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The Commissionership: A Historical Perspective

Since baseball's beginnings in the mid-19th century, the governance of the game has evolved from an ineffective alliance of players known as the National Association to a central figure with considerable powers called the Commissioner.

The game was still new in the spring of 1857, when the Knickerbocker club of New York City invited several neighboring bands of players to assemble and agree upon a standardized set of rules. From this modest beginning rose the National Association of Base Ball Players, which became the game's ruling body the following year. The founding principle of the organization was to keep baseball an amateur sport, thus prohibiting any player from receiving compensation.

By 1867, rivalries among teams had grown so strong, and the power of the National Association so weak, that paying players had become a common, albeit illegal, practice. Eventually the National Association divided teams into those that paid players and those that did not, and by 1869, baseball had its first professional club - the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

The Red Stockings' success encouraged the formation of other professional teams and eventually led to the establishment in 1871 of a new organization: the National Association of Professional Baseball Players.

Gambling and bribery soon became widespread within the organization and, with virtually no power to control its members, it was eventually rendered ineffective. By 1876, the National Association, all but extinct, was replaced by the fledgling National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. The first members of the National League were: Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Hartford, Louisville, New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis.

The National League differed from the National Association in that it was an organization of clubs rather than an association of players. Although the league was still composed of various administrative committees, most of its power rested with a board of five directors, one of whom, as a president, decided matters of importance. The first such man was Morgan G. Buckley, who was also president of the Hartford franchise.

One colorful character in the early years of the NL was William A. Hulbert. He became the league's second president in 1877 and served until his death in April 1882. At the time of his election, Hulbert was also president of the Chicago club. He gained a reputation as an iron-fisted disciplinarian who routinely expelled players from the game for "acting in an ungentlemanly fashion." In 1878, Hulbert expelled four players: James Devkin, George Hall, W.H. Craver and A.H. Nichols, "for conduct in the contravention of the objects of the league," when they were caught conspiring with gamblers to throw games. By 1881, Hulbert had received numerous pleas for reinstatement of the players. Unmoved, he dictated a notice announcing once and for all that the penalties inflicted on the players for their dishonest actions would never be remitted, nor would the league thereafter entertain any appeal on the players' behalf.

Entire clubs were also subject to ejection from the league for violations of conduct. In 1880, a special meeting of the board of directors decided to expel the Cincinnati club for "selling malt or spirituous liquors on the league grounds." In retaliation, the owner of the Reds, Justus Thorner, formed the American Association. The new league prospered and was soon recognized as another major organization. The Reds stayed in the American Association until 1890 before rejoining the National League. The American Association dissolved the following year.

Shortly after the formation of the National League, other leagues were formed, which led to intense competition for players. It became commonplace for one club or league to lure top players from another club or league. In response to this piracy, the three major organizations at the time - the National League, the American Association and the Northwestern League - determined there was a need for a central authority to govern all associations by an equitable code of rules. Representatives from the three organizations met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City in February 1883 and drew up the "Triparte Agreement," later renamed the National Agreement, which would serve as the central law of the associations.

The National Agreement helped promote unprecedented harmony among its members. The pact was enforced by an arbitration committee consisting of three representatives of each member organization. The decisions of the committee were final.

By 1900, 14 leagues had become signatories to the National Agreement: the National League, Atlantic League, California League, Canadian League, Connecticut League, Eastern League, Indiana-Illinois League, Inter-State League, New England League, New York State League, Southern League, Texas League, Western Association and the Western League.

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis
A.B. "Happy" Chandler
Ford Christopher Frick
General William D. Eckert
Bowie Kent Kuhn
Peter Victor Ueberroth
A. Bartlett Giamatti
Francis T. Vincent Jr.
Allan H. "Bud" Selig
Robert D. Manfred Jr.
Commissioners home

That same year, the Western League's presidency was put into the hands of a man who would ultimately be responsible for the two-league system that exists today - former Cincinnati sportswriter Byron Bancroft ("Ban") Johnson. In early 1900 he changed the name of the Western League to the American League and tried to establish it as the National League's equal.

Johnson was an opportunist, and after the National League dropped four of its clubs in 1900, the American League placed teams in three of those cities (Baltimore, Cleveland and Washington) in 1901, its first full season of operation. The National League refused to regard the American League as an equal and in retaliation the AL repudiated the National Agreement and unilaterally declared itself an equal professional organization.

The strength of the American League grew as an increasing number of National League players opted for the higher salaries offered by the new association. Faced with the prospect of losing many of its best players, the NL chose peace and declared the AL its equal in 1903. This led to a new National Agreement and the birth of the World Series. The American and National Leagues were established as major leagues and all other associations comprised the minor leagues, which fell under the jurisdiction of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.

The National Agreement created a National Commission, a three-man body endowed with supervisory control of professional baseball. The commission also was granted the power to interpret and carry out the terms and provisions of the National Agreement, as well as the ability to enact and enforce fines and suspensions. There was, however, an inherent problem with the National Commission - most of its members had vested interests in particular clubs. In fact, the only chairman of the commission from 1903-1920, August Herrman, also served as president of the Cincinnati Reds. In the end, the commission proved unworkable and produced suspicions that self-interest influenced some of its decisions.

But the Commission's demise was the result of the game's most infamous episode - the 1919 World Series between Herrman's Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox, owned by Charles Comiskey.

Following the Series, in which eight members of the White Sox allegedly took bribes from gamblers to intentionally lose (Herrman, reluctant to believe his Reds were not winning on merit alone, had been slow to investigate rumors of a fix), the National League proposed to eliminate the National Commission and replace it with one leader, a man "of unquestionable reputation and standing in fields other than baseball" whose "mere presence would assure that public interests would first be served, and that therefore, as a natural sequence, all exisiting evils would disappear." The league put forth this argument in a document called the Lasker Plan, named for its author, Albert Lasker, a stockholder in the Chicago Cubs. The American League initially balked at the idea, but eventually a compromise was reached, and on January 12, 1921, the position of Baseball Commissioner was created with the ratification of the new Major League Agreement.

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was elected as the game's first Commissioner. At the time of his election, Landis was a United States District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois. An ardent fan, the judge's professional association with baseball had begun in 1914, when he presided over the injunction suit of the upstart Federal League against baseball.

The Federal League, as a minor league, had attempted to establish itself as an equal to the NL and AL. When the major leagues failed to acknowledge the outlaw league, as it was known, the Federal League brought an injunction suit against the established circuits. Recognizing the turmoil that would ensue should he grant injunction, Landis took the case under advisement and withheld an opinion until the major leagues were able to absorb the Federal League and bring peace to the game. During this period, Landis had spent countless hours studying baseball history. This knowledge, along with the rest of his background, made him an excellent choice for Commissioner.

Initially, Landis refused the Commissionership on the grounds that he "loved his position as judge too much." However, he later accepted upon the condition he could hold both positions, specifying that his baseball salary ($50,000) be decreased by the amount he was receiving as a judge ($7,500).

Under the Major League Agreement, the new Commission was broadly empowered to "investigate, either upon complaint or upon his own initiative, an act, transaction or practice, charged, alleged or suspected to be detrimental to the best interest of the national game of baseball, (and to determine and take) any remedial, preventive or punitive action (he deemed appropriate)." The Agreement also expressly provided that the Commissioner's decisions would be final and could not be challenged by the clubs in court.

Following Landis' death in November 1944, the Major League Agreement was modified, limiting the powers of the Commissioner by giving clubs the right to challenge the Commissioner's decisions in court, and providing that no conduct which conformed with all major league rules and regulations could be deemed by the Commissioner to be "detrimental to the best interests of baseball."

In April 1945, A.B. "Happy" Chandler was elected the game's second Commissioner. Chandler served for six years, his tenure marked by vast changes in the game's structure, highlighted by the breaking of the race barrier and the creation of the player pension plan. The former governor, senator and presidential candidate from Kentucky resigned, effective July 15, 1951.

Ford C. Frick succeeded Chandler in September 1951 after 17 years as president of the National League. He remained Commissioner for 14 years. In 1964, Frick, who would retire the following year, insisted that the clubs again amend the Major League Agreement. This time they restored and even enhanced the Commissioner's powers through three modifications.

First, the clubs deleted the 1944 language that prevented the Commissioner from finding any act or practice complying with a major league rule to be detrimental to baseball. Also, the language "detrimental to the best interests of baseball" was changed to "not in the best interests of baseball." Finally, the clubs restored the provision waiving any right of recourse in the courts to challenge a Commissioner's decision.

General William D. Eckert became baseball's fourth Commissioner in November 1965. Eckert, who had been the youngest three-star general in the United States Army, held the position until December 1968.

The leagues, which could not at first agree upon a new Commissioner, eventually elected Bowie K. Kuhn, a New York lawyer who had worked as counsel with the National League for 19 years, as Commissioner pro-tem for one year in February 1969. Later that year, he was elected to a full seven-year term, re-elected, and served until October 1984. During his tenure, baseball expanded from 20 to 26 clubs and attendance increased from 23 million in 1968 to more than 45 million in 1983.

