A student celebrates after receiving her diploma Saturday at the Kohl Center.
Students listen to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig Saturday at the Kohl Center.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig speaks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison commencement Saturday in Madison.
Instead, the Milwaukee native and 1956 Wisconsin graduate talked about how he dreamed of living a “baseball life” while a college student, not knowing exactly what that was or how to achieve it. He used his success story as an example for graduates, whom he encouraged to dream big and not be afraid of failure.
Selig, commissioner since 1998 and former owner and president of the Milwaukee Brewers, said he views baseball as a metaphor for life.
“In baseball, as in life … hope and faith are critical to success,” Selig told graduates at the first of four ceremonies. “Take advantage of these difficult times because if you have hope and faith, if you are smart and tenacious and dedicated and willing to sacrifice, you can make a difference and make this a better world. And don’t be afraid of failure.”
Selig, 74, not only avoided talking about challenges facing baseball, he spoke reverently of the game.
“It provides a window to escape from the tedium and difficulty of ordinary life,” he said. “It gives people hope and faith, an opportunity to live vicariously through the boys of summer.”
This baseball season has gotten off to a tumultuous start, with more drug problems and a drop in attendance.
On May 7 Selig suspended Los Angeles Dodgers’ star Manny Ramirez for 50 games after being implicated in illegal drug use. A day later, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez returned to boos and jeers after admitting in February that he used banned drugs between 2001 and 2003.
Selig has also had to deal with sagging attendance this year, down 7 percent from last season. The problem has been the most acute at the new Yankee Stadium, where ticket prices are as high as $2,625 and there have been empty seats near the field at every game.
Selig focused on telling his own story. He recalled reading baseball articles in the campus library from newspapers across the country, and checking out books about baseball commissioners.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would become baseball commissioner,” Selig said. “I dared to live my dream. As a student here I had no idea how I was going to make that happen or frankly what a baseball life was.”
Selig said he grew up in Milwaukee idolizing Joe DiMaggio, only to have his dream of following in his footsteps dashed.
“You see, I couldn’t hit a curve ball and I still can’t,” Selig said. “But that didn’t diminish my love for the game or end my dream for a baseball life.”
Selig told the story of how he fought to get a baseball franchise located in Milwaukee after the Braves left for Atlanta in 1965. In 1970, Selig bought the bankrupt Seattle Pilots franchise and moved them to his hometown where they became the Brewers.
“I was very fortunate to fulfill the dream of my lifetime,” Selig said.
Selig has a deep connection with the University of Wisconsin. In addition to receiving his bachelor’s degree in American institutions, a combination of political science and American history, he previously served on the advisory boards of Wisconsin’s La Follette School of Public Affairs and the department of political science.
After graduating in 1956, Selig spent two years in the Armed Forces and then returned to Milwaukee to work for his father’s car dealership before embarking on his baseball career.
He served as acting baseball commissioner from 1992 until 1998 when he got the position outright. In 2008, Selig’s contract was extended through 2012 when he plans to retire.
His speech on Saturday was the first of four at graduation ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday where 5,000 students were receiving degrees.