"The season's best book so far gets right to the heart of the game's survival at the organizational level." (The Boston Globe, April 2, 2006)
"A compelling examination of the national pastime as seen through the prism of the commissioner's office." (The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2006)
"Andrew Zimbalist, a man who has become a go-to guy on matters of sports economics, uses an academic approach to explain - and, perhaps surprisingly, defend - Bud Selig's 13-year tenure as commissioner of baseball." (New York Daily News)
Certain ballgames, no matter how important, turn out to be just plain dull. You want to be kept on the edge of your seat, eager for the action, but it doesn't happen. This book is like that kind of game. It's unfortunate because Andrew Zimbalist has a rich subject in Bud Selig, Major League Baseball commissioner and former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. Many changes, both for good and for ill, have taken place on Selig's watch. And Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who has written and consulted extensively on sports, is no rookie. But this book, his fourth on baseball, rarely captured my attention or my interest.
For a book that's subtitled "The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig," it takes a long time 110 out of its 218 pages of main text to get to its ostensible subject, and only five of its nine chapters deal with him exclusively. Some of the early baseball history is intriguing from 1910 to 1912, when Ty Cobb hit .385, .420 and .410, he was paid $9,000 a year; and players sent down to the minors had to pay their own way (now that hurts) but far too much space is given to Selig's eight predecessors, from Kenesaw Mountain Landis to Fay Vincent. It was amusing to read about what a strange old bird Landis was, and that Selig, as head of the search committee in 1983, was "smitten" with Bart Giamatti, who left the presidency of Yale to become commissioner and died of a heart attack just five months later. But neither of these sections does much to advance the author's thesis that Selig's reign has been revolutionary.
In fairness, it should be noted that when Zimbalist does get around to Selig's performance as commissioner, he asks the right questions, including:
Why did Selig wait so long to sell the Brewers after he became commissioner? Did he move quickly and effectively in dealing with the steroids scandal? How much merchandizing is too much? Is Selig acting "in the best interests of baseball" when he makes cities pay for building stadiums as a condition for getting a team (sound familiar)?
Unfortunately, Zimbalist's questions are better than his answers, although quite a bit of added information can be found in the 18 single-spaced pages of notes, many of which contain facts and opinions that would have enhanced the main text. To his credit, in response to Selig's handling of the steroid crisis, Zimbalist writes, "Thus, as in other areas, Selig might have acted more aggressively, more consistently, and more persuasively than he did. However, arguing that his actions were short of ideal is different from arguing that his actions were wrong or devious."
Zimbalist's prose only becomes smooth and readable when he writes about the economics of the game. And then there's his fondness for peculiar words or phrases, such as labeling an action of Bowie Kuhn's "bumptiously dirigiste" or writing that Selig "cathected" two separate elements (cathect, in case you were wondering, means to invest emotional energy in something or someone), or using a redundancy such as "rudimentary pro formas." Speaking of pro formas, each of the commissioners who preceded Selig gets a similar bio bite. For example, "Young Kenesaw, born in 1866, was the sixth of seven children to Abraham and Mary Landis"; "Chandler was born on April 18, 1898, in Corydon, Kentucky. His family was poor"; "Ford Frick was born in 1896, one of five children to Jacob and Emma Frick."
Distracting writing is bad enough, but when a supposed authority gets basic facts wrong, that's disturbing. Zimbalist says Selig fell in love with the game at "Old Orchards Field, where the triple-A farm club of the Chicago Cubs played." But the park was called "Borchert Field." And the Brewers were a farm club of the Boston Braves, and before that the Detroit Tigers, not the Cubs. Those kinds of mistakes make a reader worry about the accuracy of other details, major as well as minor.
In his introduction, Zimbalist writes, "I had developed a reputation for being one of Selig's and baseball's harshest critics." You wouldn't know it from reading this book. For example, in a late chapter, he writes, "Finally, some people claim that baseball has been too good to Bud Selig. Major League Baseball opened up handsome new offices for Selig in Milwaukee where he conducts most of his business. The New York staff and the team owners often have to make special trips to Milwaukee to meet with him. In 2005, MLB also opened up its Western office in Scottsdale, Arizona. When Bud sold the Brewers in January 2005, his son-in-law, Laurel Prieb, who had been working as a Brewers executive, was without a job. Major League Baseball announced the opening of its new office and that Laurel Prieb would run it. The Western office may have been needed and Laurel Prieb may have been the perfect person to fill the job, but for outsiders, at least, this move evoked some skepticism." Yes, but what did it evoke in this "harshly critical" author? We are left to guess.
Given the commissioner's power, perks and pay "a base salary of $6 million annually, with bonuses raising his total yearly compensation to between $10.2 million and $12 million" one could say, mimicking Bill Dana's comic character Jose Jimenez, "Baseball has been bery bery good to Bud Selig." Based on the evidence contained in this book, it appears that Bud Selig has been good to baseball, too. But whether he has been good for baseball, whether his tenure has been in the best interests of the game, awaits a fuller and more concentrated analysis. (The Washington Post, July 12, 2006)