Free Press special writer Bill Dow continues his “where are they now” series about former Detroit Tigers players, coaches and managers.
Today’s profile is on former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent:
How we remember him
Elected as the eighth MLB commissioner on Sept. 1, 1989, the attorney and Yale Law School graduate succeeded his close friend, Bart Giamatti, who died just five months into his term. As Giamatti’s deputy, the first in baseball history, Vincent played a pivotal role in the investigation of gambling allegations against Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time hits leader who agreed to a lifetime ban from the game. A month into his term, he was present on Oct. 17, 1989, during the massive San Francisco Bay area earthquake right before Game 3 of the World Series at Candlestick Park. The following year, he helped settle the labor dispute between MLB owners and players that ensured a full regular season. He later suspended Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for spying on his player, Dave Winfield, and oversaw the addition of two new National League teams, the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies.
Vincent resigned as commissioner on Sept. 7, 1992, precluding a potentially bitter legal battle with a majority of owners who wanted to remove him.
After his tenure
He became a private investor and the president of the New England Collegiate Baseball League and wrote his memoir, “The Last Commissioner: A Baseball Valentine,” published in 2002. He spearheaded the Baseball Oral History Project, and his countless videotaped interviews of former players from the 1930s to the 1980s can be viewed at the Baseball Hall of Fame. he also authored three books that contain highlights of the interviews.
Vincent, 82, lives in Vero Beach, Florida, with his wife, Christina. He has three children and five grandchildren.
On the Pete Rose scandal
“As Peter Ueberroth was finishing his term as commissioner, he was tipped off by Sports Illustrated that they were doing a story about a bookie who claimed Rose had bet on baseball. Bart and I were waiting in the wings to take over, so Peter asked us to get involved. He asked what we should do and I said, ‘ we can’t have SI do a story and not investigate it.’ I suggested we hire John Dowd, who I knew from his work at the Justice Department and who had investigated the mob. We called Rose to our office and he was present with his lawyer. There was a lot of jocular talk about baseball. Finally, I said, ‘Mr. Rose, everyone is having fun talking about baseball but I have a very important question to ask you. And no matter what your answer is we will have to investigate this. Have you ever bet on baseball as a manager or player?’ He said, ‘I’m not stupid. I’ve bet on horses, basketball and football, but I don’t bet on baseball.’ He was very convincing and we all believed him.
“John Dowd took off to Cincinnati to investigate. He called me and said, ‘Fay, I’ve only been here three days and the evidence is overwhelming that he bet on baseball.’ We were shocked. Rose was always in debt, borrowed money from the mob and was mobbed up, which was very scary. He was very vulnerable and there’s no telling what could have happened. They could have really squeezed him. The evidence was overwhelming and Rose accepted without a hearing that he be permanently ineligible with the right to apply for reinstatement. Eight days later, Bart Giamatti died of a massive heart attack and I took over as commissioner. I’m sure the Rose investigation helped play a role in Bart’s death with all the stress around that, but the central reality is that Bart was a five-pack-a-day smoker and did not take care of himself.”
The 1989 World Series
“I was standing, holding the railing to my field box before the game, and I heard this enormous roar. I looked up and thought somebody had engaged the Air Force to do a F-52 squadron flyover. I learned that when the ground moves it makes an enormous roar. I held onto the railing with both hands because I have a physical disability and felt the ground shake. Suddenly, a squad car came screaming out of the center field gate to me. This handsome, Black, 6-foot 2 man with high boots steps out and says, ‘Mr. Commissioner, I’m Commander Isiah Nelson in charge of security. We’ve had a major disaster so you need to cancel the game immediately because we need to get the people out of here safely. You need to stay right here and I am going to go around an announce to the crowd that you have canceled the game and to leave quietly. They will be looking at you and you have to stay visible. If you go into the dugout people will think you are running for the hills.’
