Sports Collectors Digest: Books on Commissioners

By Marty Appel

Memoirs by baseball’s handful of commissioners are important volumes for students of baseball history, but they have generally been a mixed bag in terms of satisfying our curiosities.

I was personally involved in one of them; Bowie Kuhn’s book “Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner”, which received some nice reviews and is probably the most scholarly of the lot from a historian’s vantage point. I was privileged to work with him on the book, a process of more than a year. But more on that later.

I was also asked by his successor, Peter Ueberroth, to look into finding a publisher for his baseball memoirs after he left office. To our surprise, given that his previous book, “Made in America,” (about the 1984 Olympics), was a best seller – we found no takers, not a single publisher interested in the book. It didn’t seem to bother Ueberroth; he was leaving baseball behind, on to other things, and the memoir would probably have delayed his anticipated cleansing of matters of the game. We never really did any work on the book, he never decided what would go in, what would stay out, and it appears unlikely that his era will ever be captured autobiographically.

Kuhn, on the other hand, was rather anxious to set the record straight. He had just gone through a grueling re-election failure (he might well identify with Al Gore today), for although he won the election, he didn’t muster the necessary percentage of votes to get a third term. The bitter fight over his re-election left a lot of wounds, a lot of public criticism, and the book was, in effect, part of his healing process, part of his ability to get his story on the record, and to then move on.

“Hardball” recounts the years 1968-84 when he served as commissioner, and baseball has hardly seen a more turbulent period. Old baseball was left behind, along with no playoffs, one division, natural grass, flannel uniforms, day World Series games, vintage ballparks, and oh yes, the reserve clause. Under Kuhn’s watch came the power of Marvin Miller’s Players Association, the cookie-cutter ballparks of the ‘70s, the Houston Astros’ uniforms (when uniform design hit bottom), and the power of television money. Kuhn proved to be a master at describing the game’s colorful characters, recounting the office dialogue over heated issues, but also keeping his eye on the wonders of the game, the star players, the great events. He was a fan first (he had been the Washington Senator’s scoreboard boy in the ‘40s), and his love of the game was genuine. It was truly an honor to work with him on the project.

We worked in the basement of his New Jersey home, where his files and records had been shipped. There was disorder to the room, but we had a good sense of how to proceed. On the massive table over which we faced each other lie a genuine Bowie knife, a present, for he had been descended from Jim Bowie, the hero of the Alamo.

Our writing process was that I would arrive with the subjects to discuss for the day. We would have long conversations about the events, and in many cases, he was forming paragraphs as he told the stories. He was reaching back to his roots as a lawyer (he had been the National League attorney), and in effect, preparing briefs. I was thus writing a law book and a baseball book at once.

Between taping sessions, I would transcribe the material into a first draft, adding facts that I would research, such as the names of people present at a particular meeting. We moved forward with the oral history, but in between, he would edit my draft, extensively writing on the margins and page backs, adding page after page in longhand on long legal documents. This was 1985-86; we just a bit too early for the advent of PCs, and how much easier this would have been for us both to just exchange this material online.

In the end, the book was much more his writing than mine, but my contribution in keeping us on target, setting the agenda, playing devil’s advocate with his positions, and researching historical facts, made us a good team. The reviews were splendid, even from his frequent critics, and not a single reviewer cited a factual error (to my relief). Readers found a much warmer man than they expected, and he stated his positions thoughtfully and logically, as a good lawyer would. (Marvin Miller, of course, saw things quite differently, and so wrote his own book a few years later, basically refuting all the labor positions Kuhn made, and frequently referencing the book). “Hardball” is still in print, as a softcover edition from University of Nebraska Press.

Kuhn’s immediate predecessor, General William “Spike” Eckert, did not do a book, but Ford Frick, a former sportswriter turned executive, did. It was called “Games, Asterisks and People, Memoirs of a Lucky Fan” and was published in 1973, eight years after he had left office.

The “asterisk” in the title referred of course to his decision to list Roger Maris’s home run record separately from Babe Ruth’s. As a former ghostwriter for Ruth, this came to be seen as a bad decision, later reversed by Commissioner Fay Vincent. But at the time of course, it was the very first year of a schedule expanded by eight-games, and who could judge, on the basis of that one year, whether the extra eight games might make the entire record book (for season marks) obsolete? So he made his call, calling in fact for two records to be listed, with no mention of an asterisk.

“No asterisks! No apologies! Just two official records of two great baseball accomplishments that fans will never forget. I still think it was the right decision,” he wrote. History would prove him wrong, but he deserved better than ridicule for making the call without the ability to see that the extra eight games did not play havoc with the record book.

Commissioner Happy Chandler didn’t get around to “Heroes, Plain Folks, and Skunks” (with Vance Trimble) until 1989, 38 years after leaving office! Talk about a man with scores to settle; he had a long political life in addition to his time in baseball, and was determined to outlive every “skunk” who ever did him wrong. He died in 1991, age 92, and pretty much met his goal.

If baseball was waiting for Chandler to “tell all” in his book, the closest he came was to say that he had warned Leo Durocher to “clean up his act,” before suspending him. No one had ever really understood the reason for Durocher’s 1947 suspension, other than the assumption that he hung out with potential gamblers. Chandler more or less confirmed this in the book.

As for his own failure to win re-election, he wrote, “I wanted very much to stay in the job. But I had made enemies – {Fred} Saigh, {Lou} Perini, Del Webb, Dan Topping….I could count noses pretty accurately. The anything-to-make-a-buck corporate raiders and the sneaking cheaters held the balance of power.”

Some felt Chandler was apt to take a little too much credit for easing Jackie Robinson’s entry in baseball, but it was on his watch.

Vincent’s memoir, “The Last Commissioner: A Baseball Valentine,” was published in 2002, and didn’t cause much of an expected ripple. But he wasn’t an attack dog in it; rather, it was a personal homage to the game and his respect for his predecessor and mentor Bart Giamatti. He told some tales out of school, and according to at least one retired baseball official, quoted people wholly incorrectly. But the book was surprisingly interesting, given that the characters in it are much on the scene today, George Steinbrenner occupying a particularly prominent place in the book’s tales.

Those are the only commissioner memoirs. We would hope Bud Selig would be thinking about one; they are of historic value, even if they have not proven to be best sellers. Biographies of Judge Landis, the first commissioner (by Taylor Spink, and more recently, by Casey Award winner Dave Pietrusza), a combined biographical treatment by Jerome Holtzman, (“The Commissioners”), and two love stories about baseball by Giamatti (“Take Time for Paradise” 1989, the year he died, and A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti) which contains little autobiographical information, are other “commissioner books” of note. There is also “A Life of A. Bartlett Giamatti” by Anthony Valerio, and “One Fan’s Notes: Baseball’s Commissioners and the Conscience of Office,” due in the spring by Larry Moffi.