COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – As Bud Selig delivered his Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech Sunday afternoon, many of his friends and family were sitting front and center among the sizable crowd.
Seated on stage behind Selig was his new, extended family – those already admitted into the most exclusive club in baseball, including some of the greatest players in the game’s history. For someone whose path began as an excitable, avid young fan, it couldn’t have been more satisfying.
“This weekend, every Hall of Famer has been so warm with me,” Selig said before the ceremony at the Clark Sports Center. “I’ve known a lot of them for years, of course. The first thing they said was, ‘We’re proud that you’re now part of the family.’
“I heard that over and over again. In a great sense, I feel like I’m home.”
In his speech, Selig acknowledged those members of his new baseball family who traveled from far and wide to pay tribute to the new five-member class of inductees.
“I am honored to be in your presence,” said Selig, who was inducted on his 83rd birthday, the only Hall of Famer ever to go in on the date he was born. “On your shoulders, this game became part of the fabric of our country, and we are forever indebted to you.”
Selig was one of five inductees in the Class of 2017, joining longtime club executive and friend John Schuerholz as well as three former players, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez.
During his 22 years as commissioner of baseball, Selig participated in every induction ceremony, handing out bronze plaques to honorees. On the receiving end of baseball immortality this time, he admitted the feeling was profoundly different.
“Now, as I stand here at this moment, I am humbled,” he said in his speech. “I am deeply honored to receive baseball’s highest honor. I stand here amongst many friends, including the great Henry Aaron, my friend of 59 years, and one of the best and most decent and dignified people I have ever known."
Later, in a media session after the ceremony, Selig admitted to being nervous on stage, though he said that wasn't the reason he dropped his speech momentarily before making a quick recovery.
"Everybody kept asking me how I felt," he said. "I've given thousands of speeches, in all kinds of circumstances. I kept trying to insist I wasn't nervous but I was tense. I know that doesn't make a lot of sense but I made myself feel better.
"I wanted, in a short period of time, to really illustrate what had gone on for the last 22 or 23 years. I hope I did that. I keep using the word but I'll say again it was overwhelming. Was I nervous? Yeah, now I'll admit, I was nervous."
The theme of Selig’s 18-minute-plus speech, which took 32 drafts to construct to his satisfaction with outside help, was “a great journey,” and his life in baseball certainly qualified. The official start of that journey came when Selig spearheaded efforts to return baseball to his hometown after the Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta following the 1965 season.
Despite his many accomplishments as commissioner, Selig has been unwavering that bringing the Brewers to Milwaukee out of bankruptcy in Seattle is the feat of which he is most proud.
“I made it my mission, my quest, and I devoted five long years in a relentless effort,” he said. “And that day when the Brewers arrived, March 31, 1970, will forever be one of the proudest days of my life.”
Selig paid tribute to three renown members of the Brewers who preceded him into the Hall of Fame – Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Rollie Fingers. Yount and Molitor, who couldn’t attend the ceremony because he was managing the Minnesota Twins in a weekend series in Oakland, were inducted representing the Brewers. Fingers went in representing the Athletics but finished his great career in Milwaukee.
“Robin and Rollie and Molly represented the Brewers in so many ways,” Selig said in his speech. “You three were more than just players to me and the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin. You are forever etched in the minds of Brewers fans. You are forever etched in the journey of my life.”
Selig also took time to acknowledge the man who bought the Brewers in 2005, Mark Attanasio, saying, “The Brewers and their fans throughout Milwaukee and Wisconsin are in good hands.”
Selig noted the turbulent times after he became interim commissioner in 1992 and the bitter labor wars that followed. The game was shut down two years later, leading to cancellation of the World Series, and Selig portrayed the game as a deeply divided civil war.
“Everywhere you turned, there was rancor and adversity,” he said. “Big markets versus small markets; American League owners versus National League owners; and worst of all, owners versus players. We were a game stuck neutral.
“We went through a terribly painful period to institute a new economic system. The 1994 strike was the most painful experience of my life.”
Under Selig’s guidance, the game shifted out of neutral to drive, then later to overdrive. Labor peace was achieved and there have been no more work stoppages. Revenue sharing helped smaller markets such as Milwaukee get their heads above water and paved the way for many initiatives that grew the game, such as expanded playoffs, interleague play and the World Baseball Classic.
“Success comes from working together,” he said. “The unprecedented success we have achieved over these past 25 years has come from ending the divide, from building harmony, and from working as one for the good of the game.”
Selig mentioned the one period for which he has received the most criticism of his commissionership – the so-called “Steroid Era” in which performance-enhancing drugs led to nearly superhuman offensive exploits. But, under advice from current baseball officials, he did not dwell on that topic.
“We desperately needed a drug-testing program, and we had to work together to get it done,” said Selig, who off stage reminded reporters that the program had to be collectively bargained with the players association, which for years fought testing.
“While the process was more difficult and time-consuming than I would have liked, in the end, baseball and the players association developed a program that is the gold standard for sports and business alike.”
Selig paid tribute to many baseball figures who have passed on, including bombastic New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
“We never agreed on anything in 40 years but we remained great friends during that entire time,” Selig said. “And he was incredibly cooperative during my tenure as commissioner.”
Selig acknowledged what he called “the single most important day in baseball history,” April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the game’s color barrier. On that date 50 years later, Selig announced as commissioner that Robinson’s No. 42 would be retired permanently to honor his legacy.
At the end of his speech, Selig feted family members, past and present. Of wife Sue, he said, “She has been an extraordinary partner and helpful in every way.”
He paid tribute to his parents, Ben and Marie, who not only allowed his passion for baseball but nurtured and fostered it.
“If they were here today, they would be proud of this journey,” he said.
Selig concluded his remarks by repeating a closing line from a speech he gave at an awards dinner of baseball writers in New York City a few years back.
“That night, I said, ‘What you have seen here are a little boy’s dreams that came true,’” Selig said. “Thank you for this magnificent honor.”
The inductees were not shown their plaques in advance, and Selig was asked later if receiving his made it finally hit home that he indeed was going into the Hall of Fame.
"I had given them out for 22 years, and here I was getting one," Selig said. "It was quite a feeling. I kept drinking water to make sure this was all happening, to make sure my system was still functioning.
"It's an overpowering feeling."
The previous day, Selig was asked to recall fond birthdays from his past. He talked about his 15th, when his mother took him to New York to see a Broadway play and a game between the Indians and Yankees. Selig laughed about having the audacity of youth to think a birthday cake being rolled onto the field for New York manager Casey Stengel was actually for him.
But, he agreed after the ceremony there would be no surpassing birthday No. 83.
"My mother was really the one who got me interested in baseball," he said. "My 15th birthday was just an amazing experience. But nothing can top this. I don't know what else to say other than it's a remarkable human experience."
Inscription on Selig’s plaque:
Allan Huber Selig
Commissioner from 1992 to 2015, the first seven years in acting capacity, before being formally named by unanimous vote among all 30 owners in 1998. Presided over an era of vast change to the game, on the field, while extending its breadth and depth off of it. Fostered an unprecedented stretch of labor peace, introduced three-division play and expanded the postseason. Under his leadership, umpiring was centralized and replay review was established. Celebrated the national pastime’s pioneering diversity by universally retiring Jackie Robinson’s No. 42. Bridge builder and devoted fan who returned baseball to Milwaukee as Brewers’ owner before serving as second-longest tenured commissioner.
Story by Tom Haudricourt, courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.