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The Commissioner Series: Bowie Kuhn

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  • The Commissioner Series: Bowie Kuhn

    Bowie Kuhn (1926 - 2007)

    5th commissioner of baseball.

    Tenure: (February 1969 - September 1984)

    After the failed experiment that was William Eckert, MLB owners decided to go back to the well and find someone with legal experience to become the 5th commissioner of MLB.

    Bowie Kuhn actually started his "baseball" career as a youngster, where he worked in a $1-a-day job tending to the scoreboard at the Washington Senators’ Griffith Stadium. He later went on to earn his law degree in 1950 from the University of Virginia. After his graduation from law school, Kuhn became a member of the New York City law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher because the firm represented the National League. Kuhn served as a counselor for the NL in a lawsuit brought against it by the City of Milwaukee when the Braves moved to Atlanta following the 1965 season. Kuhn was very aware of the inner workings of Major League Baseball and seemed like a logical choice for the commissioner job. Bowie Kuhn had the distinction of being the youngest (42), tallest (6-foot-5), and heaviest (240 pounds, 109 kg) commissioner in history.

    Looking over Bowie Kuhn tenure as commissioner, I think he deserved the moniker "Battling" Bowie Kuhn. His 15 years in office saw him fighting the Players Association, the owners, current and former players. Over those same 15 years, Major League Baseball grew from 20 to 26 teams and attendance increased from 23 million fans in 1968 to 45.5 million in 1983.

    Kuhn suspended numerous players and banned a few. He took a strong stance against any activity that he perceived to be "not in the best interests of baseball." He suspended Denny McLain (Involved with bookmaking and carrying a gun), Banned Mays and Mantle for promoting casinos and called out Jim Bouton for his book, Ball Four. Surprisingly, he did nothing about the wife swapping Yankee players Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich. Bowie Kuhn also fought the war on drugs, suspending 4 members of the Royals and Fergie Jenkins for drug use! Owner George Steinbrenner was also suspended for making illegal campaign contributions.

    As previously mentioned, Kuhn seemed to be battling everyone during his tenure as commish. Just a few of the highlights are here.

    "Battling" Bowie vs. Curt Flood: Curt Flood did not want to be traded and refused to show up. He wanted Kuhn to overturn the reserve clause and declare him a free agent. Kuhn refused and Flood filed a lawsuit against Kuhn and MLB. Eventually the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Kuhn's favor. Kuhn 1, Opponents 0

    "Battling" Bowie vs. Charles O. Finley: A repeated opponent of Commissioner Kuhn, Finley lost the first round when he tried to force a player to sign a statement declaring he was injured during the World Series, after the player committed a couple errors, so that another player could be called up. Kuhn overturned the decision. In round two, Finley tried to have Bowie ousted as commissioner in 1975. He lost that round as well. Finally, Finley tried to have a fire sale of his best players, sending them to the Yanks and Red Sox. Kuhn overturned that decision as well. Kuhn 4, Opponents 0

    "Battling" Bowie vs. "Hammerin" Hank Aaron: The Braves wanted Hank to brake the all-time HR record at home and planned on sitting him at the beginning of the season so that he could do so. Kuhn ruled against the Braves and said Hank must play 2 out of 3 games. In a classless move, Kuhn failed to appear at the game in which Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record. Kuhn 5, Opponents 0

    "Battling" Bowie vs. Ted Turner: In a heavy handed move, Kuhn had ordered owners not to talk about potential free agents. Turner talked about making a play for the Giants Gary Matthews. Kuhn fined Turner, suspended him from baseball for one year, and penalized his club with the loss of a draft choice. Turner sued and lost. Kuhn 6, Opponents 0

    Other highlights of Bowie's career:

    In 1971, Kuhn introduced night baseball to the World Series.
    He oversaw expanded television coverage.
    Divisional play began in each league.
    Gave lifetime baseball passes to the 52 Iranian hostages when they returned to the US.

    Labor issues marked the entirety of Bowie's term as commissioner. When the players’ union urged its members not to sign contacts for the 1969 season, Kuhn orchestrated a settlement favorable to the players. He presided over a work stoppage in 1972 (13 days). In 1975 the reserve clause was overturned. In 1976, when the club owners refused to open spring training camps after union negotiations had stalled. Kuhn ordered an end to the lockout in mid-March. In 1981, players staged a 50-day strike to protest a plan to compensate clubs that were losing players to free agency. When the strike ended, Kuhn decreed a controversial split-season format to determine the playoff teams. One ongoing battle that Kuhn never won was his encounters the Players Union, Marvin Miller who seemed to hand Bowie a loss each time. After 3 strikes and 2 lockouts, the average players' salary rose from $19,000 to $241,000 a year.

    In 1983, the owners decided it was time for Kuhn to go and when Bowie's term expired, he returned to the law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher and became the president of the Kent Group, a business, sports and financial consulting firm. He later partnered in a different law firm that went bankrupt. He was very active in Catholic charities and served on the boards of several companies.

    Kuhn had heart surgery in 2004 and died in 2007 from complications from pneumonia. He was Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008.

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