Team Henry backed the wrong horse in MLB’s czar sweepstakes

It’s been a drab baseball season, especially hereabouts, with little chance of getting much more scintillating in such time that’s left. So it may prove to have climaxed in mid-August in a Baltimore hotel suite where the 30 owners of Major League Baseball teams played some good old fashioned hardball and came away with a victory for common sense. Keep in mind they have not always been so clever.

In the end, Rob Manfred was too obvious and inevitable to be denied. He may be too lawyerish, lacking in color, too much the house-pick, and surely not ‘one of the boys’. But as de facto CEO in the best years of the Selig era most responsible for its finest achievements, Manfred’s qualifications are indisputable. Spurning him would have been disastrous. “It would have been World War III,” one astounded owner is reputed to have snipped. In the end, bloodshed was averted but it was a close-call; much closer than it ought to have been.

Had he somehow pulled off his brazen bid to sidetrack Manfred’s election thereby muddling the entire process, Jerry Reinsdorf would have been in hog heaven. As the lodge’s resident crank, the aged but unbowed White Sox owner hardly feels the need to buttress his cause with logic, let alone support it with right reason. After all these years his predictable rants are inspired mainly by the realization they’re expected. For Jerry, it’s an art-form; reduced in his twilight to art for art’s sake. Like Lear railing on the barren wastes, he dearly needs to be heard no matter how empty the message or sad the sight. He got away with it in the infamous palace coup he orchestrated 22 years ago banishing the estimable Fay Vincent in favor of amiable ploy, Bud Selig, then his dear and dutiful buddy. That was Jerry’s historic score. He yearned for one last reprise. But this time he had no chance, although that deterred him not a bloody whit.

How a handful of dumb owners — very much including your own — could have gone along with Reinsdorf’s tiresome routine, however, is quite another matter. There were 10 of them at the peak of the revolt. They were merely pawns of his ego-tripping last hurrah but apparently too vain or selfish to recognize it.

And none of them got more into it and should thus now pay a heavier price than the Boston delegation which signed on for reasons doubtless all about money and got hammered. Tom Werner, selected by Reinsdorf as the puppet to top his ticket, was made to look simply foolish. The bigger loser could be John Henry if backing the wrong horse so emphatically costs him —as many expect —his privileged place in the MLB hierarchy and with it lush advantages he’s long enjoyed. Especially interesting is the recent revelation---dug up by the resourceful New York scribe Bill Madden — that Henry’s Sox have been granted a highly questionable $40 million a year revenue-sharing tax break related to their NESN property that they’ll no longer get in a Manfred regime. Such a pity! But then failed power-grabs invariably have casualties, eh.

Every sport has a commissioner but none have been more celebrated or interesting or as often controversial as Baseball’s. Richard Nixon once craved the job. Herbert Hoover was pushed for it. George W. Bush might have relished it this time, had it been dangled. But that never happened. The owners aren’t that dumb. They want no part of the P.R. nightmare sure to be aroused if they must tangle with an ex-president when the need arises to impeach a czar they feel with jaundice aforethought has become too big for his britches. That’s happened three times and will again, you can bet your bottom dollar.

Manfred is the fifth czar to be drafted from the law-dodge, including the judiciary. They’ve also had a failed newspaperman, a general, a public relations mogul, a distinguished academic and, of course most recently, a reformed car salesman. Overall, lawyers have had the heaviest impact.

Absolutely the most over-rated was the first one, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the hanging judge. Given a free pass in his lifetime, revisionist history has revealed him to be the ruthless cad he truly was. Many of his arbitrary and vengeful rulings would never have flown in these times but it’s his racism that most condemns him. Named for a Civil War battlefield revered by the Confederacy, Landis willfully maintained baseball’s segregation all by himself although that wasn’t necessary, there having been plenty of support for that dubious position among that era’s owners too. But he called all the shots because he reveled in doing so. In retrospect, Landis was a disgrace.

On the other hand, high among the most under-rated was the next one, the irrepressible ‘Happy Chandler’, the bourbon swigging ex-Senator from Kentucky. Wrongfully dismissed as a political hack, Happy stood up to the owners again and again in ways that chilled them making it inevitable they would eventually get him. But before they managed that he made possible the coming of Jackie Robinson, increasingly seen as MLB’s most stirring moment. The very clever Branch Rickey smartly aggrandized all the credit, but without the approval and active encouragement and resolute insistence of Mr. Albert ‘ Happy’ Chandler it would NEVER have happened and if Landis had lived a couple more years it would NOT have happened; not the way it did. Don’t ever forget that.

There followed a string of mediocrities, much perhaps as the owners preferred it. Ford Frick was the ex-newspaperman. No one could ever adequately explain his rise in MLB’s ranks. As commissioner he’s most remembered for an asterisk. Poor Bill Eckert was the ex-general and as baseball boss, a lost soul who needlessly became a bit of a joke. Bowie Kuhn had strong moments but inconsistent ethics and a vaguely smarmy approach to the job. If you can make a case for P.R whiz Peter Ueberroth, I’d be pleased to listen. Whereupon we came after 40 years to what might have been — had the baseball gods allowed and the owners not been so lacking in character — truly a golden age. In a span of three and a half years between the spring of 1989 and the fall of 1992, the game was ruled by Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent.

In retrospect, the very fact that two so remarkable characters ended up in the catbird seat was something of a miracle. Even at their giddiest the owners have never yearned to place men of such notable enlightenment, strength, and intellectual girth in charge of themselves. These lads were not only very smart and sophisticated, but equally principled, tough, and just. Such cats are dangerous, don’t you know.

The irony that ensued remains bitter. Giamatti, the gentle scholar who’d once presided over equally ungovernable Yale, died after only five sweet months ruling MLB. It was clear his sidekick Vincent was dedicated to the fulfillment of Bart’s vision. And in his consistently tough and impartial dealing with miscreants it also became clear to the owners that Fay was a chap they couldn’t expect to take their marching orders without question when it came time to do battle with the players, their historic obsession. It should further be well recalled that it was Reinsdorf who assumed the responsibility of ridding the lodge of this ‘meddlesome priest’. How much better might the game be today if Giamatti had lived and/or Vincent survived? Immeasurably, I shall always assume. Even if it can’t be proven.

As for Selig, he will forever be tainted — as I see it — by the way he came to power. He’s done some things well and grown somewhat in the role. But how does that weigh against his blunders; the labor dispute that wiped out a season, the drug dispute that fouled a generation. When his apologists — too many in the media— boast of his works they too mainly emphasize the issue of money; of how rich owners have become and players too, for sure.

Is that all there is? Maybe! But if so, who not an owner or player should give a hoot?