Regardless of the sport and the general condition of it, finding calls for the commissioner of said sport to be fired -- from a cannon! -- are distinctly unchallenging to find. Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is, quite conspicuously, no exception to this.
So what would it take for these waking dreams to be realized, for Manfred to be given the bum's rush out of This, Our Baseball? The terse answer is that it's not going to happen, at least not any time soon. The longer answer -- the kind of answer that lends itself to 1,500 words of web-based copy -- involves looking backward to prior holders of the office.
Manfred is the 10th commissioner of baseball, so it's perhaps instructive to note what became of past commissioners -- i.e., how they came to no longer be commissioners. Of the nine non-Manfred MLB pit bosses, two died in office -- Kenesaw Mountain Landis (served from 1921-44) and Bart Giamatti (1988-89) -- and another three stepped down of their own volition -- Ford Frick (1951-65), Peter Ueberroth (1984-88), and Bud Selig (acting commissioner from 1992-98, elected commissioner from 1998-2015). That leaves four commissioners who were in essence forced from the role.
Happy Chandler (1945-51) failed to secure a second term as commissioner largely because he too often put the interests of the players and the game itself ahead of those of the owners. As well, Chandler's support for integrating the major leagues put him at odds with most team owners of the day. Since the commissioner serves at the pleasure of the owners, it's prudent to make them happy. Chandler did not.
William Eckert (1965-68) seemed woefully miscast in the role and particularly for the challenges that greeted him during his tenure. Specifically, owners doubted that Eckert was a capable enough leader to keep in check the fledgling Players Association under Marvin Miller, and his handling of expansion was ham-fisted at best. That lack of confidence plus a number of public gaffes caused owners to force Eckert's resignation well before his term was up.
Eckert's successor, Bowie Kuhn (1969-1984), failed to secure a third term for an array of reasons. Chief among them were a 50-day players' strike during the heart of the 1981 season occurring on his watch, personal grievances with a number of owners whom Kuhn had disciplined during his time in office, and significant turnover within the ranks of ownership that whittled down his base of support.
Then comes Fay Vincent (1989-92). Vincent, who assumed office following the sudden fatal heart attack suffered by Giamatti, was eventually forced to resign by a healthy majority of team owners. While Vincent occasionally operated in an owner-accommodating manner, he also at times hewed toward what he thought was best for the game of baseball independent of other considerations. In 1990, for instance, he held a press conference after the owners voted to lock out the players and proposed ending the lockout in exchange for a "no strike" pledge from the union. Vincent made the bold offer without the consent of owners (or players, for that matter). Vincent also scolded the owners for, in essence, undertaking the lockout in a fit of pique over the hundreds of million of dollars they were forced to pay out because of collusion against free agents. As well, the ban he levied against Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, his initial opposition to the sale of the Seattle Mariners, and an attempt to mandate divisional realignment added to the perception among clubs that Vincent was exerting too much power. He paid for doing so.
At this point, it's worth revisiting a quote from Marvin Miller, the pioneering union head mentioned above, about the role of the commissioner:
"All commissioners are controlled by the owners (who) retain the real power. And every baseball commissioner must eventually learn that reality or find himself unceremoniously booted out of his job."
While the details and specific conditions change, this is the prevailing truth. In an ideal plane of existence, which this is demonstrably not, the commissioner would be a good-faith caretaker of the game. Things as they are, the commissioners with staying power are reliable valets to the interests of owners.
The most irrefutable evidence of this is that the most powerful commissioner since Landis, Bud Selig, was himself a team owner. When Selig succeeded the defenestrated Vincent in 1990 on an acting/interim basis, he was principal owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. He was still owner of the Brewers when he was unanimously voted as the permanent commissioner in July of 1998. At that point, Selig ceded control of the team but he did so to his daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb. It wasn't until 2004 that the Selig family sold the team to Mark Attanasio, the current Brewers owner.
