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Did Bud Selig and the strike usher in the Cardinals' golden era?

Since the Anheuser-Busch sale of the Cardinals, the organization has had incredible success. Would that have been possible without Bud Selig and the work stoppage in 1994?

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On Sunday, Bud Selig is finally stepping down as Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He steps down on a high note with revenues soaring and labor peace nearly twenty years long. However, when he took the job in 1992, baseball was staring down upcoming labor strife. What followed was a strike, then a cancelled World Series, and then a lockout before labor peace was achieved. The Cardinals had issues that paralleled those of the Commissioner, and Anheuser-Busch would sell the team after the 1995 season. The question I had was without Bud Selig as Commissioner, without the strike, would the Cardinals have been sold, and would this great era of baseball been possible without Selig and the stoppage.

In December 1995, Bill Dewitt, Jr. and company bought the Cardinals for $150 million form Anheuser-Busch, including two parking lots that the team sold for $100 million soon after. Admittedly,this is somewhat of a fantastical exercise. Perhaps the owners would have wanted a work stoppage in 1994, no matter who was commissioner. Perhaps Anheuser Busch was going to sell the team regardless of the strike, or perhaps they would have run the team the exact same way the current ownership group did. Everyone knows that the Cardinals were sold after the 1995 season. What this post presupposes is...maybe they didn't.

Bud Selig has been credited for labor peace over the past twenty years, but he is also partly responsible for lost 1994 season. He led the charge for ownership to try and break the union in 1994. As Craig Calcaterra put it:

We would not think much of labor peace - nor would it be as attainable - if Selig had not spearheaded the group of owners who (a) overthrew former commissioner Fay Vincent; (b) installed Selig in his place; and (c) declared war against the union and fomented the player's strike which cost us the 1994 World Series.

Selig was not just representative of ownership, but he was its leader, bearing great responsibility for the owners' plans in 1994. Fay Vincent had previously worked through a potential stoppage in 1990. Whether he would have done so again is unclear, but he was willing to negotiate. While it is easy to look back now at soaring revenues and profits that have far outpaced the gains in salary the players have achieved, the strike and subsequent lockout cost the owners millions of dollars. They were very responsible for those losses, but the decline in revenue was real.

Just one year after the missed World Series, Anheuser-Busch announced their intent to sell the team after suffering losses estimated at $20 million over the previous two labor-strife filled seasons.

"We have concluded that this is no longer a compatible fit," said John Jacob, the brewery's chief communications officer.

"St. Louis fans are the best in baseball. They have been generous in support of the Cardinals and indeed of Anheuser-Busch. It is is our objective that they continue to be able to enjoy Cardinals baseball well into the future," Jacob added.

The compatible fit between corporation and Cardinals when it existed was of course profits. The Cardinals stopped making them, and the company decided to sell. Without the strike, without Selig, the Cardinals might have remained profitable. If the franchise was still profitable, would the team have been sold? If Anheuser-Busch had remained owners, would they have operated the team in the same fashion?

The Cardinals foundation for success in the front office preceded the sale of the franchise. Often conveniently forgotten, at least by me, is that the Cardinals' present ownership group did not bring in Walt Jocketty or Tony La Russa. Jocketty was hired in 1994 and La Russa was brought in the following year just before the Cardinals were put on the block. Bernie Miklasz mentioned the brewery when La Russa was hired.

As a bonus, La Russa also made the Anheuser-Busch suits happy when he said, "I think our approach is going to be aggressive, try to improve the club, but use good sense . . . not every problem you have is answered with money."

Jocketty and La Russa had a termendous impact on the franchise, but they are not the sole reasons for the Cardinals success. Current ownership invested in the team, paying for Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds after Jocketty traded for them. They built a new stadium with much less public financing than most teams. They signed Albert Pujols to a $100 million deal. The Cardinals had salaries routinely near the top of major league baseball in the early 2000s, hitting $90 million a decade ago, before a handful of other teams have caught up, moving the Cardinals closer to the middle of the pack.

If Anheuser-Busch had not sold, it is not clear that they would have had the same commitment. They were motivated to sell by a lack of profits after the strike. That attitude could have trickled over to payroll if the Cardinals faithful had kept filling the seats. Would stadium negotiations have proven more difficult with the city? It is impossible to say exactly how the Cardinals would have been run, but corporate-run teams have not fared well of late.

In the interestingly-titled, "Can Corporate Ownership Save Baseball?", Forbes believed that corporate ownership was good for baseball, citing the Cubs seventh highest payroll under the Tribune Company and noting the spending of the Dodgers and Angels while they were owned by News Corp. and Disney. Hindsight was not helpful to this article. The Cubs were sold for nearly a billion dollars and are about to spend like crazy now that they are not owned by a corporation. The Dodgers now have the highest payroll in baseball and the playoff appearances to go along with it. The Angels have been big spenders since Arte Moreno came to town. The closer:

Major League Baseball, meanwhile, remains a thoroughly unregulated and undisciplined league. General managers hand out comically large salaries and pass the price on to ticket holders. If the salaries fail to result in a competitive team, the fans stop coming. That's probably why a team like the Yankees lost money last year, despite their enormous attendance and television revenues. And for smaller-market teams with little competitive mobility, more corporate-style ownership may be just what the doctor ordered.

Leaving aside whether the Yankees actually lost money, the piece misunderstands a few important ways that baseball works. General managers do not hand out salaries. Owners hand out the salaries. They do not pass the price on to ticket holders. Teams charge what they can, and then pass some of their revenue on to players. A small sidenote: the four teams he mentions with corporate ownership at that time have not won a playoff series since the article came out eight years ago. The reason for the article above was Liberty Media's purchase of the Braves. The corporate ownership under the Braves has meant stagnating payroll and moving the team out of the city and into the suburbs, leaving a stadium less than 20 years old.

Fast-forward 20 years from the Cardinals' sale, and we have seen the Cardinals make four World Series and win two championships. The team has been continually competitive. Bud Selig has called St. Louis the "best baseball city" and Bill Dewitt has returned the love, calling Selig the greatest Commissioner baseball has seen. That is no surprise, considering the Cardinals were purchased right after Selig's greatest blunder, and the Dewitts' ownership has seen nothing but soaring revenues over the last two decades.

The current ownership tenure has not come without criticism, but the results on the field for Cardinals' fans have been incredible. It is possible it would have happened with different ownership, but it is not all that likely. It's possible that this incredible run was based partly on Bud Selig and the rest of the owners banding together, eventually leading to a strike, a cancelled World Series, and some small doubts from a corporate ownership group that baseball would be profitable. But maybe not. Enjoy your retirement, Commissioner Emeritus Allan Huber "Bud" Selig.