Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bowie Kuhn 1926-2007

Bowie Kuhn died today. Kuhn became Commissioner of baseball in 1968, when the game was at the nadir of a two-decade decline in profitability and prestige. When Kuhn was forced from office in 1984, the game was well-established in the explosive growth pattern it's followed (with the exception of the 1994 strike since the mid-70s.

This would be a phenomenal record of achievement for Kuhn if he'd had anything to do with it. As Commissioner, however, he vehemently opposed the development which turned baseball around-the advent of free agency and the subsequent salary escalation it spawned. Americans are fascinated by sudden wealth. All fears to the contrary, the more owners paid their players, the more fans were willing to pay more money to watch those players in action.

Whether or not Kuhn believed all the silly things he said about free agency remains unknown. He said what he was told to say by his owner-bosses. Thus, instead of credit for presiding over the baseball boom, Kuhn will be remembered most for refusing to wear a topcoat or use an umbrella in inclement weather during post-season games. In those innocent days, bigwigs sat down in front. The luxury box was in its infancy.

Kuhn looked ridiculous trying to pretend it wasn't cold, so he will be recalled as a ridiculous figure. Sportswriters and fans sneered at Kuhn for failing to settle the baseball strikes of 1972 and the long walkout of 1981. This was naive. As the owners' mouthpiece, Kuhn had no credibility with the players and no authority to impose or even suggest his own settlement.

Once again, however, ridicule was Kuhn's destiny, as the line about the strike became, "this would never have happened if Bowie Kuhn was still alive."

All commissioners deserve SOME ridicule. Being a well-paid, well-dressed sock puppet for a gang of spoiled zillionaires sets a fellow up for pratfalls. But in Kuhn's case, the jibes were overdone. If Kuhn didn't have much to do with baseball's revival, he didn't do anything to hinder it, either. He was a fine Commissioner King Log.

Just like the frogs in the fable, the owners got mad at Kuhn for failing to exercise the power they didn't give him, and dumped him for Peter Ueberroth. Commissioner King Stork came up with collusion brainstorm, and wound up costing the moguls over $80 million. Bud Selig led them into the strike of '94, and wound up costing them $1 BILLION, all for nothing. Compared to those two, the log without a topcoat looks pretty good.

In private, Kuhn was anything but a stuffed shirt. He was a laid-back, convivial conversalist who enjoyed the occasional Scotch, and whose personal hopes for the future of baseball were more radical than one would've ever believed. Speaking to Harvard Law Students in 1978, Kuhn expressed the hope he'd be commissioner when the first woman player made the majors.

It didn't happen. It hasn't happened yet. It will someday, though, and I hope the gallant pioneer gives the memory of Bowie Kuhn a shout-out when she celebrates the happy day.


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