'The stuff of dreams': Commish gets Hall call

Selig's love of the game a boon for baseball

December 5th, 2016

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Bud Selig's 83rd birthday is almost certain to include a cake and a dinner with family and friends.

Perfect, right?

Well, almost.

What do you give the man who has pretty much everything? Selig received one additional touch Sunday when he learned he'll be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame that day -- July 30, 2017.

He's arguably the greatest Commissioner baseball has ever had and will be the fifth to have the game's highest honor bestowed on him.

During 22 years on the job, Selig oversaw a transformation that ushered in an era of competitive balance, Wild Card Games and Interleague Play.

One of his proudest moments came in 1997 when he retired Jackie Robinson's No. 42 forever and made the anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball's color line something akin to baseball's national holiday.

Still, to completely understand Bud Selig's legacy in baseball, maybe you have to consider something as simple as how we watch games.

That would be on our phones and our tablets. On planes, trains and automobiles. While relaxing in the backyard or during walks around the neighborhood.

This is all a tribute to the company that is providing you with this column, Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which has completely improved how we enjoy the sport we love.

When Selig gave the go-ahead to start MLBAM in 2000, he had no idea where it would lead. He's not particularly tech-savvy.

But in this case, he did what he did in a lot of other instances. He became convinced in a kernel of an idea.

This is the sport that for decades was criticized for being stuck in the past, for fearing innovation and change. No more. Baseball hasn't just opened doors in this area. Baseball has built doors and come up with better and faster ways to get through them.

Selig was at his home in Milwaukee when the Hall of Fame telephone call came and hours later was still attempting to get his mind around the honor.

"I just can't really put it into words," he said. "My life, I mean, my life has been the stuff of dreams. You couldn't dream the things that have happened to a kid from Milwaukee."

He started his career in baseball 50 years ago for the most basic reason of all: He wanted to bring a team back to his hometown in the wake of the Braves moving to Atlanta after the 1965 season.

He did this for the simplest of reasons. He loved the game. He loved the players and the strategy and all the rest.

He grew up immersed in box scores and standings, arguing trades, riding the highs and lows of a season. To this day, he still spends evenings channel-surfing from game to game or in his box at Miller Park.

Maybe that's the thing that was instrumental in making him an effective Commissioner. He had grown up watching the game and had worked in the game.

He didn't just appreciate its beauty and timelessness. He understood its rhythms and spoke its language. When an owner telephoned with a problem, Selig understood.

After the Braves left in 1965, Selig worked tirelessly for the next five years to put together a group of investors for the purchase of the Seattle Pilots a few days before the 1970 season.

He renamed the team the Brewers and during more than two decades as owner celebrated the victories, suffered through the losses and made friends all over the sport.

He served on every committee he was asked to be part of, and ultimately when baseball went looking for new leadership in 1992, a group of owners prevailed upon him to do the job, first on a temporary basis and then permanently in 1998.

By the time he stepped down in January 2015 and gave way to his friend and confidant, Rob Manfred, a sport had been transformed. He inherited one beset by labor problems, red ink and competitive imbalance.

Through his power of persuasion -- that is, working the phones, pulling peers aside at meetings, listening, talking, listening -- he compelled owners to speak with one voice rather than big-market teams constantly fighting small-market teams.

As Manfred said, "He has the greatest personal political skills you can imagine. I mean that in the most positive way possible."

Or as former Astros owner Drayton McLane said, "I would vote for things I was against just because he wore me down. By the end, I couldn't tell whether some of these ideas might have been mine all the time. There's some genius in being able to do that."

Baseball will have had 26 years of uninterrupted labor peace by the time a new five-year collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season.

With players and owners finally pulling on the same end of the rope, Major League Baseball has had a period of explosive growth: revenues rising from $1.2 billion to almost $10 billion, attendance increasing from 51 million to 73 million and average player salaries soaring from $1 million to $4.4 million.

Selig convinced baseball's wealthier teams to share a portion of their revenues with smaller-market teams. His goal was to give every team a chance to compete regardless of market size.

In the last five seasons, 22 of baseball's 30 teams have played at least one postseason series. The American League has had five different champions in six seasons, the National League four. Further, 13 franchises have been to the World Series at least once the last 10 seasons.

In the nearly two years since retiring as Commissioner and taking the title of Commissioner Emeritus, Selig has taught history classes at several schools, including his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin.

When he reflects on a half-century in the sport he grew up loving, Selig likes to recall a long-ago conversation with Henry Aaron, a close friend, during an after-dinner walk a few blocks from the nation's capital.

They'd first met in the '50s when Selig was a young fan of the Milwaukee Braves and Aaron was on his way to becoming one of the greatest players ever.

On a September night in 2005, Aaron and Selig were in Washington, D.C., to testify before a congressional committee and doing their parts to help address the issue of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport they love.

After dinner, the two men were walking back to their hotel when Aaron said words that ring in Selig's ear to this day.

"Who would have thought that we'd end up here?" Aaron said. "That I'd hit more home runs than Babe Ruth, and you'd be the Commissioner."