Ex-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig Talks Steroids in Baseball and Cursing Out Al Gore
The Hall of Famer who served as MLB Commissioner from 1998 to 2015 opens up to Corbin Smith about his new memoir, why he won’t apologize for the steroid era, and much more.
After the Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1966, Allan Selig, a lifelong baseball fanatic and second generation car salesman known as “Bud” by basically everyone in his life, organized a group of local businessmen in pursuit of a new team to play in Milwaukee. After an aborted attempt to acquire and move the White Sox—blocking the move was probably a good play by the American League, in retrospect—he and his partners managed to acquire the moribund Seattle Pilots, known nowadays for their role in Jim Bouton’s all-time dirty baseball memoir Ball Four, out of the wreckage of a bankruptcy proceeding. The team was moved to Milwaukee, christened “Brewers”—the moniker of the minor league squad that Bud watched when he was a kid—and proceeded to make themselves into a beloved baseball institution.
When Bud formed that group, he probably didn’t think that it would start him off on the road to the Hall of Fame, but after he led a bloodless coup against Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1992, Selig was given the job of acting Baseball Commissioner, and promoted to full-time Commissioner soon after.
Selig presided over some turbulent times for the game—a labor unrest that cancelled the 1994 World Series, the steroid scandals that warped the game’s record books and brought Congress to their front door. But he was also a canny business mind who helped make baseball, of all things, a pioneer in video-streaming technology, shepherded stadium building that made teams winners at the gate, and left baseball in stupendous financial shape at the dawn of the new millennium.
Bud has written a memoir, For the Good of the Game, that recalls his life in baseball. It’s a slim volume that gives an unvarnished self-assessment of Bud’s time in the game, acknowledges his mistakes and articulates his struggles with big-market owners, the players union, and George Steinbrenner. I spoke to Selig over the phone about some of those turbulent times.
I enjoyed the book. I was surprised—you were way franker about your term than I thought you would be.
BUD SELIG: You know, Corbin, that’s interesting, everybody has told me that so that makes me feel good. I’m a history buff, and there was a meaning to writing the book, but I was gonna write it very candidly otherwise, Corbin, there was no reason to write it.
Absolutely. But I have a few questions. I wanna start with steroids. In the book you divvy up blame in two directions: the owners and the commissioner who were maybe a little naive and who had always thought of testosterone as a football drug, and thought of baseball as a sport where hand-eye coordination was prime instead of strength. Is that safe to say?
I was really blunt on the steroid thing. Lemme say this here, Corbin: One of the reasons for writing a book is there’s been so much mythology about the whole steroid thing and what we did and what we didn’t do and why we did it and so on and so forth. And look, in ‘98 when Steve Wilson of the AP wrote about [Mark] McGwire, I remember going to the drug store, and I didn’t know what the hell a steroid was, I didn’t know what they looked like. Neither did a lot of other people. The idea that we were slow to react is just sheer nonsense.
Number one, baseball never had a drug-testing program. We went through the ‘80s with cocaine and I, listen, I know how tough it was because I know how tough it was on my franchise. And they couldn’t get a drug-testing program. Even when 29 guys got convincted, four went to jail, the Union wasn’t gonna agree. I don’t wanna redo all that. But it’s a matter of history, it’s a matter of that the union, publicly, to their credit, fought it, and fought it for a long, long time. And so when people say guys were slow to react, Corbin it’s a subject of collective bargaining. It’s not something that the commissioner unilaterally decided.
That’s true but there have been elements of that telling of it that confuses me a little bit. Because I think the other half of the blame falls on Union Chief Donald Fehr to a degree, and to the union who’s vociferous in now allowing drug testing. But there’s something that I was kinda curious about: Was it about testing itself, or was it about testing as a bargaining chip? Was there something that you felt like you could have offered in exchange for a testing program?
