This week Commissioner Bud Selig announced that he would exercise his reserved power to save a baseball club from its owner. The Los Angeles, nee Brooklyn, Dodgers have been part of organized baseball for over 120 years. The club has persevered through thick and thin (mostly thin), although its legions of devoted fanatics never lost faith -- at least until the dreadful divorce of Frank and Jamie McCourt which led to the current downward spiral. The press has detailed the financial morass of the franchise, including most recently a personal loan to McCourt from Fox estimated at $30 million. Most of the information about the financial condition of the club has become public as a result of the matrimonial dispute.
Selig announced: "I have taken this action because of my deep concerns regarding the finances and operations of the Dodgers and to protect the best interests of the club, its great fans and all of Major League Baseball. My office will continue its thorough investigation into the operations and finances of the Dodgers and related entities during the period of Mr. McCourt's ownership."
Major League Baseball will likely appoint an experienced baseball executive to monitor all significant financial expenditures of the club in the short term, and Frank McCourt has threatened to pursue legal action to thwart the commissioner's takeover. He will not be the first owner to test the commissioner's unique fiduciary powers, and he will not be the first to lose in court. "The best interest of the national game of baseball" clause is part of the Major League Agreement which McCourt signed. It was intended to apply in situations just like this one -- although admittedly divorce proceedings do not usually sink a franchise. That normally is the result of poor pitching and an anemic offense.
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was baseball's first commissioner, an autocrat of the first order. The club owners sought Landis' leadership to guide them out of a scandal of major proportions. Eight ballplayers with the Chicago White Sox (later generally referred to as the "Black Sox") had colluded with rogue gamblers, backed by New York mobster Arnold Rothstein, to throw the 1919 World Series. When the perfidy was revealed, baseball knew that the crisis risked losing the public's affection and patronage during the post-war years.
Landis agreed to take charge, but only if he were given absolute and unreviewable powers. (He had wanted to be called the "High Commissioner," the title the British applied to their colonial officials. He had to settle for mere "Commissioner.") The club owners bestowed upon him, as a federal court later said, "all the attributes of a benevolent, but absolute, despot." Landis proceeded to ban the eight Black Sox from baseball for life, despite the fact that they had been acquitted by a Chicago jury. He later banned other players and club officials involved in what he considered shady activities. Landis would rule the game with an iron fist until his death 25 years later.
Bud Selig is not Judge Landis, and sports fans should be pleased he does not share the judge's arrogance and swagger. (It was said of Judge Landis that he was the only person who could "strut sitting down.") Yet Selig has exercised the powers of the commissioner when it appeared warranted. Maintaining the fiscal soundness of the game must be the commissioner's primary focus. All thirty clubs depend upon the commissioner to make sure there are uniform and sound business rules and practices. He has not been quick on the draw, however. For example, the ownership of the New York Mets currently faces significant fiscal challenges (not to mention real problems on the field), but Selig has stayed his hand. He could not wait, however, for the McCourt matrimonial brawl to further damage one of the sport's premier franchises.
The commissioner's trustee will operate the Dodgers ballclub and seek a market price to sell the business. There are likely to be many folks who would want to purchase a piece of this storied franchise. In the meanwhile, the many fans of Dodger Blue will have some comfort in knowing that the "best interests of the game" are being protected.
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