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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When, last November, the owners of major league baseball suddenly announced that they had selected Lieut. General William Dole Eckert ( U.S. Air Force, ret.) to succeed Ford Frick as the Commissioner of Baseball, their surprising choice elicited a great deal of comment, most of it caustic. A typical response was that of Willie Mays, who said of Eckert, "Who's he?" A sportswriter on the New York World-Telegram said, "My God, they've chosen the Unknown Soldier!" Another wrote that in "the monumental filing system of this paper" there was only one insignificant clipping on William D. Eckert. "The owners," declared Dick Young of the New York Daily News, who is much respected as a baseball writer, "have laughed in the face of every fan who pays his buck at the ball park. They have said they don't really need a commissioner at all." And so on.

Subsequent reports on Commissioner Eckert during his first days on the job pointed out that he was not Maxwell Taylor (or any other name-brand general), that he talked in platitudes, that he used cue cards for the most casual interviews, that he relied on an outdated baseball rule book and that he was a master of the oblique retort. He would not even commit himself as to which comic strip he preferred. Furthermore, he was nervous. Nervous. He had an air of insecurity about him. And the odor of an owners' man. As a baseball expert he knew a lot about Air Force nuts and bolts (logistics and supply had been Eckert's military specialty).

If Ford Frick was the do-nothing Commissioner of Baseball, it was said, then William D. Eckert was the know-nothing. He had never played baseball beyond the academy intramural level. He had never been much of a fan. He could not even remember when he last attended a game, though he might have been excused this because he was living in Washington and that would have meant going to a Senator game. How could this know-nothing commissioner, who had finished 128th in the West Point class of '30, be expected to coax baseball down the paths of righteousness if he did not even know the words and music to the Milwaukee- Atlanta franchise roundelay? ( Ford Frick said it would not be fair to ask Eckert about that one.) There were suspicions that Frick was not retiring, that he was just reincarnated.

Thus launched in November, the incipient commissioner went about familiarizing himself with the job. For his critics he developed an ostrich stance. "I don't think I was treated unfairly by the press at all," he says in retrospect. "I don't think I took a beating at all." He appeared undisturbed by the criticism. Those who had known him in the past expected as much; from his West Point days he had been known as a man whose emotions ran the gamut from stoicism to constraint. He said it would take three months to get his feet on the ground. And, presumably, the egg off his face.

The three months are up.

All right, then, brethren. To update the question. Beyond biographical incidentals—age 57, 5 feet 8, 160 pounds, gray hair, cold eyes, smokes a pipe, occasionally permits himself a Scotch and soda—who is William Dole Eckert? Is he the redeemer of baseball? Or is he, as Dick Young suggested, the cynical choice of a cynical company—a man who could plunge wholeheartedly and headfirst into the job and never make a ripple?

The answers to these questions are: 1) No, he is not a redeemer. Major league baseball has become too complex ever to be ruled again in the redeemer-dictator fashion of Judge Landis. In fact, when the owners gave the job to Eckert they established a new post in the commissioner's office, that of administrator, and named the experienced Lee MacPhail, former president and general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, to that wheelhorse job. 2) No again. Eckert is a good deal more than a nothing, and even the owners did not really want another Ford Frick.

What, then, is New Commissioner Eckert on the way to becoming? What might he be expected to do with baseball, or it with him?

To begin with, Eckert, nicknamed "Spike" as a West Pointer after a good day on the intramural football field in 1927, is not the totally unimpressive man he might have seemed in November. His bearing—stiff backbone and upper lip—suggests the legacy of 35 years as a military officer. He is a man familiar with command, that loneliest of worlds, a man used to making decisions in often perilous situations. Commissioner Landis never had to jump out of a stricken airplane or watch a sister B-17 get blown apart at his wingtip. Commissioner Chandler never had to decide life-and-death matters for 2,800 combat troops. Commissioner Frick never had to kick a man out of his command on a morals charge, or for using narcotics. Commissioner Eckert had to do all these things, and the fact that he was able to do them would seem to represent a willingness to decide—a conditioning to action.

One man who has observed Eckert closely for several weeks has reached certain conclusions about him. He is Joe Reichler, the Associated Press's most knowledgeable baseball writer, who became public relations director for the commissioner's office in February. Reichler says you can count on at least three things from Eckert: "He will never say, 'No comment.' He will never say, 'This is off the record.' And he will never, never say, 'This is a league matter and out of my hands.' "

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