Since taking over as commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1992, Bud Selig has overseen baseball’s infamous Steroid Era, led multiple expansion campaigns and taken the game to new economic and social heights.
Prior to running the sport, 77-year-old Selig owned the Milwaukee Brewers and played an integral role in bringing baseball back to the city after the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta in 1965.
This past offseason, MLB’s owners approved a two-year extension for Selig that will keep him in the commissioner’s role until the end of the 2014 season. Upon the conclusion of his tenure as commissioner, Selig hopes to return to UW to teach history.
While in town for his lecture, “Talking Baseball: The Challenges of Communicating in Turbulent Times,” as part of the Robert Taylor Lecture Series, Selig met with UW journalism students to discuss topics ranging from his tenure as owner to the Ryan Braun steroid situation and the recent firestorm sparked by Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen’s comments on Fidel Castro and Cuba. Below are the most significant questions and answers from Selig’s interview in his Mosse Humanities Building office.
What is it like being commissioner of baseball right now when you have so much going on? It seems like a new era’s starting after this past decade or so. Can you put that into words?
Selig: I’ve done this now for 20 years, it’s hard to believe. When I’m done, it’ll be 22. If I stay an extra three months, I’ll break the all-time record, which was [held by] Kenesaw Mountain Landis, which has some slight appeal to me. It’s hard to describe the feeling, because you couldn’t write a script like this. A kid from Milwaukee comes to the University of Wisconsin — it’s a great experience, a very difficult job. We live in a public eye at all times. Today, I have Ozzie Guillen. Tomorrow, who knows what it’ll be.
What do you make of the Ozzie Guillen situation? You released a statement today in support of his five-game suspension.
Selig: We’re going to celebrate next week Jackie Robinson’s coming into the big leagues. Think about that. Think what that meant to American society. April 15, 1947, four years before Harry Truman desegregated the United States Army. Think about that. Seven-and-a-half years before Brown v. Board of Education, which changed education. And 18 years before the Civil Rights Movement. So here’s Jackie, changing the landscape. That’s why to me, he in the 20th century was one of the two or three most important figures in America. And that was baseball.
When I said in my statement today that we are a social institution, no question about that. That means every one of us in the game has important social responsibilities. There’s just no place in it for comments like Ozzie made. I’ve had that conversation with a fair number of people, and I really believe that.
I was taught early in my career by a man named John Fetzer, who was the owner of the Detroit baseball club, as he used to call it. Wonderful man, a great statesman. [He said] that the sport’s best interest transcends always your own personal interest, or your franchise’s. That’s true in life. We’re here to represent people. To participate in something that becomes divisive, nasty and angry is clearly not in the best interest of baseball.
The Ryan Braun situation has to be very close to your heart, especially as former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. What’s next?
Selig: Well, I like Ryan personally. I said that the other day, and I meant it. But let me go back, we talked about baseball being a social institution. The steroid issue really bothered me back in the late ’90s, early 2000s. Really bothered me. I spent a lot of sleepless nights. We had never been able to have a drug-testing program with this players union. We had a terrible cocaine problem in the ‘80s — and I know, just from owning the Brewers, that we had a terrible problem. And they couldn’t do anything about it. They had the Pittsburgh drug trials in 1985. Twenty-nine players were found guilty, four went to jail. Imagine the disgrace of that. Still no program.
We now have a program that’s been carefully crafted. … We have the toughest testing program in American sports. Last year, we administered 4,800 drug tests. We had a problem with only one, and that was Ryan.
On the subject of the Brewers, you look at a team like them, a small-market team that seems to be really finding some sustained success on the upswing right now. Are they setting a model for small-market teams to bridge the gap in competitive balance?
Selig: We have more what I call “competitive balance” than ever before. Pete Rozelle, the great NFL commissioner, used to call it parity. I call it competitive balance. Tampa has played in the World Series, Texas has been there a couple years. … We’ve never had competitive balance like that. Milwaukee has done very, very well. And St. Louis, a small market the same size of Milwaukee really at least in the basic market, and they’re the world champions and they look to be pretty good again this year.
What we’ve done by reforming the economic system and changing things is give everybody hope and faith. It’s on my phone, as a matter of fact. I say to the clubs every meeting, it’s our job — my job — to provide hope and faith in as many places as possible so that on April 1, when the season starts, hopefully 20 or 22 of our franchises have hope that they’ll be competitive. They can’t all win; that’s business. But I think we’ve accomplished that.
When you look ahead to teaching here, have you thought about what you’re going to teach?
Selig: What I would hope, frankly, and I’ve talked to everybody and it’s really about my schedule, is sports in American society, 1960 to the present. It’ll be an interesting class, I’ll tell you that.
When you’re in Madison, are you going to try to work with Barry Alvarez to try to get baseball back?
Selig: I’m not going to wait until I’m here, I’ll do it before. Wisconsin should have a baseball team. The state has a great baseball tradition. Think about this, here are the Brewers — actually, Barry came down for a playoff game last year, I might add — drawing over 3 million people. Think about that. The greater Milwaukee area is 1.5 million, at most. To draw over 3 million people is amazing. The interest in baseball in this state is unbelievable.
What do you think about Milwaukee having a pro team means to the state of Wisconsin? Why is it so important?
Selig: The most important thing is what I would call the sociological benefit. You ask yourself this question: in the last 30 years, or even in the last 10 or 15, was Milwaukee and Wisconsin a better place to live because the Brewers were here? The excitement, you watched it last September, was incredible. The city, the state — that’s what it does. That is the exciting part of it.
People sometimes lose sight of that. They say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this; I don’t want to give money to the stadiums through my taxes. Look at how much the ballplayers make, the owner’s rich, so on and so forth.’
Those are not the essential questions. What does it do for people?