Former MLB Commissioner Selig Opens Up In 'For The Good Of The Game'

Jul 3, 2019
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Bud Selig has written a new autobiography, and some of it may surprise you. The former Major League Baseball commissioner is candid, sometimes foul-mouthed and angry, a contrast to his public persona when he led the sport for 22 years. During his tenure, he navigated tumultuous events that included a player strike and the spread of performance-enhancing drugs. Selig retired in 2015, but he is still connected to the game he fell in love with as a boy. NPR's Tom Goldman recently met up with the commissioner emeritus in Selig's hometown of Milwaukee.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Bud Selig didn't like Barry Bonds. In 2007, Selig was miserable having to follow the steroids-tainted slugger for the San Francisco Giants as Bonds crisscrossed the country, closing in on the moment...

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DUANE KUIPER: It is out of here.

GOLDMAN: ...When he broke Hank Aaron's career home run record. In 1995, during the contentious baseball player strike, Selig launched a tirade replete with F-bombs against former Vice President Al Gore. These pointed moments recounted in his book, "For The Good Of The Game," are startling when you remember Selig's public image. He was derided by critics as sometimes bumbling and absent-minded. Those who know him know differently. For them, the sharp-edged Bud Selig is real.

BUD SELIG: Well, there's nothing like Cooperstown, but this is pretty close.

GOLDMAN: But so, too, is the man who gets lost in baseball reverence, like last week, when he led me around his Milwaukee office with its Hall of Fame-worthy artifacts. We stopped next to a letter written in 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor. It's an original from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to then-baseball commissioner Kenesaw Landis, asking Landis to keep the game going during World War II.

SELIG: Do you know I often refer to baseball as a social institution? And this letter is another manifestation of that.

GOLDMAN: Mountain on another wall - an X-ray of Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams.

SELIG: He broke his elbow in 1950 and played the whole game.

GOLDMAN: Selig likes to tell the story of grit because Williams hurt himself in an all-star game, a contest modern players often brushed off as a meaningless exhibition. In his book, Selig says Williams liked to tell the commissioner he had the worst job in America. How could he put up with all those bleeps? - Williams was talking about baseball owners.

SELIG: I said, there are some weeks you're right, but I'm doing what I love. And the owners were great. I can never criticize them.

GOLDMAN: Many could. And it seemed like a ripe moment to ask him about the contentious years between owners and players the book describes, including the charges that Selig and other owners colluded to hold down player salaries. But not there - we had a date to watch his beloved Brewers, who he brought to Milwaukee in 1970. We piled into Selig's black sedan, 84-year-old Bud at the wheel. Ten minutes later, we were at the stadium he helped secure. It opened in 2001.

SELIG: Now, here we have Miller Park. A lot of controversy - public funds, private funds. Look at it today. They're going to draw 3 million people here this year in a market of a million-five (ph).

GOLDMAN: And this is a theme in Selig's book - ends justified means. As in many cities in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a lot of rancor over building Miller Park with public funds. Now it's a Milwaukee fixture. There was pain and anger surrounding the 1994-95 strike and cancellation of the World Series. But since then, there have been 24 years of labor peace. There was perhaps no more enduring controversy than the issue of steroid use. It mushroomed on Selig's watch, prompting critics to label him the steroids commissioner. Sitting now outside his stadium suite, munching on a salad, Selig wants to set the record straight on what he calls historical myths about the drug issue.

SELIG: We were slow to react - no, we weren't. This is a subject of collective bargaining.

GOLDMAN: And Selig says the union wouldn't bargain. He still blames the Players Association for resisting at every turn the drug testing he wanted and got the owners to support. Although, a comprehensive steroids study he commissioned, the Mitchell report, spread the blame.

Didn't it say everyone was a little bit at fault, even management?

SELIG: Well...

GOLDMAN: Everyone was at fault?

SELIG: ...He did. You're right. But look - I don't know. I've often thought on what else could I have done.

GOLDMAN: Selig has always said he consulted with those inside the game and was often told steroids weren't a widespread problem. That didn't convince skeptical baseball writers or lawmakers. This was Florida Representative Cliff Stearns at a 2008 congressional hearing on drug use in sports.

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CLIFF STEARNS: In short, they failed. And I'm already on record calling for the resignation of Commissioner Selig.

GOLDMAN: Ultimately, Selig got it and pushed hard for drug testing. Travis Tygart heads the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

TRAVIS TYGART: To the extent you can get owners to agree to anything, Selig did a hell of a job getting his owners to eventually, you know, recognize the issues and put it on a strong program. And that in turn, I think, turned the tide of the players.

GOLDMAN: Baseball's drug program today, Tygart says, with its robust testing and sanctions, is the gold standard among major U.S. professional sports - ends justifying means. But critics still linger. Selig was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 2017; some said, as a result, Barry Bonds and other players linked to the so-called steroids era who've been left out of the Hall should get in, too. Will his book, with its detailed description of the steroid battles, mollify the critics?

SELIG: I mean, that's a fair question. I don't think so. But maybe it will.

GOLDMAN: Whatever the final verdict, Selig knows at least his legacy is secure in the place he's always cared about most.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Mr. Selig, how are you?

SELIG: I'm good. How are you?

GOLDMAN: Walking the concourse at Miller Park, Selig gets that a lot - greetings and gratitude.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you for transforming the game, Mr. Selig.

GOLDMAN: What were once raging controversies during Selig's tenure now are accepted parts of baseball - wild-card teams in the playoffs, interleague play, revenue sharing, drug testing. It's someone else's job to meet the game's current challenges - attracting younger, more diverse fans, maintaining labor peace, improving action on the field.

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GOLDMAN: After this fourth-inning home run put Milwaukee ahead for good, Selig left the park. The retired commissioner emeritus said he had to get back to work, maybe a call to current Commissioner Rob Manfred with whom Selig talks regularly. Back at the office with a Brewers victory secured and surrounded by his history, chances are good Bud Selig was satisfied.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENEMIES' "FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.