Zimbalist outlines in great detail the most significant decisions made by the commissioners over the years, including Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis' banishment of the eight White Sox players who allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series, Happy Chandler's support of Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball in 1947 even though the owners had voted 15-1 against it, Bart Giamatti's lifetime suspension of Pete Rose for gambling and Selig's ascension from owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.
"What I'm trying to understand here is what it is to be commissioner," said Zimbalist. "I wanted to know the constraints on the commissioner, how the commissioner perceives the problems in the game. And once he perceives a problem, how does he go about resolving it?
"I decided that nobody had really looked at this carefully enough and so I spoke to (MLB president and COO) Bob DuPuy and asked him if it was something that baseball would potentially find interesting and whether they would cooperate with me. He said he would love to help me out and set up interviews with him and Commissioner Selig. I really had fun writing the book."
Zimbalist delves into the psyche of the various commissioners, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each and discussing their impact on the game.
Landis, baseball's first commissioner -- whose 23 years in office is the longest tenure of any to hold the position -- helped restore the game's reputation following the Black Sox scandal. But according to Zimbalist, Landis' strong, southern-bred feelings toward black ballplayers helped keep them out of Major League Baseball.
Ford Frick, the former baseball writer and National League president who was reluctant to be commissioner, helped the game grow by allowing struggling franchises like the Boston Braves and St. Louis Browns to move to Milwaukee and Baltimore, respectively. Frick also greatly expanded baseball's reach by helping the Dodgers and Giants move to the West Coast. Yet, history also remembers him as the commissioner who tried to protect the legacy of his old friend Babe Ruth by making a distinction between Ruth's 154-game single-season home run record of 60 and Roger Maris' 61 homers, which he hit during a 162-game schedule in 1961.
Zimbalist carefully documents the evolution of the commissioner's position from one of unchallenged authority and independence in the early days to the current CEO model. The monumental changes the game has undergone during Selig's reign, such as revenue sharing, Interleague play, Wild Card playoff berths and the implementation of a substantive drug policy, represent the core of the book.
"If you look back at the last 14 years in baseball, you see a revolutionary transformation in how baseball conducts itself as a business," said Zimbalist, who lauded Selig for the creation of MLB Advanced Media, the parent company of MLB.com. "I was initially very critical of the owners in 1992 when they made one of their own the commissioner. It set up potential conflicts of interest. But in hindsight, I think it was a statement by the owners that they wanted to have a CEO and operate as a business.
"I think Selig has introduced that era into baseball. He had been an owner since 1970 and had gotten to know all the other owners. He's a very social and garrulous fellow who talks and talks, but is also willing to listen to people. So he single-handedly was at the management vortex of baseball even before he became commissioner. He was on all the committees and involved in all the decision-making, and was constantly talking to all the owners. I point to some places where I think he made missteps -- so I don't think he's been perfect -- but if you take the long view of the last 14 years, there has been a revolutionary transformation of the game and by and large it has been for the better."
One of the most significant gains for Selig during his tenure, Zimbalist writes, was the collective-bargaining agreement reached with the players union under threat of a work stoppage in 2002:
"Put all the salary restraints together and the owners appear to have scored a significant collective-bargaining victory in the 2002 accord. Indeed, Selig, for the first time, began to speak about baseball having an economic system that works. Thus, even though the competitive balance goal may remain elusive, the financial stability of the system has been strengthened."
Communication between the Commissioner's office and the owners is a key theme throughout the book. Chandler's defiance of the owners in regard to Robinson helped hasten his exit from the job. Frick, Bowie Kuhn, Peter Ueberroth and Fay Vincent all had well-documented rifts with ownership during their terms.
Zimbalist, who spent a great deal of time interviewing Selig, DuPuy, Vincent and other executives in and around baseball, hopes his book sheds more light on the complicated decisions that go into running one of the most tradition-rich sports in the world.
"I hope the reader gets an appreciation of what the job is, what it means to govern a sports league and what are the different kinds of challenges," said Zimbalist. "I also want readers to understand the personalities of the commissioners -- who they were and how they came to be commissioners."
"In the Best Interests of Baseball?: The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig" is published by John Wiley & Sons publishing and is in bookstores now.