Kenesaw Mountain Landis - 1920 - 1944
Happy Chandler - 1945 - 1951
Ford Frick - 1951 - 1965
William Eckert - 1965 - 1968
Bowie Kuhn - 1969-1984
Peter Ueberroth - 1984 - 1988
Bart Giamatti – 1989
Fay Vincent - 1989 – 1992
Bud Selig - 1992 - present
The Commissioner of Major League baseball is a position created in order to govern the game of baseball and to make sure that all rules are followed fairly and equitably. It is also the job of the commissioner’s office to enforce any fines or suspensions. The commissioner also must "investigate, either upon complaint or upon his own initiative, any 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 that he deems appropriate." Despite all of these noble words, the real job of the commissioner is to serve as a figurehead that allows the owners to do whatever they can to control the league and line their pockets.
The job of baseball commissioner grew out of a group called the National Commission, a three-man body endowed with supervisory control of professional baseball. The problem was that most of the members of the commission had a vested interest on the baseball clubs they were supposed to be overseeing. In fact, the only chairman of the commission from 1903-1920, August Herrman, also served as president of the Cincinnati Reds. Many people saw this as a blatant conflict of interest. The final straw for the commission came with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Herrman’s Reds were the recipients of the White Sox throwing the World Series, so he was reluctant to launch an investigation. 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 existing evils would disappear." On January 12, 1920, the position of Baseball Commissioner was created.
The owners selected federal district court judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to be the first commissioner. Landis was known to the owners because he was the judge that initially heard the Federal Baseball v. National League case. Landis essentially sat on the case and refused to rule until the Major League owners were able to buy out the Federal League. The owners awarded Landis by giving him the commissioner's job and thought that he would continue to be pliant to their wishes.
Kenesaw Landis had different ideas, as he ruled for 23 years with an iron fist, bowing to nobody but himself. In his first act as commissioner he banned eight White Sox players involved in the World Series scandal. Others banned during Landis' tenure as Commissioner included New York Giants outfielder Benny Kauff, for theft and receiving stolen property (1921); Giants pitcher Phil Douglas, for suggesting he would leave the club to make the Giants lose the pennant (1922); Giants rookie Jimmy O'Connell and coach Cozy Dolan, for attempting to bribe an opposing player (1924); and William D. Cox, president of the Philadelphia Phillies, for betting on ball games (1943). Landis also barred Babe Ruth and Bob Muesel of the New York Yankees from the first 40 games of the 1922 season for barnstorming without permission following the 1921 World Series.
Landis was also unafraid to meddle in player transactions and anything else he thought was not in the best interests of the game of baseball as a whole. The owners did the best they could to try and strip him of his powers, but the man ran the game until his death in 1944.
The owners then hired former Kentucky Senator Happy Chandler to be the next commissioner. At that time they also restricted his "detrimental to baseball" authority permitting themselves to criticize the commissioner and even go to court to challenge his rulings. They wanted a Washington insider and goodwill ambassador. What they got in return was a reprimand that they did not own the game. Chandler spearheaded the integration of baseball, against the wishes of most of the owners, and helped Branch Ricky sign Jackie Robinson. Chandler also instituted a minimum wage and a limit on salary cuts and set up the first pension fund for retired players (remember, this was back in the day when the players made next to nothing and weren’t all millionaires). Chandler also set up the first major advertising contract for baseball and sold radio and television broadcast rights for millions of dollars. All of this money went into the player pension fund.
In 1950, Chandler was forced out by the owners and had to resign.
The next two commissioners were exactly what the owners were looking for: former sportswriter Ford Frick and Army General William Eckert. Their terms were an era of unprecedented expansion and growth for baseball, with big TV contracts and big stadium deals all being funneled into the pockets of the owners.
Attorney Bowie Kuhn was elected commissioner in 1969 and probably presided over the most tumultuous period in baseball history. He successfully defended the reserve clause by winning the Supreme Court case of Flood v. Kuhn, but this was short–lived as the Messersmith-McNally arbitration case resulted in free agency finally coming to baseball. Kuhn was also involved in a lawsuit with Oakland Athletics owner Charles Finley, who wanted to sell three of his players for $3.5 million. Kuhn blocked the move claiming it was "not in the best interests of baseball," and Finley sued. Kuhn prevailed in court. This case didn’t hurt his reputation with the other owners, as they all hated Finley.
Thanks to free agency, the players began to gain more power during the Kuhn administration and baseball’s first major labor strike took place in 1981. Unable to control the players union, Kuhn was not reelected by the owners in 1983.
Peter Ueberroth, fresh from his success as head of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, was hired on in 1984. At twice Kuhn’s salary he set about his business. He negotiated a $1.2 billion TV contract that lined every team’s pockets, presided over three consecutive years of owners' collusion to limit players' salaries, and opted out after one term. When Ueberroth took office, 21 of the 26 clubs were losing money; in Ueberroth's last season - 1988 - all clubs either broke even or finished in the black. In 1987, for example, baseball as an industry showed a net profit of $21.3 million, its first profitable year since 1973.
Next came Yale University professor Bart Giamatti, the William Henry Harrison of baseball commissioners (who was also the father of actor Paul Giamatti). Giamatti, a huge baseball fan, was the author of countless books and articles about the sport. In two years as NL President, Giamatti earned a reputation for preserving baseball's traditions, values and integrity. His presidency placed an emphasis on the need to improve the environment for the fan in the ballparks. Bart Giamatti is best known as the commissioner that banned Pete Rose for life because of gambling infractions. He died of a heart attack one week after announcing his decision, only 153 days into his administration.
Fay Vincent succeeded Giamatti in 1989 and sought to maintain the integrity of the game for everyone involved. After the owners locked the players out in the spring of 1990, Vincent brought both sides together and got it settled. The owners, being less pleased with the result than the players, asked him to act with more restraint in any future labor negotiations. Issues over National League realignment and the commissioner’s role in settling club differences led to a court injunction limiting Vincent’s power. The hard line owners, such as White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, pushed for resignation. In September 1992, after a lengthy public war of words, Vincent resigned, having failed to receive a vote of confidence.
Finally comes current commissioner Bud Selig, a former owner himself. Selig was still owner of the Milwaukee Brewers while he was acting commissioner and finally sold the team to his daughter when he was officially elected. Under Selig’s tenure the players have gone on strike (or were locked out, depending on who you talk to) and the World Series was cancelled. Even more teams have been added, further diluting the talent pool, and playing in stadiums that are funded by the public themselves, forcing them to buy tickets to get into a stadium they have already paid for. The owners have claimed poverty while attendance has reached record levels and revenues skyrocket. Only a few teams are able to contend for the World Series title by buying up much of the talent in the league, while the rest field mediocre teams as the owners use creative accounting to hide their massive profits.
“In the best interests of the game” indeed.