You could look at the track record and just about figure out exactly what the fifth commissioner of baseball would be like. He would be a WASP of between 58 and 62, and his dark-blue suits would have a hard finish and just a trace of a stripe. His brain would be held together by sealing wax and string and he would wave an American flag, collect Norman Rockwell paintings and be able, when urged on by intimate friends and just a touch of cooking sherry, to stand by the spinet and sing Trees. As a compromise choice of the 24 major league owners, he would be certain never to fog up any of their goggles.
Bowie Kuhn, a 42-year-old lawyer who last week accepted the job so inexpertly held in recent times by Happy Chandler, Ford Frick and General William Eckert, is the antithesis of everything that people expected to find and, while he was selected for a term of only one year at a salary of $100,000, a betting man would be wise to lay $5 to 50¢ that Kuhn will eventually hold the job for as long as he wants it. After a judge, a governor, a newspaperman and a retired Air Force general, baseball's owners, bless them, finally turned the game over to a fan.
The books on his den shelves in his home in Ridgewood, N.J. tell something about him. There are The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, The Public Years by Bernard Baruch, Show Biz. by Abel Green and Joe Laurie Jr., The Russian Revolution, Morte d' Urban, the complete writings of Sir Winston Churchill and, appropriately this week, a book titled That Man Is You. He raises roses, likes Puccini and Verdi, but something special stirs inside him when he hears the score from Damn Yankees.
From the moment Kuhn was named to the job, he was pictured in the press just as one might have guessed he would be. "I get a great kick out of it," he says. "I am now the Unknown Lawyer; I'm Harvey the rabbit, whom you can't see but know is there." Questioned about the fact that he has been labeled in some quarters as an owner's man, he smiles. "It's an understandable comment. It's not irrational. I will be measured on my performance. Wait and see and measure me on my performance."
February 17, 1969
As a member of the New York law firm of Willkie, Farr and Gallagher, Kuhn has represented the National League for 20 years and, as one owner said last week, "Bowie is one of the few guys we all ever really listened to and respected." While in that capacity he certainly was unknown to followers of sport, but he was always recognized in baseball and by some reporters as one of the most sagacious men around. And his knowledge of the complicated details, the paperwork and the playing of the game is boundless.
Numbered among Kuhn's ancestors are two former governors of the state of Maryland and one of the Florida Territory before it achieved statehood. His handsome family is as crazy about baseball as he is and often troops off for games at Yankee and Shea stadiums. The loyalties of the family split to include rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies, the Boston Red Sox, the New York Mets, the Yankees and Kuhn's favorite team, the Washington Senators. While attending Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., he once proved to the basketball coach, Red Auerbach, that despite his height, 6'5", he was no basketball player.
Kuhn, however, was a baseball fan, and although he promises that his past allegiance to the Washington Senators will in no way reflect upon his decisions, he is not sanctimonious about the matter. "There will be a deep place in my heart for the Senators always," he concedes.
As a boy, Kuhn worked with a friend in the scoreboard at Griffith Stadium in Washington. The job paid him $1 a day, and he loved it. "Being able to watch the Senators play and being paid for it was my idea of heaven," he says.
"We'd put up the balls, strikes, outs and the number of the player at bat, and then we'd also post the inning-by-inning scores of the other three games being played in the American League. You could make some drama out of that, particularly when the Yankees were involved. Sometimes you'd put the zero up real quick for the top of an inning and then, if something important happened in the bottom of the inning, you would stall a little bit and push out the number of runs slowly, keeping it pointing up so that only the birds flying overhead could see it. Then you'd drop it down quickly, and you could feel the crowd react.
"There was a gate in right field near the scoreboard and that was the way we got into the park. I'd get there early to watch the players take batting practice. I have always been amazed at the individual skills of big league ballplayers and, well, sometimes a ball would come out by me and I'd get it. The first player who ever gave me a ball was Wally Judnich of the St. Louis Browns. Once in a while one of the Senators would give me one but not too often. The Washington club, you must realize, was a very sound financial organization.
"I first became aware of something wonderful going on in Washington in 1933 at the age of 7. That was the last time the Senators won a pennant, outside of the writings of Douglass Wallop [author of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, the novel that became the musical Damn Yankees, in which a middle-aged man is transformed by sorcery into Joe Hardy, the player who leads the Senators to the championship].
"That pennant started a fire that really took hold of me by 1939. That was the year Dutch Leonard perfected the knuckleball and was 20-8. Buddy Lewis was probably my favorite overall Senator, but I liked a lot of others, too: Al Simmons, Cecil Travis, George Case, Frank Howard...."
During the course of litigation against both football and baseball concerning a charge of antitrust violations brought by a radio network, Kuhn worked closely with Bert Bell, the pro football commissioner. "Bell," Kuhn says, "was able to gather a very considerable amount of power by the force of his personality and by persuasion. He set a pattern that Pete Rozelle has carried on admirably. The job of baseball commissioner still holds as much legal authority as it did during the time of Judge Landis.
"Sometimes we tend to focus too much on what is wrong with baseball. Remember, we start on a very sound foundation with a beautiful game. Before you start to tear down something that has stood for 100 years, you had better examine why it was built in the first place.
"There is an enormous amount of fan interest in the game and, if you doubt it, look at the amount of publicity the 'Unknown Lawyer' has gotten just by being named the new commissioner. The amount of interest in baseball in urban areas is tremendous. Take a look at the television ratings. Since 1963 six of the 10 highest Nielsen ratings for a sporting event have gone to baseball. [The two highest are the fourth games of last year's Series and the 1963 Los Angeles-New York Series.]
"There has been a lot of criticism of baseball that I was aware of, both as counsel to the National League and as a fan. In my job as counsel it was not my role to remake an image. It is not my intention to take a perfectly constructed game and take wild swings at it. Baseball is soundly constructed with four balls, three strikes, nine innings, three outs to an inning. One of the greatest things that baseball has is the competition between two leagues that culminates in the World Series. Competition on the field is great and so is the speculation as to which league has the better stars and players and teams, but the off-the-field competition is another matter. Often this feeling impairs things and I believe that my election is a step in the right direction. I was nominated by the American League and elected unanimously. I believe that by persuasion and force of personality I can bring about harmony between the leagues and a different approach. I certainly would not have taken the job if I did not believe I was capable Of handling the challenge.
"We are looking into rules changes for the game on the field and I am delighted with some of the experiments that will be tried. But only if the fans and professionals find them acceptable will they be adopted. I myself richly enjoy watching major league baseball because of the beauty and subtleties of the game. I like the little tricks of the trade, the passing of signs, the way Lou Brock takes a lead off first base, the drama of a tense situation. I find it deeply rewarding and, to be honest, I find it sad when a game has ended. But I have to wonder what the fans as a body want, and I think I can find that out. I wonder about the umpiring situation, and I am going to look into that quickly. It seems to me that you cannot have different applications in each league of the same rule. There are a tremendous number of capable and devoted people in baseball, and I think they need someone to direct their talent. I think I am capable of it."
And it takes one good fan, of course, to know what the others expect. It does not seem likely that the Unknown Lawyer will remain unknown for long.