Peter Ueberroth celebrates his first anniversary as commissioner of baseball Tuesday. If he gets a wish with the single candle on his cake, it would be for a more-serene second year.
He has been through 12 months replete with strikes by umpires and players and a major drug scandal that has shaken the foundations of his sport. His private life has been nearly non-existent, even more than when he first came to attention as organizer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
None of this was in the job description when he arrived in baseball last October to succeed Bowie Kuhn as the game’s sixth commissioner.
“I viewed the commissioner’s job as the best one in baseball,” he said. “It looked like a nice life. I underestimated the difficulty.”
Most difficult perhaps has been the invasion on his private life. He is the most visible executive in the sport and even the Olympic experience did not prepare him for this.
“I am known for being in control,” he said. “But this year I had less control of my life than any year of my life, including the Olympic year.
“I thought I could find anonymity. That was plain naive. You know I was in (the travel) business for 17 years with thousands of employees and offices all over the country. In those 17 years, my name appeared only once in the Los Angeles Times.
“I liked it better that way.”
If it was anonymity he wanted, Ueberroth came to the wrong place in this year of record-breaking attendance, a year highlighted by Pete Rose’s assault on Ty Cobb’s record of 4,191 hits, Tom Seaver’s 300th victory and Rod Carew’s 3,000th hit--the last two occurring on the same memorable Sunday.
Those are the obvious highs. The lows are just as obvious and the year has taken its toll on the commissioner. His reflections on the 12 months past make that obvious.
“It’s been much more difficult, far more intense than I expected or planned,” he said. “I was told there would be a honeymoon period, probably six months to a year. Instead, it was six minutes to an hour.”
In his first day on the job, Ueberroth got a clue about what kind of year it would be from Mary Sotis, who had been secretary to former commissioners Ford Frick, William Eckert and Kuhn and was preparing for her own retirement.
“I said to her, ‘Good morning, I’d like a cup of coffee,”’ Ueberroth recalled.
“She said, ‘Good morning, you don’t have any umpires.”’
The major league umpires had walked out on the eve of the league playoffs. Ueberroth had no idea their contract had even expired and that negotiations with their union had stalemated.
The new commissioner did not barge in, prefering to leave the matter in the hands of the negotiators who had been wrestling with the issue for months. By week’s end, however, he was involved.
“Both sides came to me and asked that I mediate,” he said. “They floated the idea and I said, sure, under certain conditions. I was apprehensive. I was in uncharted waters.”
By the time the National League playoffs had reached a decisive fifth game, Ueberroth had the regular umpires back on the field and baseball had escaped the danger that a pennant might be decided on a call by an amateur ump.
Before that, though, the new commissioner had also solved what he considered a more pressing problem--the threat of a possible World Series game in lightless Wrigley Field, forced into a late start by football.
Originally, the fifth game of the Series last year carried a starting time of 3:45 p.m. EDT to accommodate television’s Sunday pro football commitments. That late a start without lights in Chicago raised the danger of playing the late innings in the dark.
“We solved that by moving the starting time up 45 minutes and with the cooperation of (Commissioner) Pete Rozelle, who rescheduled five NFL games for earlier starts,” Ueberroth said.
It turned out to be unnecessary when San Diego knocked the Cubs out in the playoffs. The light problem in Wrigley Field remains, though, and Ueberroth has a constant reminder of it sitting in his office--a Cubs’ hat with battery-powered buttons that light up to provide illumination. Ueberroth tried the cap on and noted, “With enough fans in the ballpark . . . there’s plenty of light.”
More trouble lay ahead, however.
There was the question of superstations beaming major league games and costing clubs revenue. There were superstars Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, barred from baseball by the previous administration for working for gambling casinos. There was the player union contract expiring. All of these problems had been festering for some time.
“This is not a reflection on my predecessor who, I think, history will treat kindly,” Ueberroth said, “but these things were the result of neglect. For two years, the constant, dominant issue in baseball was the selection of a new commissioner. Other things were allowed to slide. Many of the issues were ones that had been building for some time.
“The owners had argued over superstations for nine years. Finally, it was on top of us. It became something I had to address all day, every day. Both union contracts were ending. That was unfortunate.”
Ueberroth had pledged to the fans--perhaps playing Pollyanna in the face of adversity--that there would be no player strike. He was nearly right. The two-day interruption of play has all but been forgotten in a season in which all four division races remained undecided entering the final eight days.
He discovered the Mays-Mantle problem unexpectedly. “I thought it had been decided by Bowie,” he said. When he learned it had not, he investigated the issue with owners, attorneys, gambling industry interests, law enforcement people and others.
“It was an easy decision,” he said. “It served baseball because we got out of it an understanding and agreement with gambling interests not to use players in advertisements encouraging gambling.”
By the time the Mays-Mantle decision was announced, rumblings were coming out of Pittsburgh about a grand jury investigation into drug trafficking involving a number of ballplayers.
Drugs in baseball was no shock. Previous cases in Kansas City and Milwaukee had signalled the problem. “People knew,” Ueberroth said. “No part of baseball didn’t know.”
So the commissioner braced for trouble. It was bad. It could have been worse. “The thing that surprised me was that there were trials, that they pleaded not guilty,” the commissioner said. “Many pleaded guilty. Thank goodness for that.”
Ueberroth continues to struggle with the drug question and said he plans to to devote much of his second year in office toward the eliminating drug abuse among the youth of America.
“When I came on the job, I said I had three objectives,” he said. “I hoped to fight drugs, not players, and I came to the job with some knowledge of that field. I hoped to improve the financial viability of baseball, and I came to the job with some knowledge of that field. And I said if I made progress in those areas, we would return to more of a game with friendship and fun for those involved.”
If he had known the kind of year he was going to face, would he still have accepted the commissioner’s job?
“Sure,” he said. “The tough parts were not baseball-oriented. If you make the list of negatives, baseball is not in the top three items. On the positive side, it is.”
Four years, three months remain on his contract. He has not decided on whether he will seek a second term, saying it is too early to make that determination. He has said, however, that he would not accept one unless all elements of baseball--players and umpires as well as owners--are involved in the selection process.
“That will make it easy for the owners not to have to worry about how many votes one faction or the other has,” Ueberroth said.