After eight months as baseball commissioner, Peter Ueberroth has gained a reputation as a problem solver. But baseball has a lot of problems, some of which are critical to the well being of the sport. It remains to be seen if Ueberroth has enough answers.
On Peter Ueberroth’s first day as commissioner of baseball, his umpires struck his playoffs.
Also, he learned that NBC had a right to a 3 p.m. World Series game that might be coming from Wrigley Field. This meant that Ueberroth had a great chance to preside over a re-enactment of Gabby Hartnett’s home run in the gloaming, or a game suspended in the fifth inning because of darkness.
Also, two owners who had been on the search committee that found him, including his only personal friend among them and the man who had nominated him, San Francisco’s Bob Lurie, told him they planned to sell their teams. Welcome aboard, glad to have you with us, good luck, we’re out of here.
“You’re laughing,” said Ueberroth, telling the story recently, smiling in spite of himself. “It was not very funny. In retrospect it’s funny.”
He solved those problems and went on to bigger and better ones. There’s a saying that if you’re making everyone mad, you must be doing something right. By that standard, Ueberroth ranks with Solomon the Wise.
His eight-month tenure has been a series of bold moves in all directions--ending the umpires’ strike; courting players’ association leadership so long shunned by commissioners; opening the owners’ books; ending the bans of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle; reining in the superstations; playing in the writers’ annual winter meeting softball game; even sticking around to drink beer with the writers afterward.
Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, a devotee of dynamic leadership, called him the best thing to happen to the game since Babe Ruth. The players chose to start the season without a contract, which can be viewed as another compliment to his ability as a peacemaker.
And yet . . .
Have no doubt, this job is like walking a high wire in a hurricane. On this day, when he is having breakfast in a hotel coffee shop near LAX, he had hoped to be on his way to Chicago, to brief a meeting of player representatives on his new drug proposal.
He isn’t attending because the players have decided they have other fish to fry. They’re using the time, instead, to take a strike-authorization vote.
Ueberroth is noncommittal, but several of his associates have recently grown pessimistic. They now think there will be a strike.
All Ueberroth needs now is a drug controversy, but he has one of those, too. A grand jury sitting in Pittsburgh delivered seven indictments for drug trafficking and major league players could be called to testify. Ueberroth has asked the players to accept mandatory testing, an idea that the union considers unacceptable.
Even Ueberroth’s biggest supporters don’t minimize his predicament.
Said Chicago White Sox president Eddie Einhorn: “We’ve got a lot of issues pending. This is not exactly the time to put out a report card. I mean, I like the way he handles himself. He got into this, full-speed ahead, no politics, no nonsense.
"(But) he’s facing a strike. He’s facing teams going out of business. Hey, he’s on a hot seat. It’s not an easy job to walk into, I want to tell you. It’s tough to sit back and pass judgment but let’s be honest. That’s what we’re all doing.
“This isn’t closing day at the Olympics.”
Einhorn was on the committee that selected Ueberroth.
It’s enough to make a man yearn for the good old days, when all he had to worry about were American-Soviet relations and that mayor in Greece who thought the Olympic torch relay was too commercial.
An American (torch bearer), running out of a long Spenglerian gloom, heading west for California, toward the light. Running away from recession . . . away from gas shortages and hostage crises and a sense of American impotence and failure and limitation and passivity, away from dishonored Presidents and a lost war . . . away from the past, into the future.
--Time Magazine, Jan. 7, 1985, naming Ueberroth man of the year
The baseball owners who hired Ueberroth had their own
problems, namely, they said, millions of dollars in losses.
The players noted that the huge appreciation on franchises could be thrown into the equation. Of course, to cash in, an owner had to sell out and leave show biz, which wasn’t what the owners had in mind. They wanted it to be more like it was before 1976, when a baseball team was a money tree.
During the reigns of Ford Frick, Spike Eckert and Bowie Kuhn, it was unthinkable that the owners would let anyone near their books, least of all the Bolsheviks of the players’ association.Whatever the owners’ real duress in the last 10 years, they never pleaded poverty in negotiations. That would have obliged them by law to open their books.
Instead, they took out strike insurance for the 1981 season and waited for the players to cave in to protect their new, fat salaries. Million-dollar players sat out the seven-week strike and lost 30% of their salaries without a whimper.
The owners, back to Square 1, decided to hire a new commissioner. They wanted a strong man, one who would whip them into line and prevent them from paying all those players all that money. When they couldn’t find one, they drew up an organizational plan for a split commissioner’s office. When they couldn’t find anyone, they invited Kuhn back. They didn’t have a clue what they wanted, except better times. Wasn’t there someone out there who could save them?
