Commissioner Emeritus feels 'at home' in picturesque Cooperstown
By Richard Justice
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- As birthday presents go, Bud Selig is getting one of the ultimate ones.
"I said beforehand it was overwhelming," he said Saturday afternoon. "Once you get here, it's even more overwhelming."
Selig will celebrate his 83rd birthday Sunday by being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the ultimate honor for a baseball lifer and the appropriate punctuation mark for a half-century in the game.
MLB Network's exclusive live coverage of the 2017 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony -- simulcast live on MLB.com -- begins with MLB Tonight Sunday at 11 a.m. CT, followed by the ceremony at 12:30 p.m. CT. Prior to Sunday's live coverage, you can watch a rebroadcast of the 2017 Hall of Fame Awards Presentation at 10 a.m. CT on MLB Network. It features Rachel Robinson (Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award), Claire Smith (J.G. Taylor Spink Award for writers), and the posthumous honoring of Bill King (Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters). The presentation will also commemorate the 25th anniversary of the release of the film, "A League of Their Own."
Selig set out to teach history, but when his beloved Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta after the 1965 season, his quest was to bring Major League Baseball back to his hometown.
"History hangs by a very thin thread," he said. "The thing I'll always be proudest of is bringing baseball back to Milwaukee."
His pursuit of a team for Milwaukee began a career in baseball that would stretch from team ownership to 22 years as baseball's ninth Commissioner, during which he oversaw a transformation of the sport, highlighted by labor peace, economic reforms and competitive balance.
On his watch, Major League Baseball Advanced Media (BAM), which revolutionized how fans enjoyed the sport, was born, in addition to MLB Network, Wild Card berths, Interleague Play and a host of other innovations that resulted in attendance records and competitive balance.
Now, back to that 83rd birthday celebration. On Saturday, he thought back to an earlier one.
"The birthday I'll always remember is my mother took me to New York for my 15th birthday -- 1949," Selig said. "I'm finally in Yankee Stadium, 15 years old. Sitting in the upper deck. They roll out a birthday cake [on the field], and I say to my mother, 'You've embarrassed me.'
"I'm 15 years old. I think the world revolves around me. Why would I think differently? Guess what? It was Casey Stengel's birthday."
As Commissioner, he was on the stage for 22 induction ceremonies. On Sunday, he will be getting a plaque of his own from his successor, Rob Manfred.
"Last night at the party, the Hall of Famers were walking by," he said. "Oh my God, there's Jim Rice, there's George Brett, there's Robin Yount. I'm grateful. This is quite an experience.
"Every Hall of Famer was very warm. I know a lot of them extremely well. The first thing they said was, 'We're proud you're now part of the family.' I heard that over and over. In a great sense, I feel like I'm home."
As for his legacy, Selig is comfortable with it.
"I don't really have any regrets," he said. "We got pretty much done everything we set out to get done. When I think of what BAM is today, MLB Network, the growth in revenue, labor peace ...
"In the '90s, I took a lot of tough hits for things that have turned out pretty well. Now everybody likes 'em. I feel very comfortable about that.
"But the economic reformation of the game while I was Commissioner is overwhelming. There are owners like [Kansas City's] David Glass, who have said, 'If you hadn't done what you did in the '90s, we'd probably be out of business.'
"Don't misunderstand me. There were things that happened that I didn't like. There were things that were uncomfortable."
Among them: performance-enhancing drugs.
"The steroid thing, I'll be candid about that. This is a sport that had never had a drug-testing program. This is a sport that went through the cocaine era of the '80s and couldn't get a drug-testing program.
"To say that baseball turned a blind eye or was slow to react is just not true. It's a historical myth. This was a collectively bargained item. This was not something the Commissioner could do. Remember: I put in a Minor League testing program.
"Today, we have the toughest testing program in American sports and maybe in all of American business. I'm proud of what we've done. But it didn't come easy."
Selig is also blunt in discussing the 1994 player strike that resulted in cancellation of the World Series. He believes that baseball may not have reached the heights it has reached today without the pain of that last work stoppage.
"It was painful," Selig said. "I don't want to minimize that. It broke my heart. But it was a deeper problem. This was the eighth work stoppage we'd had. This was not a shocker. Things were troubling. The system was bad.
"You already had disparity settling in. That was a word we didn't use 10 years earlier. If you love history like I do, you say to yourself, here it is 23 years later. Maybe we almost had to go through that to get to where we are today. A lot of baseball people have said that to me.
"I think people learned something. I think we all understood we couldn't go on like that. Maybe that horribly painful, heartbreaking experience was worth it."
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.