No. I’ll give you a very blunt answer: We believed, after a while, although I did ban it in the Minor Leagues in the 2000-2001 season, we believed that as time went on, and you know, we didn’t understand the dimension of the problem. Remember in ‘06 I hired Senator Mitchell. That’s six years later. Because we had nothing to hide is what I said. Now, keep in mind, when I hired him, people on my own staff were against it and the union hated it, wouldn’t talk to Senator Mitchell.
But I don’t know what more responsibility we... in ‘98, the union agreed to go to Harvard to study andro. That’s all they would agree to. In ‘02 it was the last item in labor and I could go, Corbin, into great detail here. We finally agreed on 5% [as a threshold to institute testing]. Rob Manfred came in and pleaded with me. It turned out it was okay. It worked out better than I would have thought. But it was still a weak program. And so we went month after month, year after year, until we wound up with the toughest testing program in American sports and in America. But it was arduous, it was painful, and it was step-by-step.
But I don’t understand where we could have done, even in the retrospect of history, I tell my students that... I don’t understand, Corbin, where we could have done any more. And somebody said you could have talked more about it. Well in those days, Murray Chass was writing for The New York Times and friendly with labor, I think even he would acknowledge that, used to call me “The Evangelist.” “Quit talking about it”—that’s all he would talk about. And so that’s why I wrote what I wrote. Because I think there’s a great deal of historical mythology here.
If you could have had the opportunity to trade something with the union, in retrospect, knowing that you could have dealt with it internally instead of Congress and the media and all that stuff, what do you think it would have been worth giving up?
Corbin, they were against drug testing. They said to you in the cocaine era, where there was a real need, Marvin Miller—who I say should go to the Hall of Fame and I believe that, even if a lot of people are clearly gonna disagree with that—said that nobody would be pissing in a bottle if he were still there. There was nothing to trade. I mean Marvin, I’ll give Marvin his credit and I’ll give Fehr that credit: They never made any bones about it. It was a right of privacy and they weren’t about to give it away. They were wrong. And by the way, it was illegal, Corbin.
The NBA ended up having really aggressive cocaine testing because one of their players died.
Len Bias, if my memory serves me right.
Yes, Len Bias. Do you feel like you lucked out of that on a certain level?
I don’t know about “lucked out” but it was painful every step I, you know, I wanted 50 games, Don wanted ten. I could go back to, Rob Manfred took me back to the negotiation. It was really the players—the more time we went on, I had players telling me that they wanted to do something.
There was definitely a split in the union.
I think I’m gonna give us credit. This was hard work, heartache, fought month after month, but we succeeded in the end.
Do you think the loss of the 1994 World Series ended up being worth it?
Well I’ve thought about that often. it was heartbreaking. Really heartbreaking. The owners wanted a salary cap. Stan Kasten of, then the Atlanta Braves, now the Dodgers, used to say, “Commissioner we’re not asking for half as much as the other two sports already have, what the hell is going on.” But I guess in history, I guess what I would say to you is, as heartbreaking as that was and it was awful, painful, ugh, it led to 28 years of labor peace. So... would we have had labor peace? I don’t know, I don’t know. You know we agreed to mediation, that’s all in the book...
The mediation stories are wild. [Selig, at one point, drops F-bombs on Al Gore during a federal mediation session].
Well, they’re wild and true. Was it worth it? I don’t know, I’ll let history make that judgment.
The internet ended up being really good for baseball. MLB Advanced Media, and I think that the splintering of the media environment made regional sports networks and sports so much more valuable than they were at a certain point in time, not to mention post-Camden stadiums and all that. Baseball’s in a really good financial place now.
So there was a lot of labor unrest in the middle of the decade. Do you think that the labor unrest was necessary for current prosperity?
