(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
Twenty-three years ago today, Major League Baseball's owners passed a vote of no confidence against then league commissioner Fay Vincent by a margin of 18-9, with one abstention. After initial protests, Vincent resigned within the week. "I cannot govern as commissioner without the consent of owners to be governed," he said in a press conference, and made one final invocation of the "best interests of baseball" before his departure. He was replaced by Allan H. "Bud" Selig, who despite an interim title went on to hold the office for the next 22 years.
"People have said, 'You're the last commissioner,'" Vincent told the New York Times following his resignation. "Well, if I'm the last commissioner, that's a sad thing." Although Selig and now Rob Manfred have held the title, the idea of an objective and neutral commissioner acting solely "in the best interests of baseball"—something championed by Vincent and overly imaginative sportswriters—has vanished. Sports commissioners always have been glorified CEOs, acting at the behest of league owners and beholden to the bottom line. Vincent's inglorious departure killed the possibility that it could ever be otherwise.
Indeed, Vincent's fatal flaw as commissioner was his penchant for acting in the interests of fairness rather than the interests of his employers. He had the audacity to admit to collusion by the owners in the 1980s, in which they stole upwards of $280 million—the settled amount—through an agreement not to sign players to long, lucrative free-agent contracts. He helped broker a deal following the 1990 lockout in which the minimum salary was raised from $68,000 to $100,000. Worst of all, he treated the Major League Baseball Players Association as partners in the enterprise rather than an enemy to be broken.
No matter how much sports commissioners bluster about putting the game first, that isn't their actual job. "It's always amazed me that so few baseball writers have grasped this obvious fact," former MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller wrote in his autobiography, A Whole Different Ball Game, "opting instead for a romantic view of the commissioner as some kind of Socrates or Solomon whom baseball people flock to for an objective view of a current crisis. The owners select the commissioner and pay his salary, and they do not pay him to be objective."
Selig remained baseball's acting commissioner for nearly six years; when he took the office for good in July 1998, he acknowledged the evolution of the role. "A commissioner is not czar sitting above the law," Selig told the Associated Press, referencing the original title offered to Kenesaw Mountain Landis following the Black Sox Scandal and a common shorthand for the role in the press. "Yes, a commissioner has a lot of power, but it must be confined to certain areas." Those areas, judging from Selig's tenure, in which he attempted to break the players union and imposed restriction after restriction on player spending, are keeping renegade (or worse, spendthrift) owners and the players in line.
The Associated Press's Ronald Blum described Commissioner Selig as a "vote-counter" who would "rule by consensus." Indeed, following the highly public labor strife in sports from the 1960s through the 1980s—a period in which the NFL went through two lockouts and three strikes, to go with the four strikes and two lockouts in MLB—it would have been difficult enough to convince the public that an owner's man was neutral. Convincing the public, much less the union, that an actual owner like Selig would act in the players' interest would have been impossible.
Thus, Selig dropped the pretense and went to work. He was effective. The players were receiving roughly 50 percent of baseball-related income in 1996. By the time Selig retired, in 2014, that number had dropped to 38 percent. For his bosses, the owners, that's more than worth a canceled World Series, a tied debacle of an All-Star game, a gigantic performance-enhancing drug scandal, and the rest of the road bumps in Selig's tenure. Selig set the stage perfectly for Rob Manfred, MLB's COO and one of its titled executives for nearly two decades, to come in and run baseball like the business it so nakedly is.
We have seen this trend across sports. David Stern, Adam Silver, Roger Goodell, and Gary Bettman aren't czars; they're business executives. Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said as much about Manfred when he was appointed. "I think Commissioner Selig was granted, appropriately, extraordinary powers," Werner told the Boston Globe. "The next iteration would be more like a CEO reporting to an executive council." These new commissioners are nothing but managers, tasked with keeping their leagues' noses clean while finding ways to suck up every last piece of revenue they can from players, taxpayers, and any other source they can find. In that sense, perhaps Vincent really was the last commissioner, aspiring to something different. Now, at least, we know exactly which side our commissioners are on.