There is nothing happening in baseball today, so let’s talk about Presidents Day. But not presidents of the United States. Let’s talk about league presidents.
Younger fans may not realize that there used to be separate presidents for each league, but there were. Until 1999 anyway, when Major League Baseball combined the leagues administratively and made them distinct in name only. After that there were honorary league presidents: Jackie Autry and then Frank Robinson have been the honorary AL presidents since that time and Bill Giles is the honorary NL president. Robinson and Giles don’t really do anything other than assist Rob Manfred with whatever he’d like them to assist on and, I presume, hand over the LCS trophy to the winning team each year. Maybe they wager a crisp $5 bill on the All-Star game. Who knows?
But league presidents used to do things like impose discipline for events which happened in their respective leagues, chair the caucus of owners from their league and have final say on matters that affected only one of the two leagues. That last bit brings to mind one of my favorite league presidents. If, that is, it makes any sense to have a favorite league president. If you have to have one, though, you could do worse than Chub Feeney, the man pictured above, who served as NL President from 1969-1986.
Feeney got his start with the Giants, who were owned by his grandfather, Charles Stoneham and, subsequently, his uncle Horace Stoneham, in a dynasty which lasted from 1919-1976. Chub was a batboy at first and then moved into the front office after serving in World War II. He was instrumental in baseball operations from the late 1940s until 1969. In his time, the Giants were built into a World Series champion in 1954, NL pennant winners in 1951 and 1962 and consistent competitors in most other years. He was in on the decision to bring in Leo Durocher and to revamp the Giants’ organization via the signing of several black and Latino stars at a time when teams were still not doing much of that. I’ve not read enough about Feeney to know how much of this was based on his belief in equality and how much of it was mere smart baseball thinking, but whatever was in Feeney’s heart on these matters, in exploiting an inefficiency born of their competitors’ racism and/or fear of fan backlash, Feeney and the Giants were, fundamentally, practicing “Moneyball” 50 years before Billy Beane became famous for it. There are always inefficiencies to exploit, you know. Signing Willie Mays, Orlando Cedpeda and the Alous is WAY more impressive than making Scott Hatteberg into a first baseman in my view.
Feeney could’ve and maybe should’ve been the new commissioner of baseball in 1969 when Spike Eckert was canned. The NL owners voted for him unanimously. AL owners, however, supported another candidate and there were 17 deadlocked ballots. In a compromise, the owners agreed on Bowie Kuhn, who had been the NL’s general counsel. Compromises make everyone a little unhappy. This one made everyone a lot unhappy in the long run. Feeney, as a consolation, was named NL president. Once he took over the gig he was more or less resigned to the sort of anonymity most league presidents experienced outside of having their name, and not the commissioner’s name, printed on the baseballs. Feeney did do one notable thing, however, repeated in all of his obituaries: he kept the DH out of the National League, rallying the NL owners to his view of that still-controversial matter.
But for all of the things Feeney did with the Giants and while leading the NL, my favorite story came from his last job in baseball. He stepped down as president in 1986 and in 1987 he was named the Padres president. He wasn’t able to help rebuild them like he did the Giants 40 years before, but he certainly went out with a bang.
Unpopular as a result of the Padres’ losing ways, on September 24, 1988, many Padres fans came to the park for the Astros-Padres game with signs demanding Feeney’s firing or replacement. Things like “Scrub Chub” and the like. At one point, as fans chanted stuff at him, Feeney did what any man of pride and accomplishment might do in his situation: he flipped ’em the bird. Unfortunately, his freedom rocket was caught on the Padres’ TV cameras. And, to make matters worse, it was Fan Appreciation Night at Jack Murphy Stadium. Feeney may have been a man of pride and accomplishment, and he may have been exercising his First Amendment rights, but he was not exactly appreciating the fans. Feeney resigned the next day. He passed away at the age of 72 in 1994.
I’m not saying I’d necessarily flip off a bunch of Padres fans if they started yelling at me, but I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it either. That’s especially true if I was someone who did a whole heck of a lot in the game of baseball for years and if I was having a less than wonderful night at the ballpark. All these years later it’s hard to blame old Chub for that. There but for the grace of God go any of us, really.
Anyway, happy Presidents Day, Chub. You were number one. No, the other one.