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
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.