Troubled national pastime

September 10, 1992

The forced resignation of Fay Vincent as baseball commissioner is a skirmish in a longer battle. Every commissioner except the legendary Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who pioneered the position in the wake of the Black Sox scandal of 1919, and A. Bartlett Giamatti, who died after just five months in office, has struggled with the sport's owners over the powers of the office. One way or another, they all lost. Though Mr. Vincent cast his initial refusal to resign in the face of a no-confidence vote last week as a defense of the commissioner's power to act in the best interests of baseball, the issue may be narrower than that.

Mr. Vincent made one fatal mistake. He loves baseball and the people in it -- not just, or even primarily, the owners of the teams who hired him. He believes baseball really is the national pastime, a sport to be cherished. A hard-headed, self-made millionaire, Mr. Vincent was not naive about the owners' need to make money. But the "best interests of baseball," as he perceived them, came first.

The skirmishing may be delayed by the naming of Bud Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, as interim commissioner. He is one of the faction that wants a "restructuring" of the commissioner's post. That presumably means a weaker commissioner less able to defy the owners' wishes. However, not all the owners who got rid of Mr. Vincent had the same motives. Now that their target is gone, they may have less in common. Some of the teams are prospering and want to hold on to what they have. Others are struggling financially and seek new revenues at a time they are getting scarcer. Some are willing to continue shelling out multimillion-dollar salaries. Others look enviously at basketball's salary cap. It takes three-fourths of the owners, not just a majority, to alter the document that defines the commissioner's powers.

A commissioner more vulnerable to the owners is not necessarily a puppet. Both the commissioners of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association are directly responsible to their owners. Yet both commissioners have acted as severely against some of their bosses as any baseball commissioner has. The NFL's Paul Tagliabue and the NBA's David Stern have the advantage of presiding over sports that are prospering and thus have happy constituents who welcome strong leadership. Many baseball owners are disgruntled and do not.

But Mr. Vincent was right about the national pastime. Though baseball may not draw the biggest crowds or earn the most money, it occupies a special place in our culture. That place is codified in baseball's unique exemption from federal anti-trust laws. Lose one, risk the other.

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