Rob Manfred, chosen to be the next MLB commissioner, speaks at the owners’ meeting at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (Kevin Richardson/Getty)
Robert Manfred Jr., a former Morgan, Lewis & Bockius labor and employment litigation partner currently serving as chief operating officer of Major League Baseball, beat out two rivals to emerge victorious in the race to replace Allan “Bud” Selig as commissioner.
MLB’s 30 owners met Thursday in Baltimore to select the league’s 10th leader in a three-man race between Manfred, Boston Red Sox chairman Thomas Werner and MLB executive vice president of business Tim Brosnan, a former associate at Kelley Drye & Warren.
Manfred was considered the favorite to succeed Selig, a former owner of the league’s Milwaukee Brewers who has held MLB’s top management role for the past 22 years. Selig, 80, announced last year that this season would be his last, and when his contract expires on January 25, 2015, Manfred will assume the throne. But the path to commissioner—a position first held by former federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis in 1921—wasn’t easy.
While the final 30-0 vote electing Manfred was unanimous, it came after Brosnan withdrew his name from consideration and five hours of negotiations and at least five other votes that saw a small group of owners voice their support for Werner, according to news reports and the personal blog of Murray Chass, a retired New York Times reporter who has covered MLB’s business and labor battles for four decades.
Leading the bloc against Manfred was Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a former Katten Muchin Rosenman tax attorney who has been a vocal advocate for taking a tougher line against the Major League Baseball Players Association, the New York-based labor union that represents the league’s players. As noted by sibling publication Corporate Counsel, Manfred is no stranger to labor disputes, having served as outside counsel to the league during a 1994-95 players’ strike that canceled the World Series and damaged the sport’s reputation with fans. Four years later, MLB hired the Harvard Law School graduate as its executive vice president of economics and league affairs.
In that role, which eventually saw Manfred become executive vice president for labor relations and human resources, the former Morgan Lewis partner led the league’s subsequent collective bargaining negotiations with players in 2002, 2006 and 2011, all of which helped MLB achieve a period of labor peace. Morgan Lewis itself also remained outside counsel to MLB, with the firm even transferring its former website domain name MLB.com to the league for free in 2000, a move that The American Lawyer reported at the time won the firm some goodwill with its hardball client.
It was Manfred who made that deal. In an email to The Am Law Daily, Manfred says he worked at Morgan Lewis from 1984 to 1998, making it the only firm for which he was ever affiliated. He adds that Morgan Lewis currently does all of MLB’s employee benefits work and some litigation. The league itself, as previously noted by The Am Law Daily, also uses Proskauer Rose for a variety of matters. A Morgan Lewis spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about Manfred’s election to commissioner. (Ironically enough, besides its ties to Manfred and the league, the firm is also linked to Werner, having advised The New York Times Company in 2011 on its $117 million sale of a minority stake in the Red Sox back to the team’s majority owners, one of which is Werner.)
Manfred began moving into the role of Selig’s right-hand man in 2011 after former league president and COO Robert DuPuy left MLB and returned to Foley & Lardner as a partner in New York after a failed effort to succeed Selig as commissioner. (Foley & Lardner, whose roots are in Milwaukee, has been a longtime legal adviser to Selig.) The COO role remained vacant until Selig promoted Manfred to the position in September 2013.
In the press conference announcing Manfred’s ascension, Selig acknowledged the dissension that led up to the final vote that finally chose his successor, but said the league would rally around its new leader. Manfred himself told reporters gathered Thursday at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor that he was “tremendously honored by the confidence the owners showed in me today.”
Manfred faces a variety of legal challenges as he prepares to assume the commissioner’s role, including the league’s ongoing Biogenesis drug scandal with players—a series of investigations that has yielded roles for dozens of Am Law 200 firms—and court battles between MLB’s Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles over television broadcast rights and a battle for a new stadium for the Oakland Athletics that has resulted in an antitrust suit by the nearby city of San Jose.
MLB’s current collective bargaining agreement with players will also expire on Dec. 1, 2016, meaning that another round of labor negotiations looms on the horizon. Manfred oversees an in-house legal department at the league that includes general counsel Thomas Ostertag and former Proskauer Rose partner Daniel Halem, who was promoted last year to executive vice president of labor relations. (Halem, like Manfred, graduated from Harvard Law School and was an undergraduate at Cornell.)
Manfred, who is married with four children, is a resident of Tarrytown, N.Y., a suburb of Manhattan in Westchester County. With his election to commissioner, Westchester will now have ties to three of the four leaders of North America’s top professional sports leagues, according to Westfair Online. Manfred will also be the third former Am Law 100 lawyer from that group.
Earlier this year former Cravath, Swaine & Moore associate Adam Silver, son of late Proskauer Rose chairman and legendary labor lawyer Edward Silver, succeeded David Stern as commissioner of the National Basketball Association. Stern, himself a former Proskauer partner, was elected last week into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Gary Bettman, commissioner of the National Hockey League, is a former Proskauer associate.
The National Football League’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, is not a lawyer but is the brother of Timothy Goodell, a former cochair of M&A at White & Case who now serves as general counsel for Hess Corp. Goodell’s late father is Yale Law School graduate and former U.S. Sen. Charles Goodell.