Better Know a Commissioner: Ford Frick

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​Before Rob Manfred, before Bud Selig, there were lots of other aggravating, power-hungry men leading up Major League Baseball. This series exists to discuss the history of every commissioner MLB has had, with particular focus, where applicable, on their interactions and relationship with labor, the players. The rest of the series can be found through this link.

Following Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ habit of terrifying everyone around him and doing whatever he wanted to, and Happy Chandler doing what the players and fans — but not the owners — wanted him to do, Major League Baseball’s owners went in a different direction for the third commissioner. Ford Frick spent 14 years as MLB commish, starting in late-1951, and his bio at Society for American Baseball Research gets right to the point of his appeal:

Owners had chafed under 24 years of Landis’s ironfisted rule and six years of Chandler’s muddling and meddling. They chose a commissioner who wouldn’t rock the boat, but wouldn’t steer it, either.

The commissioner had no authority to make rules; his job was to interpret the rules. After Landis’s death, the owners had adopted two important restrictions on the commissioner’s power to act in the best interests of baseball. First, they stated that any policy approved by owners could not be overturned under the “best interests” clause. Second, they reserved the right of any owner to sue the commissioner.14 There would be no more Landises.

Frick, basically, was the first commissioner to act as if he worked for the owners. Landis worked for the owners, technically, but given the powers granted him, only in the sense that they paid him to tell them what to do and not do. Chandler used the powers of his office in ways that annoyed the owners, causing them to add the stipulations quoted above to the role, and made it so that “the re-election of a commissioner could not be considered more than 18 months or less than 12 months before the commissioner’s term expired.” A commissioner would need to be on their best behavior, from the perspective of the owners’, up until the end of their current contract if they were going to get another one.

Depending on who you have been reading, you might think that Frick supported integration and Black baseball players just like his predecessor: back when Frick was the National League president, a story was reported by Stanley Woodward where Frick gave a rousing speech in defense of integration, threatening to suspend St. Louis Cardinals’ players who planned to go on strike to protest Black players in the league. Frick himself denied making the speech in his autobiography, and that there were ever really plans for players to strike: per Frick’s recollection, it was just a few angry players “letting off steam.”

Back in 1939, Frick blamed the fans for the continued existence of segregation, saying they wouldn’t accept anything but this status quo, this despite the popularity of boxer Joe Louis and collegiate teams that beat MLB to integrated rosters. Additionally, Bill Veeck wrote in his own book that Frick had plotted to keep him from buying the Phillies in 1942 and stocking the roster with Black players. Frick and then-commissioner Landis found out about Veeck’s plan, and went out of their way to find another buyer for the club, one who wouldn’t set their sights on integration.

As SABR points out, there is no definitive proof of Frick’s stance — the Veeck story has not been corroborated, for instance — but we do know that Frick did just as much to end integration as nearly everyone else in his business for years: nothing. “…when racial segregation was the most important moral issue facing baseball, Frick let others lead.”

Letting others lead was, of course, Frick’s whole thing. He was obviously a great spokesman for the game in front of Congress, which he went in front of on many occasions in his 14 years as commissioner, but he was so seemingly absent from major decisions and commentary on the issues plaguing the game that Chandler joked that the league never did fill the vacancy they opened up when they got rid of him. However, he was doing something right in the role the owners wanted for him, as the reserve clause, challenged as it was again and again by the courts and Congress, persisted throughout his tenure.

On the rare occasion Frick did go out of his way to support something, it only became more clear that he did not have any actual power of his own. There was much unrest during his tenure in regards to where MLB teams were, where they would expand to, whether their monopoly over the game was keeping high-level pro baseball from the parts of the country it wasn’t already in, and so on. Frick actually supported the creation of a third independent league, the Continental League, over the expansion of Major League Baseball itself. What appealed to Frick was that the Continental League did not want to be a competitor to MLB, unlike the Federal League of the 1910s. They wanted to work alongside MLB to ensure that there was baseball in places where there wasn’t any at the time.

The presidents of the AL and NL, and MLB’s owners, were not on board with this, for fear that the Continental League’s existence would change salary structures and create competition for players, as well as potentially harm the minor leagues. The creation of new leagues in the past had always led to a reckoning with salaries, and on some occasions, organizing and unions that helped the players see improvements to their pay, working conditions, and so on, all thanks to the ability to choose their team and league through leverage they usually did not have. The reserve clause was already being challenged often enough at this point, and MLB didn’t want any more of that, even if Frick preferred a new league pop up to expansion.

So, MLB ended up expanding, with two new teams added to each league, including a National League team in New York — the Mets — to replace the departed Giants and Dodgers. This quashed the support of the Continental League’s originator, William Shea, as he had gotten into this whole business in part because there was no NL team in New York any longer. So, the Continental League had formed because MLB wouldn’t expand: Frick was for it, but everyone else was against it. MLB decided to expand rather than risk a competitor even within the spaces they were not, and the Continental League disbanded without ever actually playing a game. You’ll certainly recognize most of the cities that were involved in the proposed league, though: Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto, and the aforementioned New York, while Atlanta and Dallas Fort-Worth also had their applications approved later on. Buffalo is the only one of the cities to be approved for a Continental League team that never actually got an MLB team later on: no, the temporary Blue Jays’ residence there during the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t really count.

Frick would exit as commissioner in 1965, with quite a few issues unresolved. The reserve clause and union efforts would be a problem for the next two commissioners, and the growing revenue gap that television broadcasts and contracts created would be something that would go unsolved for decades, in part because the owners ignored Frick’s idea that those dollars be shared league-wide instead of all the local revenue staying that way. He wasn’t there to be listened to, though, not by the owners: Frick was there as the face of the league, his strings being pulled by those he worked for. It was new to the commissioner’s office, to act this way, but that’s how the owners wanted it to be. And, for the most part, how it has been since.

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