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The Baseball Commissioner’s Curtain Call

May 30, 2014 By:
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Bud Selig, retiring commissioner of Major League Baseball - Photo by Jessi Melcer

The well-heeled crowd gathered on May 28 at Citizens Bank Park was making the best of the rain delay, sipping Champagne and noshing on franks-in-blankets and braised duck with cherry glaze in phyllo cups.

Obviously, this was no ordinary pregame tailgate party. Those assembled in the exclusive Diamond Club, located directly behind home plate, were there not to watch baseball but to honor the man who has represented the game for the past 22 years as commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Allan Huber Selig, better known as “Bud,” was in town to receive the Wistar Institute’s President’s Award for his efforts to raise money for cancer research over the past decade. Since being diagnosed with  Level 4 melanoma in 2004 — which was successfully treated — the 80-year-old Selig has become increasingly involved in fundraising to stop the disease. This includes getting all 30 MLB teams to support Stand Up For Cancer, which has raised tens of millions of dollars to fund various projects, including some at Wistar, the University City biomedical facility specializing in cancer research and vaccine development.

The honor is just the latest for Selig, who will retire at the beginning of 2015. The former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers has a history of philanthropy that stretches back many decades and has encompassed causes from B’nai B’rith, the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Federations of North America to the Boy Scouts of America, March of Dimes and the USO.

While running the national pastime may be a long way from his childhood ambition of becoming a college professor, Selig says his commitment to tzedakah remains the same as when his father, who immigrated to Milwaukee from Romania, and his mother, who came from Ukraine, set the example for him with their volunteer work and giving back to their community.

His mother also set him on what turned out to be his career path at an early age. Selig says that some of his fondest memories are of going to see the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers games with her and his older brother starting when he was just 3 years old. (Selig created the big-league Brewers by buying and bringing the bankrupt Seattle Pilots franchise to his hometown in 1970.)

Before receiving his award and speaking to the attendees, Selig sat for an interview with the Jewish Exponent in the Phillies executive offices to talk about how his Jewish upbringing influenced his altruism, the unique relationship between Jews and baseball and how Allan became Bud.

How did you get your nickname?

Oh, that’s an easy one! When my mother brought me home from the hospital sometime after July 30, 1934, she said to my brother, “Well, you now have a buddy.” And I became Buddy. She was the source of all that, as she was of many things.

Your commitment to tzedakah is as long-lived as it is impressive. What drives you to keep giving?

I look at philanthropy differently than a lot of people. Some people do it because they feel they have to, because of social pressure, whatever. To me, it is an honor to be in a position to be able to do that. It’s something I watched my parents do. They were very charitable to various things — civic, Jewish — and I followed.

I often quote Jackie Robinson on this. His theory was that the only thing that really matters is what kind of contribution you can make to make someone else’s life better.

You must be inundated with requests for assistance. How do you decide where to get involved?

Like everything else in life, you contribute to the things you are interested in. We do a lot of work that no one knows about — and that’s the way we like it. We just did something for Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee. We are art collectors, so we got involved in art. We always give to Jewish Federation. You have to be somewhat selective, but it is a privilege to be able to do it.

You were honored by the National Museum of American Jewish History on May 13 in conjunction with the museum’s exhibition, “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American.” Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to seeing at the exhibition?

I’m just looking forward to going. I was fascinated that evening by what people were saying about it, and I said, we are going to be there in a few weeks – I want to see it.

As the exhibition demonstrates, there has been a deep connection between Jews and baseball for over a hundred years. Why do you think the game resonated so strongly with immigrants and continues to do so for their great-grandchildren?

Baseball is a social institution that attracts people in many ways. For example, it was a way that became a source of income to those who were fortunate enough to be good at it, just like boxing was back in the 1920s.

To me — I’m a professor at heart — baseball has all the indigenous characteristics of what I would call a social institution, one that represents people, that is part of society, that is part of communal life. And baseball, as my friend Bart Giamatti used to say, is a lot like life — you have your ups, you have your downs, your good years, your bad years. When you watch the effect that a sport has on people in every walk of life, you understand its impact in society.

Could you give an example of that impact?

In 1982, the Brewers were in the World Series — we lost, and I’m still mad about it, but that’s another story — and I was having lunch at a place I liked to eat at when I needed to eat quickly. A man walked in, a lawyer in Wauwatosa, which is a suburb of Milwaukee. He came up to me and said, “Are you Bud Selig?”

To make a long story short, he said, “You have no idea what you’ve done.” He proceeded to tell me this story in front of 40 other people in the restaurant, tears streaming down his face, about how he and his son had not been able to communicate. He took him to the fifth game of the AL playoffs, when we beat the Angels to win the pennant, which was a dramatic, unbelievable game. He was describing in detail how his kid enjoyed it, and they went downtown to watch the celebration. He said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever have another day like that.”

He said that when they got home and got out of the car, his son said something to him that he had never said to him before and that he may never have said again. He said, “Dad, this was a great day, I love you!” and gave him a hug. And with that, the man burst into tears and walked out. I think everybody in the place had tears in their eyes. That’s what a social institution is. That is what the sport can do.

You will be retiring as commissioner in 2015. What’s next?

Oh, yes — January 25! I’m going to write a book about my career in baseball and teach at two or three universities. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a history professor, so I guess at age 80, I’m going to get my opportunity.

You have an interesting definition of retirement.

My wife would be the first person to tell you: You don’t want me retired!
 

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