Former Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn Dead At 80

Friday, March 16th 2007, 7:42 am
By: News On 6

Bowie Kuhn kept a regal bearing, ruling over baseball like an emperor even as his authority eroded.

He was baseball's bespectacled Ivy League lawyer and looked the part every day of the tumultuous 15 years he ruled as commissioner. Prim and proper with wire-rim glasses, he stood ramrod straight _ all 6-foot-5 of him.

Detractors called him a ``stuffed shirt'' and ``pompous,'' labels that amused him. With an imperious attitude, he could be as ornery as the owners and players he feuded with over a span that became the second-longest tenure among nine commissioners.

Kuhn, who oversaw the sport's transformation to a business of free agents with multimillion-dollar contracts, died Thursday at St. Luke's Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., following a short bout with pneumonia that led to respiratory failure, spokesman Bob Wirz said. Kuhn, who was 80, had been hospitalized for several weeks.

``He led our game through a great deal of change and controversy,'' commissioner Bud Selig said. ``Yet, Bowie laid the groundwork for the success we enjoy today.''

Kuhn loved baseball long before he moved into its main New York office, having worked as a manual scoreboard operator at Washington's Griffith Stadium.

When Kuhn took over from William Eckert on Feb. 4, 1969, baseball just had completed its final season as a tradition-bound 20-team sport, one with no playoffs, a reserve clause and an average salary of about $19,000.

Kuhn battled the rise of the NFL and a combative players' union that besieged him with lawsuits, grievances and work stoppages. Yet it was also a time of record attendance and revenue and a huge expansion of the sport's television presence.

``He wore the mantle really well. He liked being commissioner,'' Yankees manager Joe Torre said. ``He never seemed to compromise on what he felt he needed to do.''

Along with Kuhn's bumpy reign came a string of controversial decisions.

When Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth's career record in 1974, Kuhn was not in the stands. Kuhn had been at the game when Aaron hit No. 714.

And he banned Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, Hall of Famers both, from associating with their former teams because of liaisons with casinos.

By the time Peter Ueberroth succeeded Kuhn on Oct. 1, 1984, the major leagues had 26 teams in four divisions, a designated hitter in the American League, the first night World Series games, color-splashed uniforms, free agency and an average salary of nearly $330,000.

``I want it to be remembered that I was commissioner during a time of tremendous growth in the popularity of the game,'' Kuhn said, ``and that it was a time in which no one could question the integrity of the game.''

It was also a time of memorable confrontations. Kuhn did battle with the likes of Charles O. Finley, George Steinbrenner, Ted Turner and Ray Kroc. Finley once called Kuhn ``the village idiot.''

He also tangled with stars Mays, Mantle, Curt Flood and Denny McLain, and union head Marvin Miller. His downfall came after he presided over a 50-day strike that split the 1981 season in half.

``Bowie was a good guy, and I admired him. Even though we had our disagreements, I never lost my respect for his integrity,'' Steinbrenner said through spokesman Howard Rubenstein.

Born in Takoma Park, Md., on Oct. 28, 1926, Kuhn grew up in Washington, D.C., as a fan of the original Washington Senators _ yet he allowed the expansion Senators to leave after the 1971 season and become the Texas Rangers. He graduated from Princeton in 1947 and received his law degree in 1950 from Virginia.

After school, he joined the law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, which represented the National League. In 1966, he represented the Milwaukee Braves in their legal battle with the city over a move to Atlanta and gained the respect of the league's owners.

He eventually lost that respect through repeated confrontations with many of those owners, who kept him from getting involved in negotiations during the 1981 strike.

``I think it's easy to be critical, but I know what it's like,'' said Fay Vincent, who was commissioner from 1989-92. ``It's a very difficult group to work for. It's important to remember he was making decisions in a very different time, in a difficult environment.''

Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner in 1974 for two years _ later shortened to 15 months _ for his guilty plea regarding illegal campaign contributions to President Nixon's re-election campaign. He then suspended Turner, the Braves' owner, in 1976 for tampering with the contract of Gary Matthews.

In 1976, he voided the attempt by Finley's Oakland Athletics to sell Vida Blue, Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers for a combined price of $3.5 million, saying the deals weren't in the best interests of baseball.

He fined San Diego Padres owner Kroc $100,000 in 1979 for saying he wanted to sign Joe Morgan of the Reds and Graig Nettles of the Yankees.

Business also boomed on his watch, with revenue growing from $163 million in 1975 to $624 million in 1984. Players wanted their cut.

Flood sued to gain free agency, but lost his U.S. Supreme Court case in 1972. In 1975, the union finally ended the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams forever, winning an arbitration case filed on behalf of Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith. Baseball hasn't been the same since.

``He was in a difficult, untenable position in that whole period,'' Miller said.

On the field, Kuhn injected himself into Aaron's chase for Ruth's home-run record by ordering Braves manager Eddie Mathews to play Aaron in 1974's season-opening series at Cincinnati. Aaron entered with 713 homers, one shy of Ruth's mark.

A year later, Finley led a group that attempted to oust Kuhn as his first term ended. But Kuhn managed to gain re-election with the support of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley.

By 1982, a year after the strike _ baseball's fifth work stoppage under Kuhn _ owners were ready for change. At a Nov. 1 meeting at a Chicago airport hotel, AL owners voted 11-3 to give Kuhn another term, but the NL vote was 7-5, short of the overall 75 percent needed.

In 1988, he formed the law firm Myerson & Kuhn with Harvey Myerson, but two years later it filed for bankruptcy. He sold his house in Ridgewood, N.J., and moved to Ponte Vedra Beach, where his home was shielded from bankruptcy proceedings.

He is survived by wife Luisa Kuhn, son Stephen Kuhn, daughter Alix Bower, and stepsons Paul and George Degener.

A funeral is planned in Ponte Vedra Beach, to be followed in the spring by a memorial service in Quogue, N.Y. In lieu of flowers, the family said donations may be made to: The Ave Maria Foundation, One Ave Maria Drive, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48106-0373.