They were known as the Great Lakes Gang: Bud Selig, Jerry Reinsdorf, Stanton Cook, Carl Pohlad, Peter O’Malley and William Bartholomay, a cabal consisting of a half-dozen baseball owners leading the charge in ousting Fay Vincent as baseball commissioner in first week of September 1992.
Vincent came to Major League Baseball as a deputy commissioner in the spring 1989 and unwittingly was pushed into the commissioner’s role exactly six months later, when then commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti suffered a fatal heart attack.
Less than two weeks into his interim duties, major league owners unanimously voted Vincent into office as the full-time commissioner.
“I was one of Fay’s earliest supporters,” said Reinsdorf, the day before Vincent officially announced his resignation as commissioner, “… I don’t want to seem to destroy someone or rob him of his dignity, but the difference between Bart and Fay is that Bart knew what he didn’t know. That’s why he hired Fay.”
Vincent, already facing a term in the shadow of the beloved Giamatti, literally hit more unstable ground from the outset. During the 1989 World Series it was Vincent who earned accolades for his sensitivity in handling of the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit the San Francisco Bay area just minutes before Game Three of the World Series. With the country in shock in the aftermath of the quakes (which reportedly measured 7.1 on the Richter scale), Vincent acted, postponing the Series until further notice.
Vincent again rescued baseball in early 1990, championing negotiations to end a 32-day lockout of spring training by negotiating a four-year collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association. Despite the labor agreement, some owners were seething, claiming Vincent was pro-union.
Vincent was not the source of an already bigger economic issue facing the game of baseball. During the 1990 labor strike, it has been reported that baseball hired four economists including former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and Henry J. Aaron of the Brookings Institute to independently analyze baseball’s economic problems.
In his 1992 report, Aaron wrote:
The industry of baseball is in political chaos, bereft of any governing mechanism by which clubs can agree to share revenues among themselves in a fashion that will permit all clubs both to compete equally on the field and to have an equal chance to make positive operating revenues … A governance structure of clubs that is incapable of enforcing greater revenue sharing is the problem. Unless that problem is addressed and solved, labor/management peace will never come to baseball.
It was here, in the wake of the 1990 labor agreement, with owners angered and the commissioner defiant, that Vincent’s reign as commissioner began a long, slow, tumultuous two-and-one-half year slide.
In between a two-year suspension of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner for illegal gambling ties (July 1990), a lifetime ban of Steve Howe for cocaine use (June 1992) and a two-day strike by MLB umpires, Vincent faced his biggest challenges as commissioner: expansion, realignment and television revenues. In hindsight, this three-headed monster would wrestle the commissioner into submission.
Strike one against Vincent took place in June 1991 when the commissioner allocated $190 million in National League expansion fees to major leagues teams. Vincent awarded American League teams, $3 million per team while National League teams received $12.33 million for each club.
The decision infuriated some team owners, especially Reinsdorf.
Those on the inside referred to him as “Reinsdorf the Powerful.” The White Sox owner denied his reported powers in a 1992 interview with New York Times writer Ira Berkow. “Am I powerful?” Reinsdorf asked rhetorically, “No. Power means to me to be able to say to someone, ‘I need your vote.’ There’s nobody I can say that to. But Bud (Selig) can. For one thing, he’s one of the nicest guys in baseball. For another, he talks to every owner on the phone at least once a week.”
Based on past media reports both Selig and Reinsdorf are the founding fathers of the Great Lakes Gang. When the topic surfaces, Reinsdorf strokes Selig and Selig downplays the idea altogether.
“I love Jerry Reinsdorf,” Selig said. “He and I are amused at what people write. I talk to Carl (Pohlad) as much as anybody. I talk to Stan Cook. Bill is a close friend of mine. But if I explained the last 24 months, you would see how much (the Red Sox’s) John Harrington and Paul Beeston are involved … I regard Drayton McLane as an important new owner. I could go on and on.
“Ironically, George Steinbrenner and I have known each other the longest, for 20 years, and although we have different perspectives, we can talk. (San Diego’s) Tommy Werner is one of the finest young men I’ve ever known. But as to the question of who influences what and who does what, there’s a lot of great fiction around that.”
Reinsdorf may not have publicly slandered Vincent, but privately he shared his feelings with the Great Lakes Gang – and Vincent himself. During a meeting in Vincent’s office in 1992, Reinsdorf scoffed at one of Vincent’s opinions, leading the commissioner to say, “Maybe you think we should have a different commissioner?”
Reinsdorf replied dryly, “Yes.”
Two years after Vincent’s resignation, while looking into the economic issues facing baseball, the Sporting News reported:
The Great Lakes Gang today is perceived by many as the most powerful coalition of owners, with Selig and Reinsdorf at its center. The two talk almost daily, giving rise to some humor. Selig’s wife, Sue, once was introduced at a birthday party for Selig, as the “last person Bud talks to at night.” But she demurred. “In reality, it’s Jerry,” she said.
