In January 2015, Bud Selig stepped down as commissioner of baseball. He had served in that position since September 1992, although for the first six of those years, he had been acting commissioner. Selig’s tenure of slightly more than twenty-two years was the second longest in baseball history. Only Major League Baseball’s (MLB’s) first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, served longer.
When Selig took over as commissioner, there were twenty-six Major League teams. To make the play-offs, teams had to win one of the four divisions, as there were no wild cards. There was no interleague play during the regular season, and steroid use was extremely rare and almost never discussed. Selig left the sport with thirty teams, fully one-third of which go the play-offs every year. Interleague play is now taken for granted, and the game is still recovering from a performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) scandal that occurred on Selig’s watch.
The year 1991 was the last full season before Selig took over as commissioner; and it ended with a dramatic seven-game World Series as the Minnesota Twins defeated the Atlanta Braves. Games Six and Seven of that World Series are considered among the most exciting postseason games ever. Game Six was won on an eleventh-inning walk-off home run by Kirby Puckett. That home run, due in part to the famous television announcer Jack Buck’s saying, “And we’ll see you tomorrow night” as Puckett’s shot left the field, has become one of the most celebrated home runs in baseball history. The next night, Game Seven also went into extra innings and was also won by a walk-off hit, a pinch-hit single by Gene Larkin that gave the Twins a 1–0 win. The Twins pitcher in that game, Jack Morris, threw ten innings of shutout baseball, an outing that has become a central component of Morris’s Hall of Fame candidacy that thus far has not ended with enshrinement in Cooperstown.
The 1991 World Series was viewed by an average of thirty-six million people per game. It was one of four World Series between 1986 and 1991 to average more than thirty million viewers per game. Since Selig took over, no World Series has been seen by that many viewers.[i] The closest was the 1995 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves that went seven games and had just under thirty million viewers per game. The 2014 World Series, which also went seven games, averaged fourteen million viewers per game.
Attendance was strong in 1991, as 56,783,759 people paid to see an MLB game, for an average of about 2.18 million per team. In 2014, 73,739,622 fans bought tickets to big league games, for an average of 2.45 million per game, an increase of 12 percent.
In 1991, Roger Clemens, the star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who later became one of the highest-profile players associated with PED use, was the best-paid player in the Major League, making $5.3 million that year. In 2014, Zack Greinke of the Los Angeles Dodgers was the highest-paid player in baseball, beginning a multi-year contract at $28 million per year. The average Major Leaguer made $851,492 in 1991, or $1.48 million in 2014 dollars. In 2014, the average big league salary was an estimated $4 million.
Of the 1,187 men who played in the big leagues in 2014, 852 or 71.7 percent, a significant drop from 1991, were American-born. In 2014, the 28.3 percent of players who were not American born came from the Dominican Republic (130), Venezuela (89), Cuba (21), Puerto Rico (21), Canada (18), Japan (12), Mexico (10), Colombia (5), Curaçao (5), Panama (4), Germany (3), Nicaragua (3), Taiwan (3), Australia (2) Brazil (2), South Korea (2), Aruba (1), the Bahamas (1), Jamaica (1), the Netherlands (1), and Saudi Arabia (1).4 All of the Australians, Brazilians, Japanese, and Taiwanese who played in 2014 grew up in those countries, but all the players born in Germany, the Bahamas, and Saudi Arabia grew up in the United States. Didi Gregorius, the one Dutch-born player, grew up in Curaçao. By the time Selig’s tenure as commissioner ended, baseball was still dominated by players from the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean, but more countries in the Caribbean; countries where baseball was relatively new, such as Australia and Brazil; and older baseball powers, such as Japan and Taiwan, were also sending players to the big leagues. By any measure, MLB became significantly more international during Selig’s time as commissioner.
The internationalization of the game has been an unequivocally good development for baseball, raising the profile of MLB in many countries, introducing great players and highly marketable stars such as Ichiro Suzuki into the big leagues, and strengthening MLB’s ability to draw the best players in the world. This globalization has been Selig’s most unambiguously positive accomplishment, leading to a better, more fun, and more marketable product.
Selig’s years as commissioner were also marked by tremendous changes in how big league baseball was structured. For decades, any attempts to change baseball had been met by resistance from traditionalists or purists. The introduction of two divisions in each league and one round of play-offs beginning in 1969 and of the designated hitter (DH) in 1973 was greeted with outrage by many baseball fans at the time. Hall of Fame baseball writer Roger Angell, who has spent decades beautifully and compellingly chronicling baseball, wrote of the DH in 1973:
It is probably useless to complain at length about the league’s shiny new thingummy . . . but one cannot forget that the game—the game itself, as played out there between the foul lines—has been wrenched out of shape. Gone now . . . is that ancient and unique concept of a player’s total individual accountability. . . . Vanished, too, is the strategic fulcrum of baseball—the painful decision about pinch-hitting for your pitcher when you are behind in the late innings. . . . Now the game is farther away from us all, less human and less fun, and suddenly made easy.
Even in this context, Selig’s introduction of interleague play and two expansions of the play-offs were controversial. Both of these changes struck at traits that made baseball unique among American sports. For decades, the American League (AL) and the National League (NL) had been distinct organizations with different approaches on and off the field. In the 1950s, the NL was much faster to integrate, leading to NL’s dominance in the All-Star Games in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. The AL adapted earlier to the live ball era, so in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, it had a reputation for being more offense-oriented, with such sluggers as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg making the home run king. The NL, on the other hand, developed a reputation for a more pitching- and defense-oriented game during those years.
These distinctions, real or imagined, were exacerbated because teams and players from the AL and the NL rarely played against each other aside from the World Series and the All-Star Game. This rarity meant that those games had an added level of excitement, but it also meant that some of the baseball’s potentially best individual matchups and natural rivalries were not given an opportunity to flourish.
McGwire and Sosa gave America a summer that won’t be forgotten: a summer of stroke and counterstroke, of packed houses and curtain calls, of rivals embracing and gloves in the bleachers and adults turned into kids—the Summer of Long Balls and Love. It wasn’t just the lengths they went to with bats in their hands. It was also that they went to such lengths to conduct the great home run race with dignity and sportsmanship, with a sense of joy and openness. Never have two men chased legends and each other that hard and that long or invited so much of America onto their backs for the ride.
Wilstein’s discovery did little to diminish the excitement around Sosa and McGwire’s home run chase in 1998. Over the next years, home run and other offensive records fell as baseball entered an era where bloated sluggers took the game to its highest scoring period since the early 1930s. From 1995 to 2000, the six years following the strike, runs per team per game ranged from 4.77 to 5.14 and thrice exceeded 5 runs per game. That benchmark had not been met since 1936, sixty years earlier. For most of these years, baseball officials did nothing to stop steroid use. Eventually, MLB conducted a few half-hearted investigations and ultimately handed out suspensions, but the steroid era lasted well over a decade, radically changed the feel and history of the game, and was never sufficiently addressed by Selig. For all the impressive advances and innovations Selig brought to the game, steroids will always be an undeniable, and unfortunate, part of his legacy as well.
UP NEXT: The Selig Years, Pt. II: The Other Side of Baseball's Success Story
Photo: By Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Flickr (Original version)UCinternational (Crop) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons