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'Best interests of baseball' a wide-ranging power

Commissioner's right to police game originates from 1919 Black Sox scandal

Sometimes, when Commissioner Bud Selig is exasperated by a line of questioning or by criticism he feels is unfair, he'll invoke a name from the past.

"Look, Mountain Landis is dead," he'll say, "and he's not coming back."

He'll pause for the right comedic touch.

"I know that's upsetting to some of you," he'll add.

Yet Kenesaw Mountain Landis surely has been in Selig's thoughts a time or two in recent weeks as he attempts to wrap up the Biogenesis investigation. Selig has the authority to act unilaterally "in the best interests of baseball," and if Alex Rodriguez is unwilling to accept a suspension, he might just exercise that power.

For that power, he can thank Landis, at one time a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. When baseball's owners approached Landis about taking over their sport in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which eight White Sox players were accused of taking bribes to throw the World Series, he outlined some conditions for the job.

First, he wanted broad and unchallenged power to act "in the best interests of baseball." And the owners, believing the game's credibility was in jeopardy, agreed. As a result, the act of a group of players throwing a World Series changed baseball forever.

In 1921, the owners defined the modern Office of the Commissioner, giving Landis wide-ranging power to police the game. They spelled out "the best interests of baseball" power in the Major League constitution without resorting to legalese. The "best interests of baseball" authority is exactly what it sounds like. The Commissioner has the power to take action against clubs or players if he believes they've done something that strikes at the integrity of the game or the public trust in it.

Ninety-two years later, the "best interests of baseball" clause remains the single most powerful authority in sports.

For one thing, it's open to interpretation. Bowie Kuhn invoked the clause to prevent A's owner Charlie Finley from selling his best players. Fay Vincent cited it when suspending Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for collecting damaging information on his biggest star, Dave Winfield.

Heavy stuff, right?

And then there was Ford Frick, who ordered an asterisk placed beside Roger Maris' name after Maris broke the single-season home run record. Frick's reasoning was that Ruth had hit 60 home runs in a 154-game season while Maris had hit 61 in a 162-game season.

That asterisk never actually found its way into the record books, especially after it was learned that Frick had done ghostwriting for Ruth.

Landis used his authority freely as well. He banned the eight Black Sox for life and then nailed an assortment of players when he became convinced they were involved in gambling.

He was a tough man, that Landis. He threw Giants center fielder Benny Kauff out of the game for having "undesirable reputation and character."

Kauff's misstep?

He was involved in a car-theft ring, or so Landis thought. Kauff was banned even though a court had acquitted him of his involvement in the thefts.

In 1947, Happy Chandler suspended Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for "associating" with gamblers. Some wondered if Durocher's suspension wasn't as much for feuding with one of Chandler's friends and having an affair with a married actress as having anything to do with gamblers.

Kuhn, who became Commissioner in 1969, also used the "best interests" clause freely, perhaps too freely at times. He suspended an assortment of players he believed to be involved in drugs or gambling, including Denny McLain, baseball's last 30-game winner who was suspended twice in 1970, once for his involvement in a bookmaking operation, another time for carrying a gun into an airport.

He demanded that Jim Bouton retract his tell-all book, "Ball Four." No, seriously. (Bouton refused.) Kuhn threw Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle out of the game for promoting casinos. His successor, Peter Ueberroth, let them back in.

Both decisions were what Kuhn and Ueberroth saw as "the best interests of baseball." Kuhn vetoed Finley's selling of Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox and Vida Blue to the Yankees in 1976, when baseball was on the eve of free agency.

Kuhn's successor, Ueberroth, who took the office in 1984, used his powers to suspend a long list of players for cocaine use. Bart Giamatti didn't invoke his "best interests" powers in 1989 when he banned Pete Rose for life, but that authority surely prompted Rose to accept the punishment.

Selig has used "the best interests of baseball" to take control of the business dealings of the Rangers and Dodgers when he believed their ownerships had become negligent or lacked the cash to run the franchise properly.

He would be walking a tightrope in his banishment of Rodriguez, however. Punishment related to the use of drugs is covered by the labor agreement, so the Commissioner's power is limited.

In 1992, Vincent banished Yankees pitcher Steve Howe for his involvement with cocaine, the reliever's seventh such suspension. But Howe was reinstated after the MLBPA filed a grievance. But Selig may believe that Rodriguez's misdeeds go far beyond simply buying or using banned substances.

If Rodriguez lied to investigators or attempted to destroy evidence, Selig could choose to wield his ultimate weapon.

Will he do it?

When he announces his decision, he might even invoke the name of Landis and every other Commissioner that followed. They might all have arrived at the same conclusion.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.