In the Best Interests of Baseball?: A Book Review

Over the past few weeks our book has been reviewed a few times.  Having had our work reviewed, I thought I would give the book reviewing game a try.  Earlier I made mention of National Pastime, a book by Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist.  Today I would like to discuss Zimbalist latest book.

For the past fifteen years Zimbalist has written on the economics of sports.  In such classic books as Baseball and Billions, May the Best Team Win, Sports, Jobs, and Taxes (with Roger Noll), and Unpaid Professionals,  Zimbalist has brought the study of sports and economics to an audience beyond academia.  Although the books of Zimbalist have discussed college sports and soccer, it is baseball that he most frequently examines.  

As an academic Zimbalist has often scrutinized the decision-making of the powers-that-be in the baseball world.  And just as often he has called into question those decision-making powers.

One of his frequent targets has been Bud Selig.  As Major League Baseball’s long-time acting, and current commissioner, Selig has often been the face people associate with the problems in baseball. Perhaps the most infamous incident was the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, which came about due to a labor dispute handled — or mishandled depending on your perspective—by Selig.

Given the history between Zimbalist and Selig, when I picked up Zimbalist’s latest – In the Best Interests of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig – I expected to see sparks flying.  For 218 pages I expected Zimbalist to note each decision Selig had made in his reign and then a listing of reasons why this decision or that decision was not in the best interest of baseball.

That was my expectation, but that is not what this book is about.  This book tells the story of both the office of the baseball commissioner and the current occupant.  And surprisingly, Selig is generally painted in a positive light.

The story Zimbalist tells begins with the history of baseball’s commissioner.  For those interested in the history of the game, this is fascinating reading.  Why did baseball establish this institution?  Who were the people who occupied this office?  What challenges did these individuals face and how successful were these challenges met?  Over the first half of this book Zimbalist answers these questions and more.  As a person who loves history, I found the stories to be very interesting and essential to the story of Selig.  One cannot understand Selig’s role as commissioner without first understanding the history of the office.  So one can see why Zimbalist begins with these tales.

With the story of the institution established, Zimbalist turns to Selig.  And this is where the story becomes a bit odd.  There are two specific oddities that struck me as I read the Selig story.  First, it is quite clear that Zimbalist interviewed a large number of people in telling this story.  Why would that be odd?

Economist typically analyzes numbers in conducting our research.  What non-economists probably do not understand is that unlike other researchers in the social sciences (sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, etc…) economists do not typically collect the data they analyze.  For example, how can an economist collect data on a nation’s GDP?  No, numbers are provided to economists and then we use fairly sophisticated techniques to analyze this data. 

Given this approach, economists are not trained to interview people.  In fact, many economists do not seem trained to interact with the other members of the human race at all (okay, just a little joke there).  So it was surprising to see an economist write a book where interviewing other people was central to the story being told.

Beyond the use of many, many interviews is the picture Zimbalist paints of Selig.  Remember, Zimbalist and Selig have not historically seen eye-to-eye.  And Zimbalist notes this at the onset of the book. Zimbalist’s perspective on Selig, though, seems to have been changed in the course of writing the book.  Specifically, as Zimbalist came to understand how hard it is for Selig to lead owners with such disparate interests, he clearly became sympathetic with Selig’s plight. 

The story Zimbalist tells begins with Selig’s childhood, his move to save the Milwaukee Braves, his purchase of the Seattle Pilots and move of that franchise to Milwaukee, and then his rise in baseball’s governing hierarchy.  After this tale, one can see what motivates Selig and have some idea why he has made the choices he has made.

Now does one leave this book thinking Selig is without flaws?  No, Zimbalist still finds room to criticize Selig.  But one does get the sense that Zimbalist makes every effort to paint Selig as fairly as possible.In sum, I found Zimbalist’s latest to be an excellent book.  For those interested in how baseball has been historically operated, this is a must-read.

Let me add one final note.  Zimbalist is releasing a new book in September entitled: The Bottom Line: Observations and Arguments on the Sports Business.  For those keeping score, that is two Zimbalist books in one year.  I do not know any details on his second book of 2006, but it is impressive that one author could release two books in a single year.  Of course, now I have to read two books in a single year.  So my workload has clearly increased.  

— DJ