Better Know a Commissioner: William Eckert

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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.

Ford Frick was not pushed out of office like his predecessor, Happy Chandler, but when he retired in 1965, Major League Baseball’s team owners were still unsure of exactly what direction they should go in for their next commissioner. Frick, the former National League president, had come from within the game itself, whereas Chandler and the first-ever commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, came from outside of it.

This was not a decision that the owners took lightly: there were more than 150 candidate names on the list the owners compiled of potential replacements for Frick. One of these people is one you’ve seen written about — and derisively! — in these digital pages again and again: Robert Cannon. Cannon was a judge who was advising the fledgling Players Association, mostly by telling them to be happy about what crumbs the owners left them with and to not rock the proverbial boat. Cannon wasn’t just some rando on that list of 150, as he came within a single vote of becoming MLB commissioner, but he lost that race to retired United States Army general William Eckert.

Eckert would not stick around for very long, and yet, much went down during his three years in office. MLB ended up choosing Eckert seemingly out of a failure to agree on anyone else: he hadn’t attended a game in 10 years, he did not have the strong business background the owners were looking for out of their commissioner at that time, and he wasn’t even a famous general whose presence in MLB might garner some attention. The media nicknamed him the “Unknown Soldier” for a reason, and yet, there he was, commissioner of MLB, with an assistant (Lee MacPhail) who was inarguably more qualified for the role.

It’s kind of funny, but no one seems to know why Eckert was recommended for the job, nor is there agreement on just who did the recommending. None of this stopped him from being elected as the fourth commissioner of MLB:

The list of potential replacements for Frick eventually included 156 names. General Eckert was among them. Just who recommended the general is uncertain. Some reports suggest that after Air Force General Curtis LeMay declined interest in the job, he suggested Eckert. Athletics’ owner Charlie O. Finley claimed it was John Fetzer of Detroit who pushed for Eckert’s nomination. A screening committee, consisting of Fetzer and John Galbreath of the Pirates, was appointed in March 1965, and soon pared the list to fifteen. However, Eckert’s name wasn’t among them. A revised list of 10 finalists was presented on October 20, including Eckert. His name was never mentioned in the Sporting News or in any other major periodical prior to his election. The screening committee only put up one name for a vote, Eckert’s. The 56-year-old was elected unanimously by the twenty franchises at the November 17 winter meetings in Chicago. He was appointed to a seven-year term at $65,000 per year.

Researchers at the New York Times couldn’t find any substantive notes on the man in their vast files. This was expected; in part, that was the owner’s objective. They wanted someone beholden to no one in baseball. One comment from that day stuck throughout Eckert’s reign. New York World-Telegram writer Larry Fox blurted, “Good God! They’ve elected the Unknown Soldier.” A story circulated that some of the owners thought they were electing Eugene Zuckert, former secretary of the Air Force. Charlie Finley later exclaimed, “we wound up with a guy nobody knew, who knew nothing about sports. That’s when I began to realize I was sitting with a bunch of dummies.”

Eckert’s lack of experience and qualifications ended up playing a significant role in his time as commissioner. He didn’t have the tact to deal with times of national crisis — Eckert refused to postpone MLB games in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and even though he took considerable flak for that decision, he once again didn’t postpone them later that year when presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was gunned down as well. The owners were concerned that the players, who were now under the guidance of an actual union man in Marvin Miller instead of aspiring commissioner/sleeper agent Robert Cannon, would inevitably attempt to strike, and that Eckert would fail to stop it and them from succeeding. So, just three years into his term, Eckert was forced to resign as commissioner, opening the doors for someone whose name you know much better: Bowie Kuhn.

Some of the things Eckert gets the most credit for in his time in office was actually the plan of his predecessor. It was Ford Frick’s idea, according to Eckert’s bio at SABR, to create a set of committees that would oversee different parts of the game, including the growing business side, and to install a chief advisor for the commissioner, who would be a baseball man — see, Lee MacPhail — to compensate for any holes that the non-baseball commissioner would have. The owners might have gone a little overboard with their non-baseball commissioner with Eckert, though, considering that even this committee structure and the presence of MacPhail wasn’t enough to save Eckert from himself and an early resignation.

Some commissioners are forced to resign because they have sided with the players too much — it happened with Happy Chandler, and it would happen, too, to a commissioner post-Eckert as well — but in Eckert’s case, it was just because the owners realized they had made a mistake, and that Eckert wasn’t capable of handling the position. He wasn’t overly fond of the players or anything like that, but just wasn’t in a position to handle the role in a league where business was continually changing and the players had gone from decades as a potential threat to a fully realized one. The owners would learn from the Eckert years, though, as they had learned from the Landis and Chandler ones, and they wouldn’t make the mistake of hiring a total unknown like that again.

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