Milwaukee – This is certainly one of the few lakefront office suites in Milwaukee with a view of the water in a supporting role. To see Lake Michigan from there, you’ll first need to visit Bud Selig’s Baseball Museum.
A bench made of bats and bases. A 75th birthday poster drawn by the likes of Barra & Brock and Feller & Kilbrough. Brewers memorabilia abound, a Joe DiMaggio magazine cover, a painting by Robin Yount, a Joe Morgan jersey, a wall for Jackie Robinson. A giant rug of baseball, complete with Selig’s signature.
You’ll eventually reach Selig himself—the former baseball commissioner who, at one time or another, and probably all at once, you probably thought revived baseball, ruined baseball, and everything that’s good about baseball. And worse can happen, symbolizes that. There he was this week, 87 years old, still looking at the sport that is no longer his problem but remains his passion.
“There’s something about the game that has fascinated me for the rest of my life,” he said Thursday, his eyes seemingly every few seconds for a White Sox-Astros game and his voice occasionally sipping on Diet Coke. Calls the action between.
“For its flaws,” he said, “it’s still the best game in the world.”
Lots of reminders of the history of the sport in Milwaukee coming up here now. The Braves – the former Milwaukee franchise – and the Brewers – the local club since 1970 – will have their post-inaugural meeting on Friday, when they begin a National League division series. Forty years ago this week, the Brewers made their playoff debut. The legacy of Henry Aarons, who died this year and was beloved as a valiant and brewer in Atlanta and Milwaukee, lurks.
And, like it or not, so does Selig.
Before his 22-plus years leading Major League Baseball, he brought baseball back to Milwaukee and sustained a small-market franchise during an entirely different economic era for the sport. He helped defend clubs like Milwaukee while in office. Now commissioner emeritus, the role baseball took upon his retirement in 2015, Selig said he spoke with the Brewers’ current owner, Mark Atanasio, almost every day during the season.
He chats with fans, watches a dozen or so games a night during the regular season, and, in equal parts, respects and holds onto where the game takes place. (“I can live with this,” the Hall of Famer said with a hint of disappointment as he reflected on his recent acceptance of how extra innings starts with a runner now at second base.)
It turns out that the life of a former commissioner, who doesn’t get far enough from it, can mimic that of a former president: part landmark, part mascot, part consular, part continuing service as a legacy polisher.
With close to seven years out of office, Selig knows where the lines of blame should run on arguments, from work stagnation to the steroids that killed the 1994 World Series, which gave the sport a reputation as a haven for cheaters.
On Thursday, as in his 2019 memoir, he defended his record. Players’ unions, he insisted as always, were often the problem, with baseball’s owners or commissioners not empowering them.
“I know what people have said, and now that I’m a history professor, I see people try to revise history and I’m fascinated by it,” said Selig, whose days includes teaching a seminar, “Baseball and World Society Since War II,” at the University of Wisconsin, his alma mater.
(A 2007 report on steroids in baseball, commissioned by MLB and prepared by former Senator George J. Mitchell, concluded that “the effect of players’ union protests was to delay the adoption of mandatory random drug testing by nearly two decades”.) But it was a “collective failure to recognize and deal with the problem as it emerged.”
Drug use has faded into a colossal crisis for MLB, but the set of troubles facing Commissioner Rob Manfred may sound familiar to the one Selig had in his day.
The collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on December 1, and questions are swirling about when a new deal might be in place. There is constant puzzlement about what makes a slow-moving game attractive in a fast-moving world. The post-season size, which could affect revenue and season length, is up for discussion, with many speculating that it will expand from a 10-team format Selig to a 14- or 16-team design.
In public, at least, Selig is largely keeping his views to himself and expressing confidence in Manfred.
“I hated when other people expressed opinions without studying it,” Selig said in response to an inquiry about the post-season expansion. “I like the system the way it is. If anyone has a better system that’s fine. I think it worked great.”
He was little guarded about this year’s misery.
Selig went in for his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on Friday in January when his cellphone rang at around 9 a.m. He later said, he should have realized that something was wrong when he answered.
Aaron had died.
Selig’s twice-a-week conversation of decades went by 47 years after partner Selig planned Aaron’s return to Milwaukee, and not long after, Aaron would notice how a black kid from Alabama and a Jewish boy from Milwaukee. Growing up, he had become one of the two. Baseball’s most influential figures.
“I miss him so much,” Selig, who called Aaron by his given name instead of “Hank,” said between pauses. “We’d talk about everything. A lot of times we go back and talk about the ’57 Braves and how they beat the Yankees and this guy and that guy.
Some more breaks.
“It’s become a void,” he said at last, “a void in my life.”
He said that Aaron would definitely find a thrill in the series between Atlanta and Milwaukee. And while Selig, who does nothing to hide his joy that he can now openly rejoice for the Brewers, said he doesn’t go to the ballpark anymore, he played games before the move to the series. Planned to attend 1 and 2. Atlanta on Monday.
He won’t predict an outcome, save this: “This club goes as far as pitching takes place.”
Much, he suggested, was the 1982 Brewers who reached the World Series in seven games against St. Louis, but lost.
Even now, he’s still rattling through the roster, still thinking about Milwaukee’s biggest moments, still selling baseball as a place where both love the game and highlight its fragility. We do.
Not long after he took one of his regular visits to Milwaukee’s oldest custard stand, he began a monologue saying, “The 1982 Brewers were an amazing team, it was a great year.” “It’s not that I’m a poor loser, but if we don’t lose Rolly Fingers, we beat the Cardinals in ’82, and there’s no doubt about it; I even told Whitey Herzog to admit that at one point. Asked for. But that’s what it is. When you think about that team, there were great days here in Milwaukee. We had five Hall of Famers on that team. Think about it: Yount, Molitor, Sutton, Simmons and Fingers; he’s great.”
He certainly keeps going, as the subject after all decades is baseball in Milwaukee.