Whoever said, Whatever you do, don't volunteer, never met Bud Selig. Volunteering has been the key to his ascendancy. While helping operate his father's automobile agency, he took it upon himself as a "civic duty" to restore baseball to Milwaukee. In that chivalrous capacity he chased after expansion franchises and, after losing out to the likes of Kansas City, Montreal, San Diego and Seattle, only just failed to get the White Sox to move 90 miles north in 1969. Indeed, most owners had their first glimpse of the young man as he trailed after them like a nasty terrier, yipping at them, waiting for them next to the potted palms as they emerged from another meeting and tried to brush by him. "Oh, to baseball I was a leper," he admits, rather cheerfully.
That aggressive behavior was foreign to Selig's nature, too. Although Sue married him in 1977, the two had been friends going back to high school, and she remembers that when kids gathered at her house, her mother would ask her, "Who is that shy boy who always sits in the corner?" That was little Buddy.
It was his own schoolteacher mother who nurtured Buddy's love for baseball. It was Marie who for his 15th birthday took him to New York to see the Yankees (and South Pacific). But young Bud revered his father, Ben, always seeking his approval. After college he wanted to get his doctorate and become a history professor, but he gave in to his father's entreaties—"Just give me one year, Buddy"—tried the family trade and gave up any dream of academia. "Well, I liked the retail business," he says. "I like people."
Perhaps only once did he cross his father, and, of course, it was baseball that led him astray. That was in 1957, when he played hooky from an accounting class that he needed to pass in order to work in the automobile agency. Instead, Selig hied himself to County Stadium, where his heart stilled as he watched Henry Aaron slug a homer off Billy Muffett (of course he remembers the pitcher) to send Milwaukee into its first World Series.
Despite this uncharacteristic lapse in discipline, Selig became an apt businessman, but he found his purpose in life only in the quest to restore major league baseball to his beloved city. His persistence paid off when the desultory Seattle Pilots went belly-up in 1969 and Selig and his partners snatched them out of bankruptcy court for $10.8 million. "No matter what happens, my proudest achievement will always be getting the Brewers, getting a team back to Milwaukee," he says. Perhaps more important, that giddy success against the odds—Mission Impossible, Milwaukeeans of little faith had called it—leaves Selig convinced that the owners can triumph against the union, if only they hold fast together and persist. "His faith never wavered," Wendy Selig-Prieb says. "My father was always so sure that he would get us a team. And I have that child's recollection, which is why I believe so fervently in him now. He will not back away."
As soon as Selig got his team and was safely ensconced in the owners' club, he found himself awed by the company. There are reports, notably in Lords of the Realm, John Helyar's comprehensive business history of baseball, that anti-Semitism flourished among some owners and was directed particularly at Marvin Miller, the indefatigable head of the players' association. Selig was only the third Jewish owner at the time, but he professes to have had no awareness of prejudice. Maybe he heard what he wanted to from his idols. "I never personally sensed it," he says.
What he does remember vividly is his first owners' meeting. It was devoted to one topic: labor. "It was the angriest meeting I'd ever been in," Selig says. "And you know, it's never gotten any better." He went home and plaintively asked his father, "What have I gotten into?"
Still, Selig venerated the older owners, gentlemen of his father's generation such as John Galbreath of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jerry Hoffberger of the Baltimore Orioles and, especially, John Fetzer of the Detroit Tigers. Selig would plot his journeys home from league meetings through Detroit, so that he might be alone with Fetzer. It was Fetzer who most passionately preached the gospel of sacrifice. "Bud," Selig remembers him saying, "if you do what's in the best interest of baseball, it will be best for the Detroit Baseball Club." Selig pauses; just the remembrance of his old counselor almost makes his eyes well up. Then with a smile of happy reminiscence he says, " Mr. Fetzer...I called him Mr. Fetzer at first. I was just a lad. Mr. Fetzer always said 'the Detroit Baseball Club.' Not the Tigers. The Detroit Baseball Club. The Milwaukee Baseball Club."
But then Selig looks out the window, over Lake Michigan. "When Mr. Fetzer was going to sell out, in 1983, he called me up, and I went to Kalamazoo, and he told me. He said, 'Buddy, selfishness has taken over.' Apart from my father, John Fetzer played the greatest role in my life. Why, when something came up in the Executive Committee just today, I got up and walked around and thought about Mr. Fetzer."
Because it was something disagreeable that came up?