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Kuhn guided baseball through several changes

Commissioner from 1968-1984, as free agency and designated hitter rule emerged

January 29, 2007 | Barry M. Bloom

COOPERSTOWN, 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.

Bowie Kuhn

In 1968, at the age of 44, Bowie Kuhn became the youngest commissioner in Major League Baseball history. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

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 Association.

“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 of trade.

“They liked the reserve system the way it was,” Kuhn said about the group of owners he represented. “They weren't very anxious to change anything.”

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.

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