“This was the first Bay series ever and people suggested it be moved to Anaheim. The Mayor of San Francisco gave me a lot of grief because he felt the Series should be delayed for weeks. I knew we couldn’t do that. I said if we stayed, it would provide the biggest message that the area was making a comeback. The safety people determined in just a few days that the ballparks and area were safe. Ten days later, we were able to resume the Series.”
1990 labor dispute
“The bigger franchises wanted to settle but the smaller market clubs like Bud Selig’s Brewers were hopeful that the union would give back concessions given to them over the years. I told them that the union does not trust you because you cheated the players by your collusion in agreeing not to sign free agents a few years ago. They did it and were given a $280 million judgment by an arbitrator (during Ueberroth’s tenure). I told them, ‘you wanted to break the union when you engaged in your price-fixing operation. You violated the collective bargaining agreement because you cheated. The Union has the upper hand and you’re stuck.’ To this day, Bud Selig says collusion never took place. But it was proven. The key evidence were notes taken by Phillies owner Bill Giles that were subpoenaed and turned over. Giles had written in his notes that White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf had called him and told him not to sign Tigers free agent Lance Parrish. I said on my watch that I will not allow the owners to collude. I was sitting in the stands one day and two owners were sitting behind me. These guys were talking about what a particular free agent should be paid. I turned around and said, ‘you dumb son of a bitches, here I am, the commissioner, and you are colluding literally right behind my back.’ I left baseball 28 years ago and the central reality of baseball’s current problems goes back to collusion.”
“The owners gave me an 18-9 no-confidence vote. Jerry Reinsdorf and Bud Selig were primarily behind it. The only time a no-confidence vote occurs is when an organization is reluctant to fire somebody. They voted no confidence because they didn’t have the balls to fire me because they knew I would beat them in court. I had a five-year agreement whose terms dates back to the first commissioner, Judge Landis. In essence, the contract says you cannot fire a commissioner during their term. I had hired Edward Bennett Williams and Brendan Sullivan to represent me and they assured me that I would win a case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. Ultimately, I told them I would not pursue the lawsuit because I would have to work every day for people who don’t want me. Essentially, they didn’t like me because they wanted to break the union and I told them that wasn’t going to happen because of collusion and that I was firmly committed to building a better relationship with the union over a long period of time. They tried to break the union two years later in 1994 with replacement players and it backfired. They also didn’t like my realignment plans.”
What he’s most proud in his tenure
“Not necessarily in this order, but I tried to represent the best parts of baseball to the best of my ability as commissioner and that I recognized the Black players from the Negro Leagues for the first time. We provided them with a pension, and health plan but they were dying at a very high rate. I also chaired the Committee with the Hall of Fame to start having the Black stars of that period inducted.”
The steroids era
“It was very unfortunate but, in some respects, I think Bud Selig gets a bad rap because the (players’) union simply would not allow any form of testing. On the other hand, the Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa home run title chase had a lot to rejuvenate baseball after the disaster of 1994 that was caused by Selig and Reinsdorf. The union knew that Sen. John McCain had the votes to pass legislation to straighten out the mess in baseball, so they gave in and that made the difference.”
The game today
“I’m not watching baseball now. I’m very disappointed. There are a number of players not playing and it is all geared to television. The absence of fans eliminates a lot of the excitement of the game. I like the sound of baseball. I don’t think silent movies are very attractive. I hope it passes quickly. I think the bigger concern is that the union and owners are still at loggerheads.”
Changes he’d like to see
“Baseball has to change. I like the idea of seven-inning games. Shorter is better. Given the pace of the game these days, I think starting a game at 7 or 9 and have it go until 11 p.m. is ridiculous. I also am concerned that young people are less engaged in large part because of the pace. I would take the union and some owners and go to MIT or Cal Tech and come up with a game that young people are going to be excited about. Who could be played at the same time the old fashioned game is being played. Kids could be at home and play against the real game and perhaps interact with the manager in the dugout. The future of baseball cannot be the technology of wooden bats, baseballs and leather gloves that came together in the 1900s. Technology is the key to the future of entertainment.”