BOWIE KUHN
A. D. Suehsdorf

When elected in 1969, Bowie Kuhn was baseball's youngest (42), tallest (6-foot-5), and biggest (240 pounds) commissioner ever. He had worked the Griffith Stadium scoreboard as a youth, graduated from Princeton, and was well-acquainted with baseball through his New York law firm which had the National League as a client.

Kuhn's first act was to get negotiations moving again between the Major League Players Association and the owner's Player Relations Committee (PRC), which had stalled over the terms of a pension package. He helped bring about a successful settlement which saved the 1969 season from the disruption of a player strike.

A positive man, though in his own words a bit stiff-necked and starchy, Kuhn believed that the still-extraordinary powers of the commissioner had been granted in order to be used. Furthermore, the owners had decided that their governance needed "restructuring," and charged him with developing a plan for more efficient administration of their business. Kuhn and an ad hoc committee of baseball executives and management experts proposed a further concentration of power in the commissioner's office. The plan was utterly rejected. Many owners felt that, with more lines on the organization chart leading to the commissioner, they would be surrendering control of their franchises.

With many important areas of baseball business excluded from his purview, Kuhn resumed his role as persuader, counselor, and positive influence. He was never more than that in the fierce negotiations with the MLBPA and its zealous executive director, Marvin Miller. For the owners, negotiations were conducted by the PRC, a body of their peers. It was this group, with confirmation by the owners as a whole, which made the landmark concessions to union recognition, player agents, arbitration, free agency, the resulting destruction of the reserve clause, and skyrocketing salaries. During the 50-day player strike of 1981, cries were heard for Kuhn's locking both sides in a room until they emerged with a settlement. In Landis's day, it may have been possible, but things no longer worked that way. By 1978, the owners had made the PRC a separate corporation, distinctly separate from the commissioner's office.

Meeting Problems Directly

Where Kuhn acted boldly, more so than any of his predecessors, was in his dealings with owners and players. He cracked down on George Steinbrenner of the Yankees (two-year suspension), Ted Turner of the Braves (one-year suspension), and went head-to-head with Charlie Finley of the Oakland A's in what seemed unfair salary wrangles with Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue, and Catfish Hunter. In 1976, believing that Finley was liquidating, not rebuilding, his club, Kuhn negated sales of three A's for $3.5 million.

He met the emerging drug problem directly, despite opposition from owners who felt that acknowledging involvement made baseball "look bad," and from the MLBPA, which resisted all disciplinary measures imposed by the commissioner. He returned the All-Star Game voting to the fans, presided over a new and lucrative television contract, and brought the 1972 strike to a speedy conclusion. Even greater furors arose when he forced Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle to sever their association with baseball while working for gambling casinos, and acceded to television's demand for World Series games in prime-time hours at night.

Victims of his direct actions often became unforgiving enemies. What might be good for baseball was not necessarily good for an owner's corporate interests that underwrote his baseball venture. An insurrection that threatened his reelection in 1975 was headed off by a friendly majority. But by 1983, five National League owners were unalterably disaffected. Lingering unhappiness with the costly 1981 strike and its aftermath was a burden. A proposal for more equitable sharing of broadcasting revenues among rich and poor clubs was a new and divisive problem. And there were renewed calls for restructuring. Magnates now said they wanted a chief executive officer-a real corporate CEO with the business skills to guide them through the complexities of baseball in the contemporary world. Views on the powers he would have were mixed.

In the voting, the National League dissidents held firm. (There were three inconsequential "no" votes in the American League.) With 18 out of 26 owners on his side-a 69 percent approval rating-Kuhn failed to get the necessary three-quarters majority in each league.

For all the complaints, Bowie Kuhn was probably the most capable commissioner the owners ever had, and after more years in office than anyone but Landis, it was not easy to find an equally qualified replacement. Kuhn overstayed his term by a year until Peter V. Ueberroth, 47 years old and fresh from a triumph as head of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, was unanimously elected to a five-year term in October 1984.