Bowie Kuhn, baseball’s head during labor strife, dies at 80

first_imgKuhn was elected baseball commissioner as a compromise choice on Feb. 4, 1969, two months after the club owners fired William D. Eckert, a retired Air Force general who was a figurehead. Kuhn was a baseball insider, he was familiar with the legal challenges increasingly facing the game, and he was a good speaker, with a 6-foot-5-inch frame cutting a forceful image. In August 1970, Kuhn was elected to a seven-year term with a contract valued at more than $1 million. But troubles had arrived for the baseball hierarchy. Curt Flood, the St. Louis Cardinals’ star outfielder, had asked Kuhn to void his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season and allow him to sign with a team of his choice. Flood maintained that the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams until they were traded or released, violated federal antitrust law. Kuhn rejected the demand, and when Flood sued in federal court, Kuhn testified against him, predicting that baseball would be engulfed in chaos if players could sell themselves to the highest bidder. Flood ultimately lost in the Supreme Court, but the drive for free agency had begun. Kuhn’s suspension of the Detroit Tigers’ star pitcher Denny McLain from April 1 to July 1, 1970, for past involvement with bookmakers was alternately criticized as too lenient or too harsh. When Jim Bouton, then pitching for the Houston Astros, collaborated with journalist Leonard Schechter on “Ball Four,” a behind-the-scenes and sometimes risque look at baseball, Kuhn called him in to voice his dismay. The flap served only to boost the book’s sales. Kuhn championed World Series night games, inaugurated in 1971, a move that brought enhanced television revenues but much criticism. In 1972, the players staged their first general strike, a 13-day walkout, with pensions again at issue. Kuhn essentially stayed out of the dispute, leaving matters to management’s Player Relations Committee. Kuhn was faced with a contentious issue of another sort when the Atlanta Braves sought to hold Hank Aaron out of their 1974 season-opening series in Cincinnati so he could eclipse Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714 when the team played at home. Kuhn ordered the Braves to play Aaron in Cincinnati, citing the need to protect the integrity of the game. Aaron tied Ruth’s record in the season-opener, then broke the record in the Braves’ first home game, against the Dodgers. Kuhn, meanwhile, fined or reprimanded Finley several times, and in November 1974, suspended Steinbrenner for two years after Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign. (The ban was dropped after 15 months.) He barred Willie Mays, in 1979, and Mickey Mantle, in 1983, from further association with baseball because of their promotional work for casinos, bans overturned by his successor. Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball during a tumultuous 15-year period when the game experienced dramatic growth accompanied by unprecedented labor strife, died Thursday at a hospital in Jacksonville, Fla. Kuhn, who lived in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., was 80. His death was announced by his son Paul, who said he had a respiratory ailment. He had heart surgery in October 2004. In Kuhn’s tenure as baseball’s fifth commissioner – from 1969 to 1984 – attendance, salaries, television revenue and franchise values soared, the major leagues expanded into Canada and realigned into divisional play, the World Series became a night-time spectacle, and players won the right to free agency and staged their first strikes. Kuhn was in the midst of the storms. He fined or suspended high-profile owners like the New York Yankees’ George Steinbrenner, the Oakland A’s Charlie Finley and the Atlanta Braves’ Ted Turner. He struck down million-dollar sales of star players, vied against the players’ union leader, Marvin Miller, and fended off threats to his job. Kuhn viewed himself as a lifelong fan determined to uphold the integrity of baseball, promote competitive balance and enhance the game’s marketing, all the while bemoaning sharply rising salaries that he claimed imperiled the sport’s financial viability. But to his detractors, he was often self-righteous, pompous and inconsistent in his rulings and subservient to the owners who hired him. Finley, the maverick basher of the baseball establishment, famously likened Kuhn to “the village idiot.” But Peter O’Malley, then the Los Angeles Dodgers’ owner, viewed Kuhn as having upheld important values. Bowie Kent Kuhn was born in Takoma Park, Md., and grew up in Washington, the youngest of three children. He graduated from Princeton and the University of Virginia Law School and became a partner in Willkie Farr & Gallagher, the National League’s law firm. In 1966, he won an antitrust court battle clearing the way for the Braves’ move from Milwaukee to Atlanta. last_img read more