Bowie Kuhn overstayed his term by a year until Peter V. Ueberroth,
47 years old and fresh from a triumph as head of the Los Angeles
Olympic Organizing Committee, was unanimously elected to a five-year
term in October 1984. In this trim, composed, and self-confident
executive, the owners finally acquired the leadership they knew
was needed to deal with the complexities of contemporary life
that were engulfing the baseball business.
Baseball Hires a CEO
Ueberroth became the game's CEO. All departments and activities
reported to him. As did the two league presidents, Dr. Bobby Brown
of the American League and A. Bartlett Giamatti of the National
League. The commissioner's authority to discipline owners was
greatly increased. He could transfer or deny any club's draft
choices, and the limit on club fines was upped from $5,000 to
$250,000. Reelection of the commissioner reverted to a majority
vote of the clubs, with a required minimum of five votes from
each league. His salary was raised to a reported $450,000, nearly
twice what Kuhn was paid.
With concentrated power in his hands, Ueberroth demonstrated that
his management style was to delegate responsibility. Although
he took unilateral actions to tidy up baseball operations that
he found "in disarray," he preferred to have problems solved by
the people most closely involved. Cool and controlled in demeanor,
yet insistent on high levels of performance and not afraid to
make unpopular decisions-he once described himself as "shy and
ruthless"- Ueberroth worked first to restore fiscal "sanity" to
owners' operations. Many franchises-estimates ran as high as 21
of the 26-were losing money yet continuing to offer long-term
player contracts at high wages, even to veterans headed for the
inactive list. Exchanges of information to control this extravagance
soon brought charges of collusion from the Players Association,
which complained of a suspicious absence of bidding by clubs for
free agents. Two arbitrators agreed that this was indeed the case
during the 1986 and 1987 seasons. Ueberroth denied the allegation
but did not dispute the judgment, insisting that baseball must
find ways to improve financial stability before such looming problems
as expansion could be faced. He estimated that new franchises
could be awarded by 1990, with new teams taking the field by 1993.
Problems, Vices, and Changes
Internally, baseball felt the impact of two pervasive social problems
of the 1980s: drugs and the lack of job opportunities for minorities.
Each club conducted its own rehabilitation program for drug users
through its medical department. The Players Association objected
to testing as an invasion of privacy and Ueberroth tended to agree,
even though minor leaguers and front-office personnel were tested.
The commissioner was also empowered to suspend relapsed players
for one year without pay.
The hiring of blacks and other minorities for positions of responsibility
on or off the field, particularly those individuals with distinguished
baseball careers, remained a sensitive issue. Ueberroth contended
that all clubs had accepted the obligation, although at his departure
few, if any, highly visible jobs had gone to blacks or Latinos.
In assaults on gambling, Ueberroth worked principally behind the
scenes to eliminate club-owner investment in racing stables or
tracks. In one of his first public gestures he won approval by
Kuhn's rather farfetched ban on Mantle and Mays.
At his urging, the Cubs chose to install lights at Wrigley Field rather than reimburse
the leagues for lost night-game revenues. While not involved in
the owners' negotiations with players and umpires, he kept the parties bargaining until settlements were reached.
He found a new source of income in persuading large corporations
to pay for the privilege of having their products endorsed by
Major League Baseball. He concluded enormous new TV contracts
with CBS and ESPN. Then he announced his decision to resign as
commissioner, even if a second term were offered. Although the
owners did not always welcome his assertiveness-an outsider's
voice in which they heard as much coercion as persuasion-they
felt he had significantly improved baseball's finances, and they
accepted his resignation with regret.