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The Midwife of the Modern

March 26, 2007
March 26, 2007

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March 26, 2007

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The Midwife of the Modern

As commissioner from 1969 to '84, Bowie Kuhn led baseball in tumultuous times

BOWIE KUHN was a 42-year-old lawyer in August 1969 when owners elected him, a compromise candidate, as commissioner of baseball. There was no way for Kuhn or the owners to know it, but all hell was about to break loose in the game, as players and television networks ended the owners' reign of absolute power.

This is an article from the March 26, 2007 issue Original Layout

Consider what happened just in Kuhn's first 18 months on the job: A playoff system was implemented that meant the teams with the best record in their league no longer advanced automatically to the World Series; the Supreme Court rejected Curt Flood's challenge of the reserve system that bound players to their teams as long as owners saw fit; 30-game-winner Denny McLain was suspended for associating with gamblers and for gun possession; Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton published a book, Ball Four, that stripped away the myth of ballplayers as clean-living heroes and replaced it with a bawdy, boozy alternative; and union chief Marvin Miller won the right for his players to bring grievances to an arbitrator, not to a league president or the commissioner.

What timing. Kuhn, who died at age 80 last Thursday in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., after a short illness that followed lung surgery, arrived to oversee the start of the modern era and thus experienced all the extreme pleasures and pains of any birthing process. Besides playoffs and free agency, night World Series games, the designated hitter, five work stoppages, international expansion and garishly colored uniforms also changed baseball on Kuhn's watch. The game, mostly by Miller's doing, was forced into a new paradigm. No commissioner ever presided over greater upheaval. (Quick: Name his predecessor. It was Gen. William Eckert, and he never knew half such challenges.) While some may reduce Kuhn's legacy to being Miller's foil, or to his almost comical decision to sit without an overcoat in the 40° chill of Cincinnati in 1976 to endorse what was the first weekend night World Series game, Kuhn was defined by the times—and how very complicated they were. For his 15-year tenure, which ended in 1984 as a full-blown cocaine problem was tearing at the game, Kuhn did not so much lead baseball as hold on for dear life.

But that's not to say he wasn't a man of honor. At 6'5"—Red Auberbach cut him from the basketball team at Theodore Roosevelt High in Washington, D.C.—with a bookish mien and a serious public manner, Kuhn operated with an abiding principle of doing what he thought was right, not what was popular.

A great testament to Kuhn's integrity is that he offended owners and players equally. He helped settle a 1969 pension dispute with a decision favorable to the players, and he lifted the owners' '76 lockout meant to keep the players out of spring camps. But Kuhn also sided with the owners in their vain attempt to keep the reserve system in place.

He temporarily banned Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from baseball for working as casino greeters and snubbed Hank Aaron on the night he broke Babe Ruth's record, but he also disciplined owners Charlie Finley, Ted Turner, George Steinbrenner and Ray Kroc. Some owners, especially Finley, who once sued him (and lost), tried to oust him. Kuhn survived until Nov. 1, 1982, when the owners failed to give him another term. Kuhn stayed for the '83 season and for another year to allow his successor, Peter Ueberroth, to finish running the Los Angeles Olympics.

On Kuhn's watch, attendance doubled, the average player salary multiplied by 17 and the TV contract became 17 times greater than his first deal in 1971. But Kuhn sometimes invited criticism for his dogmatic approach. In '83, as his tenure was winding down, Kuhn captured his own legacy well when he wrote, "Most importantly, the new commissioner ... must have a great sense of baseball integrity and have a willingness to die in the trenches on integrity issues. The Hun will be at the gates.... He should use his powers fearlessly to protect the integrity of the game. The critics will call him self-righteous and moralistic."

"Have courage," Kuhn wrote. "Ignore them."

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PHOTONEIL LEIFER (SI)PHOTOAP (1983 SERIES)ON THE JOB At the '83 World Series (left); with Aaron (whose historic homer he missed) in '74; at the Series in Pittsburgh in '79.PHOTOHERB SCHARFMAN (AARON)[See caption above]PHOTOAP (PITTSBURGH)[See caption above]