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On the Money
Daniel Okrent
April 10, 1989
As baseball's commissioner, Peter Ueberroth used his uncanny powers of public relations to generate unprecedented profits
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April 10, 1989

On The Money

As baseball's commissioner, Peter Ueberroth used his uncanny powers of public relations to generate unprecedented profits

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Someday they'll write cases about him at the Harvard Business School: about the businessman who took on a new job in a new field, tamed the raging egos of his 26 bosses, turned his industry's losses into unexpected prosperity and did it all while keeping his public image shining as bright as a new penny.

If baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who keeps the tally of his accomplishments as close at hand as Wade Boggs does his hitting statistics, were to write the case himself, it would read something like this: 21 money-losing teams when he took office, none as he leaves four years later; a doubling of national television revenue, which will mean an average of nearly $15 million annually for each team over four years; a 16-fold increase in licensing income from merchandise related to Major League Baseball.

And, he would probably add, a few nonfinancial benefits, too: only one day's games lost to strike, lockout or other work stoppage during his tenure; a sharp decline in headline-making drug cases; ticket prices increasing at a rate less than inflation's; soaring attendance (including two seasons, 1986 and 1987, when every team drew at least a million fans); industry-wide attention focused on racial imbalance in front-office hiring. It's true: Ueberroth, who stepped down as commissioner on April 1, can even take credit for the fallout from an aging general manager's foolish comments on late-night TV; Peter Ueberroth knows how to turn almost any situation to his own advantage.

Fortunately, what was to Ueberroth's advantage over the past four years—ever since he rode into baseball on the handsome white steed acquired during the Los Angeles Olympics—was largely to baseball's advantage, too. To a job previously occupied by the ineffectual ( Bowie Kuhn), the invisible (General William "The Unknown Soldier" Eckert), the inconsequential ( Ford Frick) and the incomprehensible ( Happy Chandler), Ueberroth brought an authority, an effectiveness and a public visibility that matched those of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the man for whom the job was invented in 1920.

Like Landis, who embarked upon his job when baseball was reeling from the scandal of the Black Sox, Ueberroth entered office at a time when the game was in a desperate state. In fact, it was his artful—and necessary—manipulation of this desperation that made nothing Ueberroth did during his entire term so meaningful as what he did before he even assumed control in 1984. For 23 months, Kuhn had been twisting in the wind, his re-election blocked by a small handful of dissident owners. Kuhn agreed to extension after extension of his contract, all the while making it clear, to anyone who asked, that the game's very structure made it impossible for any commissioner truly to rule. "Baseball can't restructure until it has a commissioner," Kuhn said, "and it might not be able to get a commissioner until it has restructured." The game's system of governance had become a management expert's nightmare, with the ostensible boss—the commissioner—at the bottom of an inverted pyramid, crushed under the various whims of the 26 team owners.

While Kuhn lingered, Lee Iacocca, Alexander Haig, James Baker and Jack Valenti, among others, surfaced in the press amidst speculation concerning his possible replacement. But the cry for Ueberroth as the game's only possible savior became a crescendo. It was a cry fostered by such enlightened owners as the search committee chairman, the Milwaukee Brewers' Bud Selig, who had seen his friend Kuhn eviscerated in his effort to hold on to the job. It was a cry abetted by the press coverage that had made Ueberroth a national hero following his success with the Olympics (he was TIME'S Man of the Year for 1984)—coverage all the while brilliantly manipulated by Ueberroth himself.

As masterful with the press as he was frequently disdainful of it, Ueberroth made it publicly clear he would only take the job if the pyramid was turned right side up and full authority was placed in his hands. He insisted on having all baseball departments report directly to him, on having the subordination of the league offices to the commissioner's office and on having an expansion of the commissioner's protection from legal action brought by the clubs. He was the prettiest girl in the senior class playing hard to get. After the long public courtship—during which it became clear that failing to meet Ueberroth's list of demands would establish that the owners were not serious about hiring the man who was obviously the best candidate—the owners finally gave him everything he wanted.

"Ueberroth knew how badly baseball wanted him," Chicago White Sox board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said at the time, "and he would have been dumb if he hadn't demanded the right to dictate the terms under which he would accept."

His detractors have called Ueberroth many things—arrogant, abrasive and motivated only by self-interest, for three—but no one ever called him dumb. Within hours of assuming the job on Oct. 1, 1984, the new commissioner set out to establish his independence from the men who had begged him to take the job. As his first act in office, he gave the umpires' bumptious union chief, Richie Phillips, a fat settlement to end the wildcat strike that threatened that year's playoffs. Ueberroth awarded the umps—to the accompanying yelps of the owners—more than double their previous compensation for postseason work.

He slapped errant clubs with unheard-of fines, and almost every time it happened news of the fine somehow leaked to the press. Publicly he suggested that the owners had been both backward and unfair in their dealings with the Players Association, and he made a habit of reminding interviewers that many of the owners didn't like him. "I think he liked to exaggerate how he was making a lot of enemies," one prominent player agent said recently, "but the pose didn't hurt." And like so many of the stratagems he deployed, the tactic worked. Ueberroth was able to separate himself in the public mind (and even in the players' minds) from the owners' worst tendencies, and he increased his strength at each juncture.

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