimbalist wish to update this book in ten years – whatever the fate of Manfred’s regime – he might wish to better integrate the post-2006 epilogue into the rest of the book. As of now, it certainly feels like the end of Selig’s narrative, but a bit more distance would probably help to provide a better answer to my earlier criticisms. Additionally, Zimbalist may wish to consider broadening the topic beyond the all-too-brief comparative material in his introduction: North American baseball is hardly an island unto itself in the world of global sporting governance. Nevertheless, this second update of his book still provides a very good primer for those who think the already understand the machinations of MLB’s internal politics.

Matthew L. McDowell

University of Edinburgh

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