This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to allow me to keep writing posts like this one.
The Society for American Baseball Research is 50 years old, and to celebrate, they’re putting together all kinds of lists 50 entries long. One such list is the top 50 Off-Field figures in MLB history, and I just want to start things out by saying I’m very into the idea of this. Seeing Roger Angell, Claire Smith, Marvin Miller, and yes, the San Diego Chicken receive recognition in the same list is a lot of fun! There is an entry that made me double-take, though — not because of the person’s inclusion, which is absolutely merited. But because of how they were presented within it:
After replacing Bowie Kuhn as commissioner in 1984, [Peter] Ueberroth brought a business expertise and CEO-type outlook to the office. He helped negotiate a new lucrative television contract and pushed for drug testing. With less successful long-term consequences, under a banner of “fiscal responsibility” the owners began working collectively to keep salaries in line, actions that ultimately led to the collusion settlement.
That last sentence has some real passive voice to it, to the point where I wonder if there was some concern on SABR’s end about making it too obvious, in a list with little bio capsules meant to celebrate the sport, that a significant portion of Ueberroth’s contributions to Major League Baseball were negative ones. His legacy is extremely impactful and enduring, despite being the commissioner for just a few years, from October of ‘84 to April of ‘89. The collusion settlement didn’t just happen under Ueberroth’s watch: his actions as commissioner are what brought about collusion in the first place, and his continued insistence on convincing the owners to collude even after it was clear that the Players Association knew what was going on is why three separate settlements from three different offseasons became one mega settlement.
I’m not writing about this now to tell SABR to do better or anything — again, this idea of recognizing the influential figures is a great one, and I’m glad the off-field figures are so diverse in so many ways in a sport that often is not. The Ueberroth thing struck me, though, to the point that I felt a little trip down memory lane was in order.
Ueberroth’s “business expertise” is why his legacy remains as strong as it is today. Ueberroth used to routinely chastise the owners for their spending habits, claiming they had no one to blame but themselves for any money they lost, that their issue was that they were smart business men who didn’t run their baseball teams like businesses. Before Ueberroth, the owners were rarely united together on anything except their dislike of and love for one-upping each other, and their desire to have a winning pro team to brag about and take credit for. It cost them money to do that, but so it goes, you know? That all began to change with Ueberroth, who began the process of making the business men treat their team like a business. It began with outright collusion, but, over time, it all morphed into something I’ve referred to in the past as legalized collusion. There doesn’t have to be overt collusion if, for decades now, all the rules (written and unwritten) on spending and team behavior have brought us to a point where we’ve progressed past the need for tactics like that thanks to the normalization of behaviors that bring about the same result.
The most telling bit of dialogue from Ueberroth’s days comes from John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm. I’ve used this quote quite a few times in the last few years for a reason, and if you haven’t seen it before, you’ll understand why once you do. There is nothing that explains the behavior of today’s MLB teams as succinctly as this does:
“Let’s say I sat each of you down in front of a red button and a black button,” he said at one early meeting. “Push the red button and you’d win the World Series but lose $10 million. Push the black button and you would make $4 million and finish somewhere in the middle.”
He paused to look around. “The problem is, most of you would push the red one.”
Ueberroth chided them for checking their business sense at the door. “You are so damned dumb.”
Between motivational speeches like this one, and Ueberroth letting the owners believe that television money was going to dry up by the end of the decade, collusion was an extremely easy sell for the commissioner who styled himself as MLB’s CEO and the boss of all of the owners, rather than the other way around. Ueberroth sounds like he was a chore to be around and work for or with, but something in his messaging obviously got to the MLB owners, to the point that some of his beliefs on business became core tenets of their own ideology that now persist even when most of the owners of the day are no longer around.
Ueberroth was also the commissioner during the 1985 collective bargaining sessions, and while, at times, his desire to be in the spotlight and be viewed as the man who Saved Baseball led to outcomes that infuriated the owners and made the players look like they were the winners of it all, his behavior also helped cause the change to the CBA that, like with the switch to a more pure business sense, continues to impact the game today.
The MLBPA struck in 1985, but it was pretty clear they didn’t want to be striking, and were not as united as they were during any previous strike. The fault lines between veterans and younger players were never more apparent before ‘85 — veterans making good money didn’t understand why they would strike over arbitration eligibility, while players who hadn’t yet found their payday felt like the vets didn’t have their backs. When the strike ended in just two days, in large part because Ueberroth wanted to be The Man Who Ended The Strike, it kept the two sides of the union from figuring out what it was they wanted as a group.
The damage was already done, though, before those unifying conversations could be truly completed: while nearly all of the owners’ proposals were rejected in order to end the strike and get back to playing ball, one, the change in service time before a player became arbitration-eligible, remained. It would now take three years, rather than two, for players to reach arb. And that would help feed the collusion monster for the next few offseasons, with repercussions so significant and how massive for how pre-arb players could be valued given there were now so many more of them around that I was able to write an entire feature on the concept for Pre-Walkout Deadspin just last year. (And, to bring it back around to the beginning, the piece in question on what happened under Ueberroth’s watch and reverberated into the present was nominated for a SABR historical analysis award.)
So, yeah, Peter Ueberroth. He should never be written about in the passive voice. His legacy is too great, too terrible, for that. It’s worthy of recognition, for sure, but while recognizing it, equip yourself with the proper tone befitting the man who helped lead MLB down a path it has no interest in returning from.