Peter V. Ueberroth was elected baseball's sixth Commissioner on March 3, 1984 and took office in October of that year. Ueberroth had served as president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games before coming to baseball. To entice Uerberroth, the clubs again expanded the Commissioner's powers by amending the Major League Agreement so that the two league presidents were required to answer to the Commissioner with respect to administrative matters. This change made the Commissioner the chief executive officer of baseball. Also, the Commissioner's fining authority as to clubs was increased to $250,000.

National League President A. Bartlett Giamatti was elected baseball's seventh Commissioner on September 8, 1988, by a unanimous vote of the 26 club owners. Born on April 4, 1938, Giamatti served as president of Yale University for eight years before joining the National League in December 1986. He took office on April 1, 1989, and served until September 1, 1989 when he died of a heart attack at his summer home in Martha's Vineyard, MA.

Francis T. Vincent, Jr. was elected to a four-and-one-half year term as baseball's eighth Commissioner on September 13, 1989. A lawyer, Vincent had served as Deputy Commissioner under Giamatti. Vincent came to baseball from the Coca-Cola Company, where he had served as executive vice president and chief executive officer of its entertainment business, which included Columbia Pictures. During his term, Vincent presided over many landmark events. On October 17, after holding office for only one month, the San Francisco Bay area was struck with a massive earthquake, postponing the World Series between the Giants and the Athletics. After meeting with city officials, Vincent announced that the World Series would resume on October 27. In the spring of 1990, Vincent presided over negotiations between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association which resulted in Opening Day being delayed one week, but ensured that 162 regular-season games would be played. The addition of two new National League teams during Vincent's term brought the number of Major League Baseball franchises to 28. Vincent declared that the American League would receive $42 million of the National League's $190 million in expansion revenue and the AL would provide players in the NL expansion draft. This decision marked the first time in expansion history that leagues were required to share expansion revenue or provide players for another league's expansion draft. Vincent's term as Commissioner ended when he resigned on September 7, 1992.

Allan H. "Bud" Selig was elected the ninth Commissioner of Baseball on July 9, 1998 by a vote of the 30 Major League Baseball club owners. Selig was born on July 30, 1934 in Milwaukee and received a bachelor's degree in American History and Political Science from the University of Wisconsin - Madison in 1956. After serving two years in the armed forces, Selig returned to Milwaukee and began working in the automobile business with his father. Selig maintains a tie to that industry as president of the Selig Executive Lease Company. Selig served a dual role as President of the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club and Chairman of the Executive Council until his appointment as Commissioner on July 9, 1998. As Chairman of the Executive Council, and then as Commissioner, Selig's ability to rule by consensus brought about numerous dramatic changes to baseball, including:

  • Interleague play
  • Revenue sharing (more than $165 million is transferred from high to low revenue clubs each year)
  • Three-division formats in the American and National Leagues
  • An extra tier of playoffs and the Wild Card
  • First phase of realignment
  • Consolidation of the administrative functions of the American and National League into the Commissioner's Office.
Under his leadership as Executive Council Chairman and Commissioner, new stadiums opened in Arizona, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Colorado, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, Minnesota, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Texas and Washington.

Fittingly, the man who would become our pastime's 10th Commissioner grew up just an hour's drive from Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rob Manfred was raised in the small upstate New York town of Rome, and the lawyer with a background in labor relations took office Jan. 25, 2015, after being elected to the position on Aug. 14, 2014.

Manfred gradually became a power broker in the MLB Commissioner's Office. First as an outside counsel who worked on collusion cases beginning in the late 1980s, then on collective bargaining in 1989-90, followed by working closely with Bud Selig, then the head of MLB's executive council, on baseball's first efforts at revenue sharing.

Selig and Manfred became close in those years, with Manfred returning to help with the collective bargaining of 1994. The settlement contained an agreement on revenue sharing, which became one of Selig's triumphs after he became acting Commissioner in 1992. The program has been expanded since then, creating not only competitive balance but also unprecedented labor peace.

Manfred was MLB's chief negotiator in 2002, 2006 and 2011, and under Selig's leadership he not only continued to widen the scope of revenue sharing but also got the MLB Players Association to agree to mandatory drug testing for the first time. The Joint Drug Agreement, too, has been expanded and is now regarded as the best among all professional sports leagues.

Manfred was promoted to chief operating officer in September 2013, holding that position until his rise to Commissioner.