Kuhn guided baseball through several
1968-1984, as free agency and designated hitter rule emerged
January 29, 2007 | Barry M. Bloom
NY: No commissioner since Happy Chandler has been
elected to the Hall of Fame, and Bowie Kuhn is getting his second shot
at it this year as the Veterans Committee takes a close look again at
former players and executives.
Of the 23 executives inducted in the Hall, only commissioners Ford
C. Frick, Kenesaw Mountain Landis and Chandler are among that number. Landis was
the first commissioner, elected in 1920 under the dark shadow of the
Black Sox scandal, and remained in the position until his death in 1944.
Frick, who also served 17 years as head of the National League, was
elected in 1970. Chandler, elected in 1982, succeeded Landis and oversaw
the integration of Major League Baseball in 1947.
Kuhn’s tenure, from 1968-1984, was one of the most tumultuous
economically in MLB history. And his name was forever linked with Marvin
Miller, the first full-time executive director of the MLB Players
“I don't think Marvin makes any bones about it -- it was not his
job to protect the long term interest of professional baseball,” Kuhn
said in an interview with SABR in 2005. “It was his job to protect the
financial interests of the players and the working conditions of the
players…. As commissioner I had to override any kind of special
consideration and look to the total welfare of the game and I didn't
feel the Players Association did that.”
During his tenure, Kuhn fought against over turning the reserve
clause, which was used by owners since the 1920s to bind players to
their respective teams. Curt Flood took MLB to the U.S. Supreme Court
regarding the legality of that clause, and although he lost the case,
the high court put baseball on notice that the practice was a restraint
“They liked the reserve system the way it was,” Kuhn said about
the group of owners he represented. “They weren't very anxious to
But by 1977, an arbiter had ruled in favor of the union and
abolished the reserve clause, ushering in the era of free agency. In its
first blush, the average salary nearly tripled –- from $51,501 in 1976
to $143,756 in 1980. This year, it was a record $2.8 million.
Kuhn battled with owners and players alike, suspending Yankees
principal owner George Steinbrenner for his illegal contributions to
President Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign, and swatting irascible A’s
owner Charlie Finley by negating million-dollar sales of players like
Joe Rudi and Vida Blue “in the best interest of baseball.”
Under his watch, the owners and the union battled incessantly. A
work stoppage came as part of every collective bargaining season,
culminating in the 1981 strike that took a 50-day, 171-game chunk out of
the regular season.
He also barred from baseball, Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Willie
Mays for their association with an Atlantic City, N.J., casino.
Kuhn, who at 44 years old was the youngest man ever to be named
commissioner, said that the politics of the office was a big part of
what he had to contend with.
“Any commissioner's job in any sport has got its political side,”
he said. “You need to be recognized; you need support. A commissioner
that doesn't create support for things he wants to do won't be
commissioner very long and he's not going to get much done. So you've
got to recognize there are political considerations and, within reason,
try to work with those political considerations to achieve your goals.”
Ultimately, the support he cultivated eroded as the owners kept
losing ground to the players. In 1982, a group of owners organized a
movement to push Kuhn out of baseball. The end came a year later when
they refused to extend his contract, opting instead to hire Peter
Ueberroth, who had just concluded a successful tour as head of the 1984
Los Angeles Olympic Committee.
In 2003, Kuhn received just 20 votes from the 79 members of the
Veterans Committee – 25.3 percent. Miller wasn’t elected, either.
Barry M. Bloom
is a national reporter for MLB.com.
In 1968, at the age of 44, Bowie Kuhn became the youngest commissioner in Major League Baseball history.
(National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
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