SI Vault
John Underwood
April 04, 1966
When Lieut. General William D. Eckert was named Commissioner of Baseball last fall his appointment was greeted with hoots of cynical dismay. Well, Kenesaw Mountain Landis may be safe in his shrine but Spike Eckert is proving that he is a man who came to play
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April 04, 1966

Progress Report On The Unknown Soldier

When Lieut. General William D. Eckert was named Commissioner of Baseball last fall his appointment was greeted with hoots of cynical dismay. Well, Kenesaw Mountain Landis may be safe in his shrine but Spike Eckert is proving that he is a man who came to play

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No stretch of the imagination, however, would allow you to conclude that William Eckert knows baseball. He is still groping around in that nether land of obscured significance (Is baseball a business? A sport? A virus?) and impossible terminology (Can a man ever fathom the bonus rule? The reserve clause? Casey Stengel?). But Eckert does not grope blindly. He learns fast. True, he has been partially brainwashed into believing that baseball is a holy calling—he thinks now it should be exported as an instrument of international goodwill—and in this respect he is more Billy Graham than Kenesaw Mountain Landis, but he appears willing, even eager, to exert whatever power he has to police the game. Unfortunately, it is still uncertain how much power that is.

"As far as I know," said Eckert the other day in Clearwater, sitting with his back straight in a box seat near the Phillie dugout, with a Phillie red cap on his head, "nothing is off limits. I may feel differently in a year, but right now I feel I have a free hand and adequate authority to handle all problems. If I don't, then I will go to the owners and ask for more. Or, failing that, for less responsibility."

Feeling his way, Eckert still has an annoying habit of being so impartial as to appear innocuous, even on as small a matter as his lineage: "I am one-fourth French, one-fourth English, one-fourth Irish and one-fourth German. I don't think of any of them as dominating my personality, unless you want to make something of the fact that D�le is a town in France. I don't."

He does not think of himself as a personality at all—which is reasonable enough—and does not care to be drawn into comparisons with Landis, Chandler or Frick. "They are all great men," he says with bighearted inaccuracy. "But my mind does not think that way—whether I want to be a Judge Landis or a Ford Frick. I will try to profit from what they did, but I will also add my own identity to the job as I see it."

Men like Joe Reichler, who have been around baseball awhile, remember Landis as a jaw stuck out on the top rail of a front-row box, a floppy hat over a reckless white mane, a pair of gleaming eyes cleansing the field with their gaze—the image of baseball's protector. Eckert, from those first days, set out instead to be baseball's buddy. "I think that word 'image' is overworked," he said. He is intent on seeing and meeting everyone, being wherever he might rub an elbow or listen to a problem, as if to make it clear that if he is an owners' man he is also a players' man and a fans' man and a man the press can come to. Not only a judge, but an executive and a PR man, too. "I want to do what's best for baseball," he said.

In Miami he met on equal terms with the executive council, important men named O'Malley and Paul and Giles and Cronin. He talked with Pete McGovern of the Little League and Everett (Eppie) Barnes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. He met with the player representatives of the 20 big-league clubs and sat with them for a full day. He was particularly proud of that. He spoke often of being "the first commissioner to be invited by the players to their meeting."

He asked a group of Detroit players up to his room for cocktails and small talk. Al Kaline was impressed. "He seems to be for us," he said. Eckert was philosophical. "If I'm going to represent them, to adjudicate, to decide if they need more showers or a better pension plan or whatever, I've got to know them." Hank Aguirre, the Detroit pitcher, was flabbergasted. "I never talked to a commissioner before," he said.

Eckert sat in on a meeting of the major leagues' public relations men. "I did more than just sit," he said. He made it clear he wanted people to know more of the good things baseball does for the world: John Roseboro's work in the Watts section of Los Angeles, for example, Willie Mays's service with the Job Corps and August Busch's donation of a stadium to the St. Louis Boys Club. He said he would try to impress on players and managers and even owners the importance of being available for public relations.

In Florida he haunted the dugouts and batting cages. He chatted with players, coaches and umpires. He shook hands with fans. He joined owners and executives in box seats. It must have been torturous for him, because he does not make easy conversation: he does not tell funny stories or locker-room jokes. The simple amenities of dealing with civilians seemed a strain on him, but he went about them doggedly, as if he had missed something by not having to campaign for his $65,000-a-year job—"The owners came to me, I did not seek them out"—and was now conducting a campaign after the fact.

At the ball park in Clearwater he talked with whole families of baseball people. "That's Jim Bunning." he said. "You probably know him. I was certainly glad to get a chance to talk with his folks." He talked with Richie Ashburn. Richie had been told that Eckert won trophies playing squash in the service. Richie wanted to know how good the commissioner was. "He's damn good," said Joe Reichler, never far removed from Eckert's elbow. "You ought to try him and find out."

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