Then they came to the wunderkind from the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee. After years of going through lists of ex-New Jersey governors and Yale presidents, finally a certified miracle worker, a man on a white horse, someone who could end their own long, Spenglerian gloom.
In came Ueberroth, less than two months after his Olympic triumph, smack-dab into the umpires’ strike. Baseball had made the mistake of granting the umpires the right to re-open contract negotiations during the playoffs, thus affording the umps great leverage, if only they dared to use it. Out they went, with nary a look back.
Amateur umpires worked the playoffs while ABC-TV commentators critiqued every call. Ueberroth finally ended the strike, persuading the umpires to accept him as an arbitrator and awarding them a package worth a reported $1.4 million. That breaks down to $53,000 a club, the salary of a young utility infielder.
It was anything but the traditional way of doing things. National League President Chub Feeney, who had handled the bargaining until Ueberroth stepped in, was said to be fuming. Feeney has denied that he was angry, but a source says that he complains about it to this day.
There was one other angle, largely unexplored. Richie Phillips, head of the umpires’ union and once head of the National Basketball Assn. referees, was a veteran of two other stormy officials’ strikes. Never before had he let anyone--let alone a man chosen by his negotiating adversaries--settle one of his strikes.
Why this time? Had any kind of understanding been arrived at beforehand?
Phillips, from his Philadelphia office: “I met with Peter Ueberroth and we discussed several avenues to resolve the dispute. I felt very comfortable with him as an arbitrator. I trusted him.”
All anyone cared about, with the possible exception of one NL president, was that the strike ended.
Question: Do you think the owners realized what having a strong commissioner really means?
Ueberroth: (laughing) No.
Q: How has that impacted on you?
Ueberroth: It hasn’t impacted. . . . I think the impact has been on them. It’s been a learning process for them.
He gave them pointed lessons. They proposed. He disposed.
Take his Gaylord Broadcasting decision. Gaylord owned a Dallas TV station with superstation capabilities and wanted to buy into the Texas Rangers. American League owners, fearing an Atlanta Braves situation, voted it down.
Ueberroth overrode the veto, using his best-interests-of-baseball powers.
Said Einhorn: “That was a little dangerous, a vote being reversed.
“We voted against (Gaylord). It’s very hard to have people in baseball who are in another business and can profit, even though the baseball team is losing money.
“Hey, I’m sure he’ll get some people mad, including me. That’s a price one would gladly pay to see some sunlight here. Right now there’s no sunlight at all.”
Some people were predisposed to be mad, namely the players, who had a deep and abiding distrust of the owners and their commissioners. The players came by it honestly. For most of the history of baseball, they had been paid a relatively small percentage of the gross as individuals, and were hard-nosed as a union.
For a while, Ueberroth seemed to have them charmed. He worked at it, flying uninvited to Las Vegas, where the union was meeting, to court director Don Fehr, and the retired director, Marvin Miller, who is still a moving force. In baseball history, it was comparable to Richard Nixon’s trip to China.
Everything Ueberroth did was taken as a pitch to the players. His arbitration of the umpires’ strike was thought to be a signal to them: I’m independent. You can trust me. If you hit a negotiating impasse next season, I could arbitrate that, too.
Ueberroth says that’s not true, and anyway, events seem to have moved beyond that. If giving the players the books was another radical move, he wasn’t doing it for nothing. The owners wanted to change things.
The players didn’t. They produced a Stanford economist who supported their contention that the books didn’t show what the owners’ accountants said they showed--$42 million in losses this year, a projected $155 million in four years.
Even before the owners made their salary-cap proposal, Miller and Fehr were considering a strike date. They are said now to regard Ueberroth uneasily. They think he’s too independent, too arbitrary.
And Ueberroth has his own differences with the union.
“The players talked about wanting the books,” Ueberroth said. “I told the owners to give them the books. They asked for a lot more than the books and we gave them that, too.
“Now they’re saying, ‘Well, that doesn’t mean anything.’
“Well, that’s too bad. Now that they have ‘em, they don’t mean anything.”
Is a strike more possible?
“It’s always possible. But if it happens, it’ll mean both sides failed.”
Surprisingly shy personally--extremely shy says an associate--Ueberroth tends toward short answers. But at work, he’s pure drive and daring . When he was still in the travel business, he once phoned the chancellor of Austria, Bruno Kreisky, and proposed a dinner at Schoenbrunn Castle for a group of execu
tives that included some Austrians.
