What he is, is a ladder, always teasing his friends and associates with cracker-barrel humor. Selig will introduce a good friend and say, "Everybody says he's a gentleman. I don't know why." Guffaw. Or, "Look at those old shoes. See, on the bottom it says, 'Vote for McKinley.' " Guffaw. He revels in this kind of badinage. Altogether he's genial, a likable fellow, just folks, who can laugh at himself for being the classic adoring (rhymes with boring) grandfather.
In professional matters, however, he is thin-skinned. Selig insinuated himself into national commissionerdom after being a beloved local icon, and it may have been especially hard for him to adjust to a job that comes with built-in criticism. Wistfully, as he peers over the Milwaukee landscape, he says, "There was never a cross word for me here. In fact, I was a hero for a long time."
In point of fact he did lose some of his native luster in the past few years when he employed all his tenacious buttonholing skills to get the Wisconsin legislature to pass the bill to construct Miller Park mostly with state funds. The disputatious measure passed by one vote—that of a legislator from Racine, who was promptly recalled by his furious constituency. Still, for most Milwaukeeans, once again their Bud Selig had brought them added baseball pleasure: not only a fancy new ballyard with a retractable roof, but also an All-Star Game to go under it in 2002.
Certainly, though, Selig should have been prepared for the slings and arrows hurled at him from outside Greater Milwaukee. After all, he is a genuine student of the position he holds, a Plutarch of himself. "I am a history buff," he says. "I do everything in the retrospect of history [sic]. I've studied the commissioner's office year by year, and I believe I understand this office better than anyone on the face of the earth." He crosses to his refrigerator and cracks another Diet Coke. "For example," he goes on, " Ford Frick. He was underestimated as a commissioner. He was so prophetic." Indeed, much as U.S. historians cite George Washington's famous valedictory, so Selig quotes highlights of Frick's farewell address in 1965, when, way back then, he warned the owners that they simply must accept some change in the operation of their game or suffer the consequences.
But Selig found out early on that his fellow owners were unyielding. Reluctantly, since the anecdote might offend a dead man, he tells the story of visiting St. Louis with one of his Milwaukee partners in 1967 there to meet Gussie Busch, who owned the Cardinals. With Busch was Dick Meyer, a trusted lieutenant at both the brewery and the ball club. "Someday we'll be gone, Mr. Busch," Meyer said, "but these young men will be the ones who are going to have all the trouble if we don't make a change in the reserve clause."
It was not an extreme or unreasonable observation, but Busch absolutely stunned Selig and his friend, pounding his cane, screaming at Meyer, "Don't you ever say that again, Dick, or you'll be fired."
That attitude was typical, as the owners kept fighting the last war. "The lords of baseball," as they came to be called about the time Selig became one of them, were ridiculed, portrayed as the silly little top-hatted pip in Monopoly. Meanwhile the union had the law and fairness on its side, and while the players were unified behind Marvin Miller and then Fehr (with Orza), the lords kept changing their negotiators as willy-nilly as George Steinbrenner changed managers. Besides, not only were the owners divided, but they also often clashed with their own commissioners. So the moguls never laid a glove on the working stiffs. " Fehr and Orza are remarkably talented, and they're intellectually superior to most people in baseball," Vincent says. "And, of course, they're ideologues. They take economic issues and turn them into moral issues."
"Truthfully, we weren't even negotiating," says someone who once participated in the collective bargaining on behalf of the owners. "It was a joke. It was all just p.r. You should see it: The union plays the owners like a harp. It's not Selig's fault. And the owners aren't as stupid as they're depicted. It's just that each is driven by his own self-interest."
Says the Braves' Kasten, who is also president of Atlanta's Hawks and Thrashers: "In basketball or hockey David [Stern] or Gary [Bettman] says, 'Well, we've studied it, and here's what we're gonna do,' and everybody goes along. In baseball there'll be 30 different opinions." Trying to unite baseball owners recalls what Trent Lott once said about how difficult it is to keep a party of senators together: It's like "loading bullfrogs into a wheelbarrow."
Even Selig admits, "I told the executive committee: Just once I'd like to be Paul Tagliabue." Indeed, he can cite the business history of the NFL—how the noble gridiron owners all sacrificed and chimed the Three Musketeers' refrain—as well as he can recount esoteric baseball statistics.