Culture

Review: ‘For the Good of the Game’

Bud Selig's memoir is more juiced than juicy

Bud Selig / Getty Images

All right, let's get the bad news out of the way, right off the bat: This is a disaster of a book, by a man who was a disaster at his job. Oh, no doubt, Bud Selig truly loved the sport he would head from 1992 to 2015. He loved it to pieces. If you want proof of baseball's resilience, it can be found in the fact that the game somehow survived the butterfingered adoration of the hamfisted car dealer from Milwaukee.

As for the good news, well, some interesting flotsam does surface in the flood of memories Selig poured out to Forbes sportswriter Phil Rogers to produce this new baseball memoir. For the Good of the Game tells, for example, about the time Selig shouted down Vice President Al Gore. Back in 1994, the Clinton administration had inserted itself into the player's strike, strong-arming the players' union and team owners to meet with a supposedly neutral federal arbitrator. But when Gore began repeating the talking points of the union, Selig felt betrayed, screaming "What did you f—ing say to me?" in Gore's face and promising to denounce the vice president to "a thousand f—ing newspaper guys."

That scene meshes badly with the common understanding of Selig during the 23 seasons he led baseball: 6 years as acting commissioner and then—in the old joke—17 years as non-acting commissioner. In those days he was routinely described as a sort of milquetoast, sort of clownish figure: an average, good-natured guy from Milwaukee to whom bad things just seemed to happen, always as a surprise. It's almost as though Selig tells the story of his clash with Gore because he wants to prove that his old public image was wrong.

In several other places, For the Good of the Game seems intent to correct the record about old controversies, without quite naming the false information it wants to correct. "Nobody understood the history of the commissioner's office and had studied it the way I had," Selig insists. "I understood the game, the culture, the history, what went wrong, what needed to be done." But he sure didn't understand what needed to be done about steroids, and the 1990s reign of performance-enhancing drugs is one topic on which he can't avoid admitting the public perceived him as a do-little commissioner.

Born in Milwaukee, Selig was the son of a Jewish immigrant from Romania who had made a small fortune in the car industry, especially with a vehicle-leasing firm. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin and serving in the Army, Selig leveraged his money to become a shareholder in the Braves when the baseball team moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953.

When the Braves moved again, fleeing to Atlanta in 1966, Selig became almost monomaniacal in his efforts to restore baseball to Milwaukee, and in 1970, he managed to grab up the bankrupt Seattle Pilots, moving the franchise to become the Milwaukee Brewers—and joining baseball's inner circle as an owner. In 1992, his fellow team owners forced out commissioner Fay Vincent, in part for what they thought was his aloof highhandedness and lack of rapport with the owners. They turned instead to Selig, someone they thought would be the opposite.

And he was Vincent's opposite, in some ways. Any list of the changes to baseball during Selig's leadership has to begin with the gradual erasure of the old two-league system. In 1994, the sport was realigned into three divisions per league, with a wild-card series added to the playoffs. In 1997, interleague play began. In 2000, the separate offices of the American and National Leagues were abolished, which ended the practice of separate pools of umpires for the leagues. The Brewers crossed from one league to another, as did the Astros. Selig may have understood the history of the game, as he boasts, but each of these changes helped erode that history.

What else did he do? For the Good of the Game proves Selig to have been something of a Zelig, popping up in odd places and meeting famous people under odd circumstances. He went with a childhood friend to watch Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers play, and the friend, Herb Kohl, would later become a well-known senator. He sold a car to Hank Aaron, who would become one of Selig's favorite former players—a fact that contributed to the book's distaste for Barry Bonds, the man who broke Aaron's homerun record. He babysat the young Joe Torre. When the Brewers’ Robin Yount (another favorite player) got his 3,000th hit, Selig was at the game, sitting beside George W. Bush—identified over and over in the book as a friend.

Selig allowed the 2002 All-Star game to end in a tie, a much-mocked conclusion from which the annual interleague game has not recovered. He threatened the Montreal Expos, then watched their franchise decay into nonexistence. He failed at his 1993 attempt to institute revenue-sharing with poorer teams, only achieving something in 2004. He was often accused of using the commissioner’s powers to help his Brewers. He exacerbated the ownership struggles of the Los Angeles Dodgers by invalidating a media contract under conditions that he did not apply to contracts held by his friend Fred Wilpon, owner of the New York Mets.

Mostly, though, his career as commissioner needs to be judged by steroid use. Given the ugly relations between players and owners, he may not have been able to ban performance-enhancing drugs. But even in the wandering, repetitive narrative of For the Good of the Game, we get no real sense that he tried.

Bud Selig was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016—and if Selig deserves a place there, then so do Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and all the other juiced-up steroid monsters who nearly ruined the game during the commissioner's long tenure. Fortunately, poor old Head-in-the-Sand Selig, the Dr. Pangloss of his day, doesn't actually belong in the Hall of Fame. And much in the way he pretended that steroids weren't wrecking the game in the 1990s, maybe we can pretend that Bud Selig never got a plaque in Cooperstown. Then we won't feel that ordinary fairness also requires electing the players who bloated themselves up like sumo wrestlers and waddled out to hit homeruns as though they were beating the game to a pulp.