It is harder to hold an election in baseball than outside," said Commissioner Ford Frick last week as the lords of the game sat in plenary, cursory session in Dearborn, Mich. to consider his successor. "The problem is these fellows all know each other."
Mr. Frick, the most positive-thinking of men, may not have been suggesting that baseball's owners mistrust each other, but there have been other indications that this is so. Reluctance to place the commissioner's power in the hands of a fellow owner could be one reason why the selection is proceeding so slowly. But the principal reason is that the new commissioner must be just right, a very big man, but not too damned big.
"Kuchel, Calif.," said one of the doodle pads on the green-baize-covered table in the Dearborn Inn. "Dirkson [sic]," said another. "Potter Stewart." Names like Nixon, White, Shriver and McNamara were chewed with the cold cuts at lunch. Baseball was aiming presumptuously high for the status symbol it wanted to present to the world.
"It is important to the public interest to have a national figure," said John E. Fetzer, president of the Detroit Tigers and American League member of the two-man committee that had reduced the list of candidates from a gross 150 to "approximately 20."
"But it is not a qualification," added John W. Galbreath, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Fetzer's partner in the process of elimination. "We're dead serious about getting a man who can really do a job for baseball."
This is a time when baseball franchises are moving like medicine shows, when a 15� can of beer goes for 45� and when day-night "doubleheaders" allow little boys to be bum's-rushed away after a Saturday afternoon game to make room for a new set of paying customers in the evening. But still baseball's statesmen must try to tread the tortuous path between the abstraction that the good old game belongs to the good old fans and the concrete fact that Walter O'Malley and CBS own the ball and bat.
Fetzer, after mentioning that it would be good if the new commissioner were capable of pitching to spots in legislative halls, described baseball's double image—as sport and business—rather well. In choosing a commissioner, he said, baseball ought to be motivated by "enlightened self-interest in the light of public interest."
Loosely translated, this means that the new commissioner ideally would be a man of renown whose positive identity would blend with baseball's—somebody like General Eisenhower. He would also be a man with political influence and a powerful swift sword to strike down those who would impugn baseball's fish-and-foul status before the antitrust laws. Like Bobby Kennedy. And he must never never forget that he is the creature and the instrument of the people who own the ball and bat. Like American League President Joe Cronin, perhaps.
Tough in the legislative halls but oh so gentle about league matters? If such an animal exists, he is not in baseball. But then baseball has pretty well decided—at least for the moment—that it no longer needs, or wants, a baseball man to run the game. Of the 20 eligibles who survived the Dearborn screening, Galbreath said, only three or four were baseball men. It would be "swell," Frick thought, if the man who encompassed all the necessary attributes happened also to know where second base is, but there was the clear implication that this was unlikely.
Once upon a time baseball was a game, and it had this problem: some people dumped a World Series. In the spirit of self-preservation the owners created the office of commissioner and invested it with the powers of a czar. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a tough-minded, spade-calling federal judge, used them accordingly. The old judge may have thrown out a few babies with the bath water (finding a cover-up of players in a team's farm system, he would arbitrarily turn the whole farm system loose), but in his 24-year tenure he made hanky-panky unthinkable. Forever, the owners now assume.