MILWAUKEE — It is surely one of Milwaukee’s few lakefront office suites where a water view is relegated to a supporting role. To see Lake Michigan from there, you must first navigate Bud Selig’s baseball museum.
A bench made of bats and bases. A 75th birthday poster scrawled on by the likes of Berra and Brock and Feller and Killebrew. Brewers memorabilia galore, a Joe DiMaggio magazine cover, a painting of Robin Yount, a Joe Morgan jersey, a wall for Jackie Robinson. A vast rug of a baseball, complete with Selig’s signature.
You will eventually reach Selig himself — the former baseball commissioner who, at one time or another, and maybe all at once, you perhaps thought revived baseball, ruined baseball and epitomized whatever could be good and bad about baseball. There he was this week, 87 years old, still watching the sport that is no longer his problem but remains his obsession.
“There’s just something about the game that has fascinated me all my life,” he said on Thursday, his eyes seemingly darting every few seconds to the White Sox-Astros game and his voice sometimes calling the action between sips of Diet Coke.
“For its flaws,” he said, “it’s still the best game in the world.”
Plenty of reminders of the game’s history in Milwaukee are turning up here now. The Braves — Milwaukee’s former franchise — and the Brewers — the local club since 1970 — will have their inaugural postseason meeting on Friday, when they will begin a National League division series. Forty years ago this week, the Brewers made their playoff debut. The legacy of Henry Aaron, who died this year and was beloved in Atlanta and Milwaukee as a Brave and a Brewer, lurks.
And, like it or not, so does Selig’s.
Before his 22-plus years leading Major League Baseball, he brought baseball back to Milwaukee and kept a small-market franchise afloat during a wholly different economic era for the sport. He helped protect clubs like Milwaukee while he was in office. Now commissioner emeritus, the role baseball bestowed upon his retirement in 2015, Selig said he talks with the Brewers’ current owner, Mark Attanasio, just about every day during the season.
He chats with fans, eyeballs a dozen or so games a night during the regular season, and manages to, in equal parts, revere where the sport is at and gripe over it. (“I can live with it,” the Hall of Famer said with a hint of ruefulness as he contemplated his recent acceptance of how extra innings now begin with a runner on second base.)
It turns out that the life of a former commissioner who cannot quite step away from it all can mimic, say, that of a former president: sustained service as part landmark, part mascot, part counselor, part legacy polisher.
Approaching seven years out of office, Selig knows arguments linger over where fault lines of blame should run on everything from the work stoppage that killed the 1994 World Series to the steroids that gave the game a reputation as a haven for cheaters.
On Thursday, as in his 2019 memoir, he defended his record. The players’ union, he insisted as usual, was very often the problem, not baseball’s owners or the commissioner they empowered.
“I know what people have said, and now that I’m a history professor, I watch people try to revise history and I’m fascinated by it,” said Selig, whose days include teaching a seminar, “Baseball and Society Since World War II,” at the University of Wisconsin, his alma mater.
(A 2007 report about steroids in baseball, commissioned by M.L.B. and prepared by former Senator George J. Mitchell, concluded that the “effect of the Players Association’s opposition was to delay the adoption of mandatory random drug testing” for nearly two decades, but that there had been “a collective failure to recognize the problem as it emerged and to deal with it early on.”)
Drug use has faded as an overwhelming crisis for M.L.B., but the grab-bag of troubles before Commissioner Rob Manfred can seem familiar to the one Selig had in his day.
The collective bargaining agreement is scheduled to expire on Dec. 1, and questions are swirling over when a new deal might come to fruition. There is the persistent riddle over how to make a slow-paced sport appealing in a speeding-up world. The postseason’s size, which could affect revenues and season length, is up for discussion, with many people anticipating that it will expand from the 10-team format Selig built to a 14- or 16-team design.
In public, at least, Selig is largely keeping his thoughts to himself and expressing confidence in Manfred.
“I used to hate when other people expressed opinions without studying it,” Selig said in response to an inquiry about postseason expansion. “I like this system the way it is. If somebody has a better system, fine. I think this has worked great.”
He was far less guarded about the grief of this year.
Selig had just gone for his first dose of a coronavirus vaccine on a Friday in January, when, around 9 a.m., his cellphone rang. In hindsight, he said, he should have realized something would be wrong when he answered.
Aaron had died.
Selig’s twice-a-week conversation partner of decades was gone 47 years after Selig had orchestrated Aaron’s return to Milwaukee, and long after, Aaron would note, how a Black child from Alabama and a Jewish boy from Milwaukee had grown up to become two of baseball’s most influential figures.
“I miss him a lot,” Selig, who called Aaron by his given name instead of “Hank,” said between pauses. “We’d talk about everything. There are times we’d go back and talk about the ’57 Braves and how they beat the Yankees and this guy and that guy.”
A few more pauses.
“It’s been a void,” he said finally, “a void in my life.”
Aaron, he said, would have surely found thrills in the series between Atlanta and Milwaukee. And while Selig, who does just about nothing to disguise his delight that he can now openly cheer for the Brewers again, said he does not go to the ballpark as often anymore, he planned to attend Games 1 and 2 before the series’ move to Atlanta on Monday.
He would not predict an outcome, save this one: “This club goes as far as pitching takes it.”
Much like, he suggested, the 1982 Brewers who reached, but lost, the World Series in seven games against St. Louis.
Even now, he is still rattling through the roster, still thinking back to Milwaukee’s biggest moments, still selling baseball in a place that both loves the game and exposes its fragility.
The 1982 Brewers were “a wonderful team, it was a great year,” he said to start a monologue not long after one of his routine visits to Milwaukee’s oldest custard stand. “Not that I’m a poor loser, but if we don’t lose Rollie Fingers, we beat the Cardinals in ’82, and there’s no doubt about that; I even got Whitey Herzog to admit that at one point. But it is what it is. When you think of that team, there were great days here in Milwaukee. We had five Hall of Famers on that team. Think about that: Yount, Molitor, Sutton, Simmons and Fingers; that’s pretty good.”
He keeps going, of course, because the topic, all of the decades later, is baseball in Milwaukee.