“It’s one of the more misunderstood subjects in my 25 years in baseball,” Selig says. “It’s hard to interpose in human relationships and assess accurately. People make judgments not based on reality. They wind up creating power where it doesn’t exist. They tend to overlook people who have influence.”
Vincent pressed on, despite the efforts of the Great Lakes Gang. The commissioner hit a nerve in June 1992 when he publicly encouraged and approved the sale of the Seattle Mariners to a group of Japanese investors. When the news reached Reinsdorf, he erupted.
Baseball owners convened in New York the following week. In a bizarre twist, Reinsdorf, Selig and Richard Ravitch, the owners’ chief labor executive, called a meeting, cherry-picking participants, mostly American League owners, all anti-Vincent.
Reinsdorf, Selig and Ravitch attempted to persuade owners to pressure Vincent into surrendering his his role in baseball labor relations. It was called “the putsch that failed,” by baseball insiders. The atmosphere was described as tense, pitting one league against the other, pro-Vincent against anti-Vincent.
Strike two came three weeks later when Vincent announced he was realigning the National League, sending the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals to the National West and the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds to the NL East, effective at the beginning of 1993.
The Tribune Company – owner of the Cubs and Chicago-based television station WGN, the Cubs local affiliate – were already at odds with Vincent over broadcast revenues.
National League president Bill White and league owners publicly denounced Vincent’s decision to redraw the league’s geographical map. “The commissioner’s decision is wrong,” the Cubs said in a statement. “[It’s] bad for baseball and especially bad for baseball fans here in Chicago.”
White followed, telling the Associated Press, “I am very disappointed with the commissioner’s extraordinary decision to override the National League constitution … the commissioner has jeopardized a long-standing working document which has governed the National League for decades.”
Less than 24 hours after the announcement the Cubs filed a lawsuit, challenging Vincent’s decision. The team would be granted an injunction, freezing the move.
On the morning of Sunday, July 12, the final day before the 1992 All-Star break, a group of team owners were feverishly working the fax machine, crafting and signing a petition to call a joint meeting to discuss Vincent’s actions and the growing turmoil.
Vincent objected, declining the request. With communication broken down into faxes and letters, Vincent declined public comment but did responded to team owners in a five-page letter, writing:
“In my judgment … there is no contractual right to remove me from office or to diminish my powers … How could the commissioner function otherwise? The possibility of removal midterm would render the commissioner ineffective … I will never resign – until such time as the highest court of this land tells me otherwise.”
But the writing was on the wall, the one-time cabal of owners was growing in size and force. Vincent, firm in his commitment, could now count his supporting cast on one hand.
The Great Lakes Gang moved ahead, with or without Vincent’s participation. Led by Reinsdorf and Selig, the Gang organized a meeting in at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare hotel in Rosemont, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Reinsdorf called the Great Lakes Gang, one-by-one he laid out the meeting agenda: get rid of Vincent.
The owners argued in the public resolution that:
- Baseball needed “strong and consistent leadership.”
- Baseball needed an owner who could lead the way on “crucial issues of franchise stability, television and broadcast contracts, labor negotiations and action on the forthcoming report of the Economic Study Committee.”
- The game needed a commissioner to “build consensus on the fundamental issues facing baseball, who could demonstrate vision and objectivity and who can manage relationships with outside parties important to the success of baseball.”
On September 3, 1992 baseball owners voted 18-9 (with one abstention)? calling for the commissioner to resign. Four days later, Vincent conceded, never completing his elected five-year term as the eighth commissioner of Major League Baseball.
As the meeting broke, reporters crashed Reinsdorf for a comment. He told the media, for “the first time, the commissioner knows how many clubs want him to step down, the commissioner has some serious thinking to do.”
For once, Vincent and the owners agreed, he should step down. On September 8, 1992, it became official. Fay Vincent, baseball’s eighth commissioner, resigned. The Great Lakes Gang had finally sunk Vincent.
In his resignation letter, Vincent wrote:
… I can no longer justify imposing on Baseball, nor should Baseball be required to endure, a bitter, legal battle – even though I am confident in the end I would win … I’ve concluded that resignation – not litigation – should be my final act as commissioner in the best interests of Baseball.
I remind all that ownership of a Baseball team is more than just ownership of any ordinary business. Owners have a duty to take into consideration that they own a part of America’s national pastime – in trust. This trust requires putting self-interest second.
President George W. Bush, then owner of the Texas Rangers supported Vincent. His words seem somewhat ironic now.
“If anybody can find any winner in this mess,” Bush told the New York Times, “it’s my friend because he’s showed that among the rubble, there rose a dignified human being with a lot of class. He’s clearly the winner as far as I’m concerned …
“He knew some of us would stand by him until the bitter end, and I was fully prepared to do that. This is the wrong decision by baseball, but he took a loftier position. He said, ‘it’s not me, it’s the game.’”