Kreisky agreed. Ueberroth says now it was only the third private dinner held in the castle since the end of World War II. The others, he says, were for John
Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, and for Queen Elizabeth.
Ueberroth likes to do deals. He is a no-nonsense businessman, but he also talks like an idealist. His Olympics were to be the athletes’ games. Baseball belongs to the fans. Even though he has a fabulous track record for delivering, there remains a split about how he is perceived. Admirers abound. Skeptics, who say he’s mostly doing this for himself, persist.
“For a man with great credibility . . . " an interviewer begins.
Ueberroth finishes the sentence, grinning: “I have no credibility.”
Ueberroth is having two poached eggs in the coffee shop of the Sheraton La Reina. Perks of the office being what they are, he could be granting this interview over eggs Benedict in Beverly Hills, but no. A peoples’ commissioner, indeed.
“I’ll start off by telling you the job is very difficult,” he says. “It’s not anybody’s fault. It was neglect. Total neglect for several years.
“What my predecessor (Kuhn, who was asked to stay on after having been voted out) went through caused some difficulty, possibly for a couple of years, with the scrambling around to get somebody. That took attention away from two major growing problems.
“The first, since 1979, there has been a dramatic downhill slide financially. Basically, baseball in ’79 broke even and then started losing more and more each year.
“The other was drugs. When I took the job, I didn’t know how much things had disintegrated in those two areas.”
Why precipitate a debate on drug control now? There are several answers possible.
Ueberroth feels strongly about the issue and has for years. It was one of the first things he mentioned when he was named commissioner.
Ueberroth may have also felt the rumbles from the Pittsburgh grand jury. If he wanted to stay out in front on this issue, he had to act.
Of course, he could have taken the easy way out and lain low.
Of course, if he spoke out, and the players turned him down, and the grand jury produced a scandal, how much blame would then accrue to Ueberroth and how much to the players?
Of course, if he angered the players’ association and wound up with a strike on his hands, how good would he look?
Of course, if the owners had a real need for redress that the players couldn’t recognize, might not a strike be inevitable?
Anyway, Ueberroth acted. “One thing I guarantee you, Peter Ueberroth will never become a prisoner of events,” said an associate.
He isn’t exactly a prisoner of baseball, either. So why has he signed on to ride this tiger for five years, at a salary perhaps one-fourth as large as he could command in industry?
He is asked constantly about political aspirations. Senator from California in ’86?
Governor in ’86?
“No. You’ve got a good governor.”
And yet . . .
Mervin Field released a poll in February in which Ueberroth’s recognition factor and image topped a list that included George Deukmejian, Tom Bradley, Pete Wilson, Diane Feinstein and Gary Hart.
One of Ueberroth’s associates thinks he will run for office some day. Another doesn’t, but says, “Never say never.”
Ueberroth says he is looking for an effective way to say no.
“I was speaking to the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. in Miami,” he said. “Warren Burger, Henry Kissinger and me.
“After lunch, 1,300 publishers sitting there, and I was asked this question that took a minute and a half or two minutes: With the polls and this and that, and the fact you have a home in Laguna Beach, etc., Mr. Ueberroth, are you going to run for the U.S. Senate?
“I walked up to the podium, got a glass of water, took a sip, looked both ways. Then I said ‘No,’ walked back and sat down.”
Said Einhorn: “I don’t think, realistically, anybody thought he’d be here forever. I do say that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to have someone who might want to go on and do other things.
“That person is going to be greatly motivated to do things, to solve our problems. If it’s a steppingstone to other things, that wouldn’t bother me. I don’t know what his private agenda is. Whatever it is, God bless him.”
Ueberroth can use some blessings. For now and the foreseeable future, he’s still commissioner of baseball, and it’s getting hot in there. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they tend to draw some fire.
‘We’ve got a lot of issues pending. This is not exactly the time to put out a report card. I mean, I like the way he handles himself. He got into this, full-speed ahead, no politics, no nonsense. (But) he’s facing a strike. He’s facing teams going out of business. Hey, he’s on a hot seat. It’s not an easy job to walk into, I want to tell you. It’s tough to sit back and pass judgment but let’s be honest. That’s what we’re all doing.’
Chicago White Sox president
‘I’ll start off by telling you the job is very difficult. It’s not anybody’s fault. It was neglect. Total neglect for several years. What my predecessor (Kuhn, who was asked to stay on after having been voted out) went through caused some difficulty, possibly for a couple of years, with the scrambling around to get somebody. That took attention away from two major growing problems.’