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07/30/09 1:15 AM ET
Selig celebrates landmark 75th birthday
Commissioner reflects on his tenure at MLB's helm
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
With more than three years to go before his intended retirement as Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig was in a reflective mood as he prepared to celebrate his 75th birthday today with family and close friends. The past five years have been profound ones for baseball's ninth Commissioner on a personal and professional front. He overcame Stage 4 skin cancer at the same time he was determined to make meaningful, urgent progress in a fight against performance-enhancing drugs. And just as the latter issue seemed to reach a better place. The world economy faltered, placing MLB in the position to potentially suffer formidable financial setbacks. The melanoma, which reared its ugly head just days after his 70th birthday, has not recurred. Baseball, as Selig says confidently, has the toughest drug-testing program in professional sports. And the economic meltdown has not drastically shaken MLB. In fact, even though attendance is modestly down, Selig said he expects gross revenue to replicate last year's record $6.5 billion. "It's hard to believe I've been in this sport for four decades," Selig told MLB.com this week in a 20-minute telephone interview from his Milwaukee office. "As I've been thinking philosophically about my birthday, this has been quite a journey, an incredible journey. The game has never been more popular, and that means a great deal to me." Selig didn't mind using the backdrop of this milestone birthday to discuss economics and the game's drug policy, two of the sports' most pressing issues. "One of my proudest accomplishments has been watching this game grow to the heights that no one ever dreamed possible," he said. "Attendance this season is down 5 percent, but if you take into account the reduced capacities of the two new ballparks in New York, it's actually down only 3.8, 3.9 percent, which is amazing given the economy. I've had more people in the business world say to me, 'You ought to announce that. What a dramatic story that is.' You're talking about other businesses that are off 30 percent to 40 percent. This may be our greatest year ever given the environment." As for the drug policy, Selig said: "We went through the cocaine era in 1980s, which was terribly significant. There were the Pittsburgh drug trials. Four people went to jail. They couldn't get the Players Association to agree to a testing program. And [former union executive director] Marvin Miller says to this day that if he were still in charge, we wouldn't have one. I'm proud of where we are. We've accomplished far more than anyone before me had ever done or anybody had any right to expect. This sport is being cleaned up. I understand the chemists are working hard on a test for human growth hormone. Believe me, once there is one, it will be there. We'll put it in." Selig's official MLB tenure began in 1970 when he headed an ownership group that bought the failing Pilots and moved the team from Seattle to his home town of Milwaukee just days before that season. He was named interim Commissioner in September 1992 and was elected by the owners permanently six years later. Selig was slated to retire at the end of this season until the owners extended his contract last year through Dec. 31, 2012. As such he will outlast the heads of labor, the duo that made the MLB Players Association perhaps the toughest union in all of sports. "That's very interesting when you think about that," Selig said. Miller, who gave the union teeth, retired 26 years ago, and Don Fehr, his virtual successor as executive director, will follow suit by the end of this coming March. Selig has talked about retiring before only to remain right where he is. He takes a lot of good-natured ribbing for his rolling retirement over the years, but this time he insists he will not return, no matter what the owners might suggest. "You guys have a right to kid me because I'm still around," said Selig, who will be 78 at the end of his current contract. "But this time I think everybody has the same understanding, this time I'm done. I really am. I want to start writing a book. I don't have time while I'm doing this job, but I need to do that. I want to do some teaching. I did a little this past winter and I have some wonderful offers. God willing, on Dec. 31, 2012, you'll be saying goodbye to me." Like Fehr, who designated legal counsel Michael Weiner as his heir apparent, Selig said he'd like to recommend his own successor to the owners before he departs, although right now he's not naming any names. Weiner's candidacy was recently approved by the union's executive council and is currently in front of the players for an advisory vote. "I'm not at that point yet," Selig said. "But in about a year, a year and a half I'll start thinking about that. I'll make a recommendation to the owners. But that's some time off." Selig was born in 1934 to Marie and Ben Selig and was given the name, Allan. His dad owned