Selig opens his book with his uncomfortable journey around the country going to Giants games awaiting Barry Bonds to break Hank Aaron's storied home run record in 2007. He felt this obligation to be there even though he knew Bonds' career had been tainted by steroids. It was the one issue during his 23-year run as commissioner he wished he could have dealt with sooner. "Our image suffered," he wrote in his book. "We paid a terribly high price."
The Bonds chase was made worse by the fact Selig was such close friends with Aaron - a man he has now known for six-plus decades. As a car salesman in Milwaukee in the late 1950s, he sold the rising baseball star a car when both were in their early 20s.
“It was a little small Ford,” Selig recalled. “It was his way to get around. We got close. Hank and I went to football games. He wrote a note for my book that symbolized our friendship.”
Selig then read aloud Aaron’s promotional blurb that is now on the back of the hardcover edition of his book: “Who would have imaged all those years ago that I, a black kid from Mobile, Alabama, would break Babe Ruth’s home run record and you, a Jewish kid from Milwaukee, would become baseball commissioner?”
Just reading that the first time, he said, got him "really emotional." The two octogenarians see each other regularly, the last time at Frank Robinson's funeral two months ago. Both Aaron and Selig spoke.
He plans to see Aaron, of course, when he comes to Atlanta this week.
The book, which chronicles Selig's modest upbringing to his unlikely rise to sports team owner to his often tumultuous ride as commissioner, came to be in part because of noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. She encouraged Selig - a history professor as well - to write it and ended up penning the forward.
At Cooperstown, she told him, “You have great stories. You can’t let that all go. Write a book! That’s what history is about!”
Selig said in the book that he didn't immediately see how serious the steroid problem was and by the time he did, he met strong resistance from the player's union. The union resisted robust drug testing until players like Derek Jeter began publicly stating they supported it.
He also was often pilloried by pundits and fans over what is now known as the Steroid Age.
“People misunderstood the role of the commissioner,” Selig said, noting that he did not have unilateral power to ban steroids from the game.
Now, he said, baseball has a strong drug policy. By the time he left as commissioner in 2015, his office had handed out 44 suspensions for PED and amphetamine use. (Selig, by the way, does not believe steroid-using players like Roger Clemens, Juan Gonzalez and Barry Bonds deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.)
Good news: steroids are no longer a major topic of conversation in baseball. Experts don't really bring that up nowadays as a reason why the game in the 2010s has seen a major escalation in both home runs and strikeouts.
Selig in the interview, using a phrase from another sport, largely punted on many issues facing baseball today: an aging audience, the rise in Sabermetrics, games dragging on too long, free agency for older players, the growth in the use of the shift and relief pitchers, to name a few.
"I have a lot of faith in [current commissioner] Rob Manfred," he said. "They'll figure it out."
Change is part of the game, Selig added, and that’s okay.
“People hate change,” he said. “Look at the wild card. People complained so much when I instituted that. But it’s the best thing I ever did. So many more teams are in the pennant race on September 1.” (Wild-card teams have made it to the World Series a dozen times since 1995.)
And he extolled the fact he was able to help create a redistributive luxury tax - while not as extreme as a salary cap like pro football and basketball - that enables smaller-market teams to create competitive teams to those in New York and Los Angeles.
Baseball attendance is down this season, he noted, but just slightly. Overall, he considers the game healthy despite competition from video games and soccer and other pursuits.
"We're still doing great. It's down maybe 1, 2 percent," he said.
He’s also proud that there has been no baseball strike in 25 years, that management/union relations are reasonably good.
But there's the perpetual dilemma that is Pete Rose, the would-be Hall of Fame player with the most hits in the history of baseball, who remains out of baseball because he bet on it while he was a manager.
Selig never reinstated him and neither has his successor Manfred. It wasn’t because Selig didn’t respect what Rose did as a player. He was just flabbergasted that - despite physical proof - Rose denied to Selig’s face in 2002 that he had never gambled on baseball. (Later, Rose changed his tune a bit, which annoyed Selig even more.)
“He was just a compulsive liar, his own worst enemy,” Selig wrote.
In the interview, Selig added: "I had a difficult situation with him. It's been disappointing. I regard baseball as a social institution. Rose had responsibilities to uphold that. He didn't. Every player from 1920 on when the Office of the Commissioner was created, every single person knew you could not gamble on baseball." (See the Black Sox scandal of 1919.)
Bud Selig, in conversation with Jeff Hullinger
7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Wednesday, July 10, 2019
$35 (book included)
Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta
5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody