BTN LiveBIG: The 'historic' life of baseball's Bud Selig
Allan “Bud” Selig, one of most accomplished alumni in the history of the University of Wisconsin, seems to have done about as much as a person can in one lifetime. He’s served in the U.S. Army. He’s sold cars. He’s owned a professional sports team. He’s been the Commissioner of Major League Baseball — and now, the first-ever Commissioner Emeritus in his “retirement.”
And yet, until recently, he felt like his career wasn’t quite complete. Despite all his achievements, he hadn’t fulfilled a longtime dream, one that he brought to Wisconsin’s Madison campus as a freshman back in the early 1950s and held on to long after he graduated with a B.A. in American history and political science.
“When I was in college, I thought I was going to be a history professor,” Selig told me. “My mother was a teacher when I was a kid, and I wanted to teach too. It’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time.”
Fortunately, he got that opportunity this year at his alma mater, when he teamed up with David McDonald, professor and Alice D. Mortenson/Petrovich Distinguished Chair in Russian History at Wisconsin. This semester, the pair taught a new course at Wisconsin, “Baseball and American Society Since World War II,” which they developed together once Selig retired after serving as MLB Commissioner from 1998-2015.
Selig and McDonald first met in the mid-2000s while the latter was chair of Wisconsin’s history department. After learning Selig was interested in strengthening ties with the university, McDonald invited him to campus to speak about what kinds of careers history majors could pursue. The two continued to talk over the years about other ways to stay involved, which culminated in this course.
“He and I talked a lot about it,” Selig said. “He’s been great to work with.”
Though McDonald’s academic expertise is Tsarist Russian history, he’s had professional experiences that give him unique insights into the wide world of sports.
“Through a variety of interesting circumstances, I spent about three and a half years as a senior administrator in our university’s athletic department, having already chaired the faculty-led oversight committee,” McDonald explained. “When I took on the new role … I had to immerse myself in the history of intercollegiate athletics and of modern spectator sport more generally. [As a sports fan] I had also accumulated a trove of memories and trivia that I learned to organize and interpret through my professional training, but also through the new body of literature I’d read for my work in UW Athletics.”
Selig is, of course, uniquely qualified to teach such a class. Besides his nearly 17 years as MLB Commissioner, he’s owned the Milwaukee Brewers since 1970. He bought the team — formerly the Seattle Pilots, which went bust after only one season — and brought it to his hometown that year, ending a five-year professional baseball drought in “Brew Town.”
Prior to that, he’d held the largest ownership stake in the Milwaukee Braves, but couldn’t prevent that team from moving to Atlanta in 1965. That relocation was emblematic of another trend in American life: gradual population shifts from the large cities of the Northeast and industrial Midwest to smaller ones in the South and West.
“The interesting part for me is that I get to teach things that I not only lived through, but was also involved in,” he explained. “I’m one of those rare people in life who is able to teach about something they’ve actually done.”
And Selig said baseball is distinct among the major sports in that it’s been more closely aligned to American society for a longer amount of time than any other.
“Baseball’s a social institution,” Selig said. “I think baseball reflects society as well as anything. Whatever traumas society is going through, baseball will go through. It’s a metaphor for life, as my friend [former MLB Commissioner] Bart Giamatti used to say.”
He pointed to Jackie Robinson and integration as the most prominent and inspiring example of this. And, he added, baseball was ahead of the curve in this respect, as #42 played in “the Bigs” about three years before President Truman integrated the U.S. Armed Forces and more than a decade before the Civil Rights Movement began in earnest.
“I regard that as baseball’s most powerful and important moment,” Selig said. “No question.”
And Selig said he’s all but certain that a new MLB team will be established somewhere outside of the U.S. and Canada sometime in the not-too-distant future.
“That will happen sometime in the coming years,” he said. “Time will tell.”
These are the kinds of issues that Selig and McDonald regularly address in their class. And they’ve both found the students eager to engage them on these topics.
“The students and Commissioner Selig often read articles or book-chapters that can take a critical stance toward the Commissioner’s handling of such delicate and trying issues as steroids or labor troubles,” McDonald said.
“They have no qualms about asking him tough and direct questions,” he added, “a good reflection of how they and he appreciate the sorts of interchange that define the academic endeavor, but also of how much the Commissioner is able to put them at their ease — a particular gift of his, in my experience.”
Selig echoed that sentiment.
“My interaction with students have been just tremendous,” he said. “We give them a lot of reading. What’s interesting to me is that the kids not only do the reading, but they really understand it. They ask a lot of questions.”
And he’s given them a good deal of his time over the course of the semester. In fact, he brought them to Milwaukee this past week to visit The Selig Experience, a relatively new exhibition at the Brewers’ Miller Park.
“Students can’t say enough about their sheer enjoyment of the experience and the opportunity it gives them to interact on close terms with a figure of Selig’s status,” McDonald said. “The phrase ‘life-changing’ occurs frequently in these evaluations, as does one or another variation on the phrase ‘by far the best class I’ve ever had in Madison.’”
And Selig? He’s living the dream — his dream.
“Am I enjoying this? You bet,” he said. “A lot.”
By Brian Summerfield