We’ve just selected Judge Landis as the second Pioneer/Executive member of the Hall of Miller and Eric. It’s as good a time as any to consider what makes a league executive potentially worth of our brand of recognition.
When it comes to league-level execs, we’re in something of a minefield. As you know from just about every other article we’ve ever written, we seek objectivity as much as we are able. As part of our understanding of baseball’s history, we tend to rely on what’s measurable as much as we can. With league executives, we can’t measure much. League attendance figures? Lots of noise, not much signal. Team by team franchise values? Awfully hard to find before recent memory and lacking a lot of signal as well.
So we must turn to narrative, and we must weigh achievements that come from meeting rooms and fountain pens against those that we can measure. The case of Judge Landis provides some helpful insight into how this works. In essence, we elected Landis because he saved the major leagues. That’s a pretty big deal. It’s entirely possible that a commissioner with a weaker spine would have failed to root out gambling from the game. Landis recognized immediately that it was better, nay necessary, to err on the side of ruthlessness. To say that gambling was a cancer or virus on the game is apt. If Landis tossed someone out for suspected gambling who was innocent, this was far better than allowing one rogue cell to stay in the game and spread the sickness again. His plan worked. He didn’t pull a James Buchanan and “meh” the league into complete turmoil.
Now we might dicker over his legacy. He was against farm systems, and he was immovable on the race question. But consider that the 1919 fix called into question whether the pitch-by-pitch integrity of any given game could be saved, and Landis’ achievement is obvious.
So when we talk about league executives, we need to consider first whether the implications of their actions are still felt today. With the executive elections that we’ll be rolling out over the next weeks, this will be clear. We might categorize those who receive strong consideration this way:
- people who created conditions under which the game could flourish
- people who saved the game in a time of potentially fatal peril
- people whose sparked spectacular growth.
An even simpler definition: Those without whose vision or achievements we couldn’t imagine the game today.
We must take care, of course, to look critically at what’s been written about the men in the league-executive category. With precious little objective information to counterbalance the narrative, we must remember that the winners write history, and that everyone loves a winner.
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What roles fit under the category of league executives? Evidently we believe that commissioners do. Similarly, league presidents, especially before Bud Selig consolidated power under MLB’s home office. There are a couple other categories, however, that make sense in this catchall bucket. Baseball’s union leaders are the most obvious. But are also some insiders who are outsiders. The Spinks, for example, owner/operators of The Sporting News, who not only ran baseball’s paper of record but were also frequently consulted by league officials when issues were afoot.
Things get a little hazy when we talk about people such as Bill James, Sean Forman (founder of BBREF, not eligible but helpful as an example), David Smith (founder of Retrosheet), and SABR founder Bob Davids.
James is clearly not a league executive, and as a consultant, it’s not clear he’s a team executive. As a writer, of course, he’s not an executive. In reality, we’d probably call him a Pioneer. Forman (when he becomes eligible) is an executive in the same way the Spinks are, with one big difference: He has no ties to MLB. He could certainly be a Pioneer for making data accessible, but there’s a way to see him as exec as well. Similar claims can be made for Smith and Davids, both executives, neither officially linked to MLB.
But other than Pioneer, we have no place to stick them, which makes it a little harder to compare them against other candidates. Or maybe not. Maybe I just like to categorize stuff.
So it’s pretty simple, really. Did the executive do something hugely important, and can we substantiate that contribution well? If so, he’s got legs as a candidate. Because, to be honest, neither Miller nor I thinks a strong league balance sheet is enough. Baseball, for us, is bigger than the money.