Bud Selig has a convenient memory

September 12, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

Baseball is in the position it is because the man in charge, Bud Selig, refused to listen to a mere sportswriter. For right now, the story is a bit ahead of itself.

The setting was Baltimore. An occasion in the late 1960s, a summer night, when what was supposed to be a private meeting was inadvertently interrupted by the chance appearance of a newspaper reporter. Selig, then on the outside looking in at a game he now has a role in helping to destroy, and the late Bill Veeck, at the time an exiled club owner, were huddled in a conversation they didn't want others to know about.

It was in the down-under restaurant of the Lord Baltimore Hotel, where a sportswriter, deciding to take temporary leave of the office for a late-night dinner, surprisingly encountered them. Not many places were open in the city after 6 p.m., but the Diamondback Lounge served a full menu until midnight.

This "party of one" was shown to a table and, across the room, in a booth was the instantly recognizable Veeck, who had come by taxi from his home at Peach Blossom Creek, between Oxford and Easton on Maryland's Eastern Shore, for what was intended as a clandestine meeting. Veeck beckoned in his characteristically gregarious manner.

First off, Veeck said he wanted us to meet an automobile agency owner from Milwaukee and added it was his hope nothing would be mentioned about what was taking place. In a sense, Veeck was "under cover" and wanted his attempts to help Selig to be kept confidential.

Selig listened attentively to Veeck's scenario of how Milwaukee could return to major-league baseball. However, Milwaukee's chances could be hurt if it became public that Veeck, then persona non grata among the game's hierarchy, was advising Selig how to pressure baseball legally -- if, indeed, he needed to go that route.

Veeck explained how to ready a quiet ultimatum: that baseball either award Milwaukee a team or face an investigation that might lead to the sport's losing its cherished exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Veeck was an authority on the law, as friends and family will attest. Every morning, when he soaked the stump of his amputated right leg in a tub of hot water, he read case histories, literally tomes, of Supreme Court decisions. Veeck told Selig of baseball's vulnerability in the courts.

That evening, Veeck, with Selig nodding, said to the reporter, "I wouldn't presume to ask you not to write you saw us together. But if club owners knew I was assisting Bud, it may hurt his and Milwaukee's chances. If you could keep this between us, it would help. You certainly know how Milwaukee was raped when the Braves went to Atlanta."

It was agreed the nature of their visit would not be revealed

because it had little relevance at that moment. Here was Veeck, with Selig listening, devising the early strategy that brought Milwaukee into the American League and the start of a franchise in 1970 that was to be called the Brewers -- the same name Veeck traded under when he owned the American Association team in the early 1940s before going to Cleveland and Chicago.

Navie Selig and Veeck, seasoned warrior, agreed they preferred their positions not be jeopardized. They asked the reporter, who accidentally walked in on them during their quiet act of plotting a trap for baseball, to "if possible, keep this off the record." They mentioned, in a gesture of friendliness, that down the line, the favor would be returned.

Selig eventually brought a team to Milwaukee. It rated a franchise by any sense of decency or fair rationalization.

Now for the sequel. Selig, years later, not only gave the brush to the reporter who helped him but refused to listen to a recommendation to hire the one man who could have saved baseball from regressing to the sad shape it is in -- thanks to Selig and his cohorts.

The best man for the job of commissioner then and now is Jim Bunning, a pitcher in both major leagues, who is mentally tough, well-educated, holder of a master's degree in economics, a family man (10 children), and a former head of fiscal affairs in the Kentucky Legislature.

Bunning was to later run for governor and made an impressive showing but not good enough because Republicans, in Kentucky, as in Maryland, often are considered an endangered species. But this didn't deter Bunning. He won a seat in Congress and knows, from his baseball career, the ailments of the game and how they can be treated.

When we called Selig about Bunning as a possible commissioner, it was in a spirit of trying to assist a game we played and loved with a passion that certainly no present club owner can approach. How did Selig respond to the call that was intended to project Bunning to the baseball search committee?

It was as if he forget all about the favor extended that night in

Baltimore, when Veeck asked it not be disclosed they had met. Selig's tone on the telephone, when Bunning's name was mentioned, was that he couldn't be even remotely interested.

Baseball went on to hire Peter Ueberroth as its commissioner. A disappointment. Bunning would have been respected by the players and been fair to management. Meanwhile, under Selig's pseudo-supervision as an interim commissioner, baseball has regressed to an appalling state of leadership. Now the game will soon name another new commissioner, a retiring Maine senator named George Mitchell.

Yes, baseball is going to Washington. Bunning should be the man but is ignored. Why? Because he is too qualified, with his inherent awareness of what needs to be done in dealing with the players, since he used to be one, and the owners.

Thanks, Bud Selig. You not only stiffed a reporter but, more importantly, damaged a game via your obvious incompetence.

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