In the Best Interests of Baseball
Governing the National Pastime
University of Nebraska Press 2013
In 2008, when entertainment magnate Lalit Modi launched the Indian Premier League, he took a title that was new to the world of cricket: Commissioner. Modi’s idea for the structure of the IPL had American origins. He had studied in the United States in the mid-1980s, where he encountered the model of professional teams not as clubs rooted to their communities but as franchises held by wealthy owners, and thus saleable for handsome profit. In American professional sports, each cartel of these franchises is led by a single, powerful executive. Roger Goodell of the NFL and David Stern of the NBA represent the model of the Commissioner as CEO: they punish players, coaches, and even team owners for violations of rules, but more importantly, they work to increase the reach and revenue of the league and its teams. As Lalit Modi recognized, a league led by a single Commissioner, rather than a fractious governing board, ensured that decision-making would be streamlined, negotiations with sponsors and networks would be straightforward, and profits for all of the owners would increase.
The model of the league Commissioner comes from America’s oldest professional team sport: baseball. Amidst scandal in the game and rancor among team owners, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed Commissioner in 1920 and given extensive powers, in an attempt to save baseball from itself. The title of Andrew Zimbalist‘s book, In the Best Interests of Baseball: Governing the National Pastime (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), refers to the mandate that Landis and his successors received from the owners: they were to ensure that the game would not be sullied by the corruption of players or the greed of owners. But there was one problem: baseball’s commissioners were appointed by and served at the pleasure of the team owners. In the decades following Landis’ appointment, there was constant struggle between the holder of the office and the owners who paid his salary over the power and role of the Commissioner. The story that Andy tells in his book is the evolution of this baseball institution, from Judge Landis to current Commissioner Bud Selig, a former team owner who now governs the game in the interest of the owners.
Bud Selig has been much maligned by baseball fans, including the host of this podcast. But Andy offers a new view of the Commissioner. The Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College, Andy is the author of many books on the economics of baseball, and he has served as a consultant on various matters related to baseball, for teams, municipal councils, and even the Office of the Commissioner. He has been a strong critic of Selig, but his overall appraisal of the Commissioner is favorable. Baseball is stronger and more stable now than it was twenty years ago. The question is: what will happen when the current, strong Commissioner steps aside?