Column

Bud Selig's time as head of MLB is worth admiring

Bud Selig will be center stage at scouts dinner in L.A. on Jan. 17

The Bud Selig farewell tour will make its first stop in Los Angeles on Jan. 17.

You can come and cheer. You can come and jeer.

If you have any sense for history, you will come and admire.

The event will be Dennis Gilbert's annual Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation dinner at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel. Selig will be awarding the first Pioneer Award to worthy Asian major league pioneers, former Dodgers pitchers Chan Ho Park and Hideo Nomo.

Even with other awards and business taking place, Selig will be the man of the hour, as he likely will be for much of 2015. He will be invited to many events. If they have to do with baseball, Allan Huber Selig, 80, will have a hard time saying no.

A week after the scouts dinner, the commissioner of baseball for the last 22 years will officially become an ex-commissioner. Or, in Selig's case, the Commissioner Emeritus.

"It's been quite a journey," Selig says.

That ranks among the all-time understatements in sports.

Few people were neutral about Selig. Fans who disliked him seemed to dismiss his accomplishments in labor peace and revenue growth because he lacked style. It was as if he were too much like them, the common man. They seemed to want, in their highest baseball office, a Winston Churchill orator and a George Clooney look-alike.

Selig ruled over baseball for more than two decades with hair out of place and the right word just out of reach. But those who knew and understood him willingly traded style for effectiveness. Hate him or love him, Selig got the job done.

It started with his leadership of a group that sought to replace the departed Milwaukee Braves with another major league team. Against all odds, he got that done.

"Of all the things," he says, "I am most proud of getting a team back in Milwaukee."

The story is always as delightful to hear as he is delighted to tell it. As he does, he says he is looking out the window of his high-rise commissioner's office in Milwaukee, overlooking Lake Michigan, which may soon freeze over. His voice oozes nostalgia.

"We signed the deal to buy the club [Seattle Pilots] in Baltimore, during the World Series in 1969," he says. "But [commissioner] Bowie Kuhn didn't want to lose the Seattle market, so we waited.

"I kept calling everybody. Nobody returned my calls. Then, on March 10th, Joe Cronin [American League president] called. He was actually friendly on the phone. I thought, well, maybe …

"We started hearing that the Pilots couldn't find a Seattle buyer.

"Then, on March 31, at 10:15 p.m., my phone rang. It was Lloyd Larson [longtime Milwaukee Sentinel sports editor]. He said, 'You got it.' And he hung up.

"That's how I learned."

Opening day was in eight days. There were no employees. Ticket sellers were hired. Ushers, concession people. The team's baseball equipment had been stored in trucks in Salt Lake City. When Milwaukee became the team's home, the "S" for Seattle was torn off team caps and replaced with "M" for Milwaukee.

Somehow, the new Milwaukee Brewers played host to a game at County Stadium on April 7 and drew 36,000 people.

"We lost, 12-0, to the Angels and Andy Messersmith," Selig says. "It was the only game I've ever not cared about winning. We had a team. That's all that mattered."

Shortly thereafter, Selig encountered the first volley in what would become a lifetime of fan discord.

"I was walking through the stands after the game and a guy stops me," Selig says. "He says, 'Well, you wanted this team in the worst way, and that's what you got.' "

From this survival was born the ultimate consensus builder. He parlayed small-market team unrest into unification, and became commissioner. Over the last 22 years, he attacked everything in baseball — every issue, every controversy and every threat to the game — in the same way. He made 100 phone calls. Then he made 100 more.

He romanced reporters, confronted politicians, negotiated with team owners. When Selig made a mistake, such as the All-Star game he ended in a tie, he took the blame and the heat. When one of his teams blundered, he got on the phone again and stood at the front of the pack against the charge of criticism.

Now, that's the domain of Rob Manfred, the new commissioner who will retain a direct line to Selig and likely use it.

Selig's retirement bucket list is still forming.

He will teach at Marquette and the University of Wisconsin, his alma mater. He will maintain an office at Madison in the school's history department.

He will write a book, with help from Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin.

"She says this is a huge project," Selig says. "Not sure I know what I'm getting into."

He will go to Wimbledon with wife Sue, a tennis fan. It will be his first Wimbledon. He had been busy during summers.

He will stay in shape with daily one-hour workouts on his exercise bike.

"I'm up to 2,369 days in a row," he says. "Last time I missed was July 2008."

And if he gets lonely, or feels a need to set Manfred straight, check attendance in Houston or needle a sportswriter, there is always a phone nearby.

It's all he ever needed.

Follow Bill Dwyre on Twitter @DwyreLATimes

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