automobile dealerships and his mom was an elementary school teacher. When the proud parents of European Jewish descent brought the child home a few days later, they told his older brother, Jerry -- 4 years old at the time -- that he had a new buddy. And that's how his famous nickname was born -- and was there to stay. Selig, who has a degree in American history and political science from the University of Wisconsin, followed his father into the automotive business. In 1965, he became involved in baseball promotions after the Braves left Milwaukee with the specific aim of bringing an MLB team back to town. He did that and so much more. Undeniably, Selig has had a massive impact on the game he oversees. The sport has undergone a sea change since he replaced Faye Vincent as Commissioner. Revenue sharing, Interleague Play, Wild Card berths, the six-division format, the long-needed consolidation of the America League and National League under one office, globalization, labor peace, drug testing of Major League and Minor League players, and the plethora of new ballparks that now dot the Major League landscape. You name it. All of it happened under his watch. "You remember the abuse I took in 1993 and '94 about the Wild Card," Selig said. "Now they love it. When I was a kid somebody who was 75 was considered to be ancient. My health is great, I feel good. I enjoy what I'm doing, even though it's very challenging, obviously. The fact of the matter is I'm proud of where the sport is. When I think back to 1992 and everything that's happened since then, we've gone through a lot of travails, which is part of life. "[The late Commissioner] Bart Giamatti and I used to talk about it all the time. Baseball remarkably is really a metaphor for life. So here I am at age 75 and I've been the Commissioner for almost 17 years. The challenges are still there and I guess I wouldn't change places with anybody as tough and as frustrating as this job can be." Any list of Selig's accomplishments also must include the social programs that have been developed during his reign. In an attempt to draw African-Americans back into the game as fans and participants, MLB has sponsored the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, the Compton, Calif., Youth Academy, inaugurated the annual Civil Rights Game, has retired Jackie Robinson's famous No. 42 in perpetuity, and is in the midst of a three-year commitment to donate $300,000 a season to the Robinson Foundation that underwrites a $10,000 academic scholarship for a student in the name of the each of the 30 clubs. MLB's partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America is also a staple. After Selig discovered in 2004 that he had serious skin cancer, MLB stepped up its aid to organizations that are doing consistent research to find a cure for various forms of cancer, including Stand Up To Cancer, the Prostate Cancer Foundation, and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure of breast cancer. Those commitments continue. Last year alone, MLB made a $10 million donation to Stand Up To Cancer, an organization founded by Hollywood stars, directors and producers. When asked how much his own brush with cancer impacted the overall MLB commitment to finding a cure for the disease, Selig said: "Quite a bit, really. I'm proud of where we are with Stand Up to To Cancer. We have programs at each and every ballpark for people to have skin checks. That is all related to what I personally went through." Despite the daily stress of the job, nothing could come close to the day Selig was told he had developed a cancerous lesion on his forehead near the hair line. "There are different types of Stage 4 cancer so it's hard to define it, but look, it was very serious," Selig said. "I had four, five hours of surgery. Fortunately they got it all and I was done. It was a tough thing to live through. I was stunned. I'll never forget my reaction. The doctors at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York kid me about it to this day. I was one scared, nervous guy." Like most survivors, Selig undergoes check ups every three months to ensure the cancer hasn't returned in some shape or form. "I'm very fastidious about doing whatever the doctors tell me to do," he said. "Knock on wood, everything is under control." Selig has learned from his experience and has taken part in cancer seminars where he helps spread the message. "People need to be very thorough and get checked carefully," Selig said. "That's the most important part of the whole cancer experience -- to catch it early." For Selig, it has been all part of the experience: from chief executive and chief fan to chief patient and voice of consciousness. On his 75th birthday, the Commissioner of Baseball, hasn't changed his tune about the place baseball has reserved in American society. "You've heard me say many times that baseball is a social institution with important social responsibilities," he said. "The more I see of this every day, the more I understand how really true that is. I feel have a lot to be very grateful for."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.