Book Review: In The Best Interests of Baseball?

I know I keep mentioning how my good friends at University of Nebraska Press send me books that keep me reading baseball all year long.  I still have a stack to review, so maybe I can make a disciplined effort to get do this on a regular basis.

However, skipping over the ones that are piled up, I just finished reading In The Best Interests of Baseball?: Governing the National Pastime by Andrew Zimbalist that I received from UofN earlier in the year.  Zimbalist, a well-known economist who has written a number of books on the money side of baseball (I still have a copy of Baseball and Billions somewhere that I read many years ago), does the same in this volume.

While the general premise is how commissioners throughout the game have affected the marketing and financial distributions in the game, most of the book deals with just two commissioners: Kennesaw Mountain Landis, being the first, and Bud Selig, being the current.  You get the idea reading this that Zimbalist really wanted to just write about Selig’s reign, but he had to go so far back (Selig started his rise to the commissionership in the 1970s) that he might as well set the entire stage with the other guys as well.

It’s an interesting look at the business of baseball, especially the last couple of decades.  Zimbalist gets into the collective bargaining agreements, how money was shared, why some of the financial transfers didn’t make a lot of sense and other issues related to that.  Occasionally it gets into technical speak like “implied tax rates” and so on, but not very often.  For the most part, it’s a pretty easy and interesting read.

This book was actually published in 2006, but recently reissued with a new prologue and epilogue attached.  This does create a little bit of confusion close to the end, when he’s talking about portions of the CBA that were superceded when the new one went into effect a couple of years ago.  The epilogue clears up that confusion, but it’s a little strange to see the old stuff still in there.

Like I say, Selig is the main character in this book, especially the latter half.  To put it into context, Landis gets one chapter, the commissioners from Happy Chandler to Fay Vincent get a total of two, and Selig gets three on his own.  I didn’t realize quite how indispensable Selig had made himself to the structure of baseball even before he was in line for the commissionership. You won’t be surprised that he continually denied he wanted the job, even before Vincent left.  It’s a running thing with Selig, that he never wants it but everyone forces him to keep serving.  He’s supposed to retire in 2015, but we’ll see if it actually happens.   Zimbalist gets into why Selig was able to get the job, why he’s been able to keep it, and the challenges baseball is going to have when it starts looking for his replacement.

If you don’t like Selig, you aren’t going to necessarily find a whole lot of support for your position in this one.  I’m not saying that Zimbalist is a fan–he recounts a conversation with Bud in the prologue where the commissioner says “I’m not as evil as you think I am”–but he does reflect how Selig loves the game and what he’s done to keep the owners together and, by extension, keep peace in the game.  I still disagree with a ton of things Selig has done, but I might respect him a bit more after reading some of the behind-the-scenes stuff.

If you are interested at all in commissioners, baseball history, or how baseball developed into this billion-dollar industry (and how they could have done more earlier), you should really pick this book up.  It’s a great primer on how baseball does business.

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