The first Commissioner of Baseball, or any other sport, was Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. His name was the only good thing about him-- actually a possible second good thing about him was the fact that he eventually died, paving the way for the integration of baseball. As a federal judge, Landis jailed Wobblies, including Big Bill Haywood; he also managed to get Jack Johnson, an amazingly successful boxer and the first super-star black athlete, banned from boxing and sent to jail on a Man Act conviction for mailing his white girl-friend a railway ticket—these sterling credentials inspired the team owners of major league baseball to offer him a job cleaning up baseball in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal. Landis was only interested in accepting the gig if he was given sole authority over all aspects of organized baseball. The owners couldn’t see how they would make money selling tickets to games that were widely known to be fixed, so they agreed to Landis’ demands and the office of Commissioner of Baseball was formed.
Due to his racism, and the fact that anyone who jailed Big Bill Haywood is an official enemy of Sam’s Mets Blog, Landis goes down as a particularly offensive commissioner. However, the Commissioner is almost by necessity a son of a bitch. Chosen by the owners, they are charged with keeping the fans, players, owners, advertisers and broadcasters working together in something that does not deteriorate into chaos or harm the bottom line. The commissioner is a little man who sits behind a desk and pushes pencils; he is charged with making sure the athletes—the big, the strong, the fast, the wild and the stupid—follow the rules. It is our love of athletes that draws us to sport, and the little man behind the desk pushing them around becomes a son of a bitch by necessity.
Current baseball Bud Sielig actually did something that I approve of this week by deciding to follow Bonds until he hits his record breaking home run. I’m not that big of a Bonds fan, and am not untroubled by his legacy, but it’s the damn home run record and Seilig’s the damn commissioner, so the guy might as well be there. It took Sielig long enough to decide to go, that his uncertainty about it allowed him to accuse Bonds implicitly, without actually coming out and making an accusation: exactly the sort of miserable, gutless behavior that is pretty much required of any commissioner. I hope that Bonds goes into a vicious slump that coincides with a hellish heat waive and that Bonds and Seilig both spend all of August sweating in ballparks and accomplishing nothing.
Anyway, it’s Basketball Commissioner David Stern who is really pissing me off this week. Recently it was revealed that one of the officials, Tim Donaghy, was a compulsive gambler, with mob connections, who had been betting on games that he officiated and making calls to alter them. I spent most of the winter listening to NBA fans crying about how poorly officiated the games were and how disgustingly little the league was doing about it. I was never really sure if they had a point, but they did. As Basketbawful (a good read and an inspiration to start this blog) points out, this proves that the officiating in the league in general is so god damn bad that a cheating, gambling, psychopath can fit right in with all the other crummy officiating: the NBA never found out about the guy, until the FBI filled them in. What makes this completely frustrating is that the David Stern regime has routinely sided with officials against players. It is important to understand that in basketball this has an overtone that is not quite present in other sports: an integral part of the spectacle of the NBA game is watching the large black men at the mercy of the calls and whistles of the officials, who tend to be shorter and whiter than the players that they adjudicate.
In an insultingly irrelevant press conference, Stern, however, admits no responsibility for any of this, and acknowledges no larger crisis in the league’s officiating. Instead, he wastes everyone’s time by describing the (obviously completely worthless) methods that they had in place to ensure that the thing that had already happened wouldn’t happen.
COMMISSIONISTIC FOOTNOTE: For the first years of his job, Sielig was the acting Commissioner and not the official one, which meant that the position was technically vacant. The owner of the Texas Rangers, a one George W. Bush, spent a fair amount of time angling for the job. The corollary to this little factoid seems to be the old ‘what if Hitler had been a successful painter? Would he have just done that with his life, and never been a dictator?’ question, which was the very debate that inspired a high school history teacher of mine to curtly tell the class that hypothetical history was a waste of everyone’s time. But would a country that at least felt like a democracy and wasn’t involved in pointless, murderous wars be worth living in if baseball had been reduced to a miserable, totalitarian travesty? Would I be willing to make that trade-off? Yes, yes I would.