Selig's apparent conflict of interest as owner-cum-commissioner wasn't really a conflict at all. At most, it was a shedding of pretenses. The commissioner's job is to make money for owners and do so while absorbing public criticism on their behalf. Occasionally, those duties align with a genuine caretaking of the game, but perhaps more often it lends itself to penny-wise-pound-foolish decision-making.
That, fittingly, brings us back to Manfred. The only way he could lose his job is by losing money for owners. There's a couple of paths toward such an outcome. One could be failing to maintain or even carve out new economic territory for the management side during the ongoing negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. The players are mobilized, unified, and armed with an aggressive wish list after years of seeing their share of revenues pruned down. It's possible they'll come away from the table with a win, provided they win what seems like the inevitable staredown -- i.e., a likely lockout by owners should no new agreement be reached by the time the current one expires on Dec. 1.
That said, Manfred has a post-Fay Vincent lack of autonomy as commissioner, and the idea that he'd force through an agreement that's not to the liking of most owners is far-fetched in the extreme (he also has an extensive background in labor negotiations, including during his time as one of Selig's lieutenants). You can bet anything Manfred does toward advancing an agreement will have the imprimatur of the owners upon it. Moreover, Manfred isn't even the lead negotiator for the club side. That's deputy commissioner Dan Halem. In that sense, there's a possible buffer between Manfred and accountability for any losses at the conference table.
The Kuhn model of losing the job suggests that a long and lacerating labor stoppage can undermine a commissioner. Even if that doesn't seem likely during the current CBA negotiations, such an outcome is within the range of possibilities. If that possible owner lockout becomes reality and drags on to the extent that the 2022 season is compromised, then blame will start to accrue. It's also not uncommon to see owners, in times of labor strife, balkanize into small-market and large-market factions. If that happens, then Manfred could see his support confined to one camp or wither across all interests. Given the long run of relative labor peace the sport has enjoyed, a protracted shutdown would probably chip away at Manfred's standing. Those, however, are all highly unlikely outcomes.
Longer term, the financial health of the sport becomes the driving concern. MLB remains highly profitable under Manfred, and during his tenure owners have realized revenues from spaces not directly related to the traditional game-day inflows (i.e., ticket sales, parking fees, concessions). That's allowed them to achieve impressive profitability without investing in payroll at high levels. That's bad for fans and players, but it's good for owners. And that, again, is what Manfred's job is -- do or abet things that put money in the pockets of owners. Laying aside the pandemic-afflicted 2020 season, Manfred has overseen strong growth, including topping $10 billion in annual revenues for the first time in league history.
What if that changes? What if all those local television contracts turn out to be a pop-able asset bubble? What if, thanks in part to declining action within the games themselves, baseball continues to lack much resonance with the coveted demographics? All of that would come back on Manfred, yes, but such a set of conditions would take years to materialize. By the time it does, Manfred, now 63, may have moved on to other things by choice, just like Frick, Ueberroth, and Selig.
What must be acknowledged is that Manfred began his reign on somewhat uncertain footing. Despite being Selig's hand-picked successor, Manfred received a stiff challenge from Red Sox chairman Tom Werner (an owner!). In the first contested ballot for commissioner in almost half a century, Manfred prevailed, but it took him a reported six ballots to reach the necessary 75 percent threshold of support. That's not a sturdy consensus for a new commissioner, but Manfred set about winning over the Werner camp, and following the 2018 season he was given a unanimously approved five-year contract extension. He either won over those holdouts or sufficiently trimmed their sails.
Take in the entire mosaic, and it's clear that Manfred has curried sufficient favor with those who will decide his fate as commissioner. That's why it's going to take one of the two unlikely scenarios laid out above -- labor calamity or a wide-ranging reversal of economic fortunes -- for Manfred's job to be imperiled.
The good news, though, is that the owners can't stop you from yelling about this matter. In that light, as you were.