Thursday, March 15, 2007
Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn Dead at 80
Bowie Kuhn, former Major League Baseball commissioner from 1969-1984 has died at the age of 80. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Bowie Kuhn, who saw baseball become a business of free agents making multimillion-dollar salaries during 15 tumultuous years as commissioner, died Thursday. He was 80. Kuhn died at St. Luke's Hospital following a short illness, his spokesman Bob Wirz said.
When Kuhn took over as commissioner from William Eckert on Feb. 4, 1969, baseball just had completed its final season as a tradition-bound 20-team sport, one with no playoffs, a reserve clause and an average salary of about $19,000.
Kuhn battled the rise of the NFL and a combative players' union that besieged him with lawsuits, grievances and work stoppages. Yet it was also a time of record attendance and revenue and a huge expansion of the sport's television presence.
Along with his bumpy reign came a string of controversial decisions. When Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth's career record in 1974, Kuhn was not in the stands. And he banned Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from associating with their former teams because of liaisons with gambling casinos.
These were three idiotic decisions Kuhn made. Especially since he ordered the Braves to play Aaron in the opening road series of the 1974 season, which could have seen Aaron break the home run record away from Atlanta. Banning Mays and Mantle was just stupid. It's not like they were gamblers like Pete Rose.
By the time Peter Ueberroth succeeded Kuhn on Oct. 1, 1984, the major leagues had 26 teams in four divisions, a designated hitter in the American League, the first night World Series games, color-splashed uniforms, free agency and an average salary of nearly $330,000.
"I want it to be remembered that I was commissioner during a time of tremendous growth in the popularity of the game," Kuhn said, "and that it was a time in which no one could question the integrity of the game."
Part of that growth was the fact that both leagues expanded in 1969 to Seattle, Montreal, Kansas City and San Diego. Sure, KC had had a team before, but they moved to Oakland. Montreal was where Jackie Robinson first played integrated professional baseball, and both Seattle and San Diego had been long-time Pacific Coast League cities. Kuhn gets no credit for this. Nor does he get credit for the further expansion of the American League in 1977 into Toronto and Seattle (the Mariners--the Pilots left in 1970 when future commissioner Bud Selig moved them to Milwaukee to become the Brewers).
It was also a time of memorable feuds. Kuhn did battle with ornery owners like Charlie Finley, Ted Turner, George Steinbrenner and Ray Kroc. Finley once went so far as calling Kuhn "the village idiot."
His downfall came after he presided over a 50-day strike that split the 1981 season in half. A prim and proper lawyer who stood ramrod erect, Kuhn was regarded by some as a stuffed shirt.
Born in Takoma Park, Md., on Oct. 28, 1926, Kuhn grew up in Washington, D.C., as a fan of the original Washington Senators — yet he allowed the expansion Senators to leave after the 1971 season and become the Texas Rangers. He graduated from Princeton in 1947 and received his law degree in 1950 from Virginia.
After school, he joined the law firm of Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, which represented the National League. In 1966, he represented the Milwaukee Braves in their legal battle with the city over a move to Atlanta and gained the respect of the league's owners.
He eventually lost that respect through repeated confrontations with many of those owners, who kept him from getting involved in negotiations during the 1981 strike. Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner in 1974 for two years — later shortened to 15 months — for his guilty plea regarding illegal campaign contributions to President Nixon's re-election campaign. He then suspended Turner, the Braves owner, in 1976 for tampering with the contract of Gary Matthews.
In 1976, he voided the attempt by Finley's Oakland Athletics to sell Vida Blue, Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers for a combined price of $3.5 million, saying the deals weren't in the best interests of baseball.
He fined Kroc, the San Diego Padres owner, $100,000 in 1979 for saying he wanted to sign Joe Morgan of the Reds and Graig Nettles of the Yankees.
During Kuhn's years as commissioner, attendance in the major leagues grew from 23 million in 1968 to 44.6 million in 1982. In 1983, baseball signed a $1.2 billion television contract that would earn each team $7 million a year for six seasons, then an astonishing sum. It was clear by now that baseball was transforming itself from a sport to a business, with revenue rising from $163 million in 1975 to $624 million in 1984.
Again, that is due to the fact that the American and National Leagues expanded into half a dozen new markets, not because of anything he did.
"You can't be commissioner for 14 years and not change, for better or for worse. I hope I've changed for the better," he said. "I'm more philosophical about our problems. Initially, I used to become more upset. Now, I take problems for granted as being part of the office."
While business boomed on his watch, players wanted their cut. Curt Flood sued to gain free agency, but lost his U.S. Supreme Court case in 1972. In 1975, the union finally ended the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams forever, winning an arbitration case filed on behalf of Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith. Baseball hasn't been the same since.
On the field, Kuhn injected himself into Aaron's chase for Ruth's home-run record by ordering Braves manager Eddie Mathews to play Aaron in 1974's season-opening series at Cincinnati. Aaron entered with 713 homers, one shy of Ruth's mark.
See? I told you so! Then, he had the nerve not to show up for Aaron's historic home run.
A year later, Finley led a group that attempted to oust Kuhn as his first term ended. "That was an ambush," Kuhn said. "I was blindsided. I didn't see it coming, and I wasn't prepared."
But with the support of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, Kuhn managed to gain re-election. By 1982, a year after the strike — baseball's fifth work stoppage under Kuhn — owners were ready for change. At a Nov. 1 meeting at a Chicago airport hotel, AL owners voted 11-3 to give Kuhn another term, but the NL vote was 7-5, short of the 75 percent needed.
He is survived by wife, Luisa Kuhn; son Stephen Kuhn; daughter Alex Bower; and stepsons Paul Degener and George Degener.
Did Kuhn help the game? No, not really. Did he hurt it? Again, no he did not. As Jim Bouton wrote in the classic Ball Four, Kuhn was an owners guy in the labor negotiations of the late 1960s when the players union hired Marvin Miller. Miller , and the players, emerged the winners over time, and Kuhn did his best to control the growth of salaries, which was really what the feud with Finley was all about. But the tide had already started to turn, and Kuhn was left holding the bag as the big-money free agent era began.
Some of my comments may appear harsh, and to a degree they are. Kuhn was a lawyer who worked for the league's owners. He tried to keep salaries down. His feud with Finley was legendary, and shows that free market principles do not completely control the game. Kuhn was slow to respond to baseball's changing economic profile, and he was punished for it by the owners. The owners then hired Ueberroth, a marketing guy, to guide the game. After him, the late Bart Giammatti and Fay Vincent attempted to run things, but Vincent, like Kuhn, was ambushed by the owners, who were now feeling a sense of entitlement. That led us to where we are now with Bud Selig. Sometimes I wonder if we would be better off with a Kuhn-type commissioner. I think he would do a better job of standing up to bullies like Steinbrenner. Can you imagine Selig suspending King George the way Kuhn did? Nah. Me neither.