Labor unrest hurt us more, I think both parties, than any of us ever understood until the retrospect of it all. But look, what I would say to you about this, when we went in to it [creating MLBAM], it was 2000, and a bunch of owners I said in there came and talked to me about it and I saw a lot about it and, we had no idea what we were doing. We had no idea. We went, I insisted that 30 clubs own it equally, and so from a political standpoint, an economic standpoint, that worked out beautifully. But nobody could have ever seen the growth of BAM. I mean, I would not be honest today if I said, “Well, we sort of knew.” We didn’t have a clue. It was phenomenal. There’s no doubt about it. But it led to the growth of the sport, which all parties did well.
Do you worry about baseball's cultural place, now? The status of the baseball player as one of the more famous athletes in America has sort of diminished. You know, Mike Trout is one of the best baseball players that has ever lived, but I think that he doesn’t have the cultural currency that LeBron has or that a lot of NFL quarterbacks have.
Lemme say this about that: You're right in the sense that the regional networks and the regional popularity of the game is phenomenal everywhere. As I’m sitting in Milwaukee right now, they’re gonna draw three million people here this year in a market of a million and four, by the way. And I can think about a lot of other places and I know there are some that are not drawing.
Yes, people have made that point about, you don’t have the name national [awareness], and your Mike Trout example is a good one. But I think baseball understands that and I have told this story to my students, so if you’ll give me five seconds I will tell it to you quick. I’ve been listening to this about baseball for sixty years. The sports editor here went to the Associated Press Sports in 1958 and said baseball was moribund. Dying. Didn’t have the national appeal of football.
It’s 60 years later, the game is probably more popular than it’s ever been. So, are there adjustments to be made? Baseball understands the very point that you’ve raised, which is a valid one, and they’re working on it and I do think that we’re lucky that we have an amazing young wave of players and I think that will really help us. I’ve listened to the negativity for 60 years and here we are bigger and better than ever, and that will continue. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things we should work on, and you’ve raised one of them.
I have to ask about this almost purely out of personal curiosity: What did you think was gonna happen when Michael Jordan went to the White Sox?
I remember I talked to Jerry Reinsdorf a lot about it. It was amazing—here’s the greatest basketball player of all time wanting to play baseball. But, I really did’'t know. I mean, it was all so stunning. I dunno, it’s a good question. I just…I didn’t know.
Did you want him to succeed?
Yes. No question. Absolutely. I think it’d have been a great story. Oh yes, I sure did.
The Steinbrenner stuff in this book is wild. There are some unbelievable anecdotes about that dude.
Lemme tell you about the Steinbrenner thing. I came in in ‘70, he came in in ’72, and we developed a good relationship. We never agreed on anything. I’ll tell you a story, I don’t know if it’s in the book or not. But, oftentimes, Mr. Fetzer [the former owner of the Detroit Tigers], on behalf of Bowie [Kuhn, a former MLB Commissioner] would call and say, “Your guy’s acting up, you gotta talk to him.” They couldn’t because he hated Bowie, and he didn’t really like Mr. Fetzer because I guess Mr. Fetzer was part of the establishment. So I’d call George.
“WHADDAYA WANT NOW!?”
And I’d say, “George, you’re fighting about something not worth fighting about...”
“ARGHHH, I’m not fighting, to hell with it, BANG!” Now my assistant was a woman named Laurie Keck who had been Vince Lombardi’s secretary for eleven years and became mine for 37. He enjoys, loves Lombardi. He used to come to Milwaukee just to talk to her about Lombardi!
And she’d always say to me, “He’ll call back in ten minutes.” And sure enough you could set your watch, ten minutes, bang. “The golden boy’s calling,” always called him the golden boy. And I’d say, “George, Jesus, for Christ’s sake, why do you do this?”
“AHH THAT GODDAMN KUHN!” and blah blah blah. But then he’d agree to do it. And he was good. “Now don’t call me again.” And sure enough, a week or two later, it started all over again.
But for two guys, one from New York, although I wanted to remind him he came from Cleveland, and one from Milwaukee, our families became close. And difficult as he could be, and he was difficult, in the end, especially when I became Commissioner, he could not have been better.