Former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn takes his turn at bat. Discusses battles with owners, players during his years in job
Throughout his 15 years as baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn was a prophet without honor in his own country. The press took shots at him for just about everything - the lengths to which he carried his vehement anti-gambling and anti-drug positions; his courting of the TV networks; his handling of labor-management relations; his support of the designated hitter; even the thermal underwear he wore while sitting sans topcoat at one bitter cold World Series night game. The players and their union leaders viewed him with suspicion, assuming that it went with the territory for the commissioner, who is elected and paid by the owners, to be pro-management. But some owners weren't so sure about him either, eventually staging a coup that forced him out of office. Yes, Kuhn had plenty of critics, and took more than his share of flak from all directions. But now from the vantage point of nearly three years later, it seems increasingly clear that the game had a firm and skillful hand at its helm during his tenure. The 1970s and early '80s were undoubtedly among the most turbulent years in baseball's entire history. And the bottom line is that the sport Kuhn bequeathed to his successor, Peter Ueberroth, in 1984 was in far better shape than the one he inherited back in 1969.Skip to next paragraph
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A lot of this is spelled out in Kuhn's new book, ``Hardball'' (443 pp., Times Books, $19.95). And he further elaborated on some key points in a recent interview with the Monitor.
Despite rapid and dramatic changes in many areas during his time in office, the former commissioner had no trouble singling out the most far-reaching one.
``The whole area of player relations was the biggest thing I had to deal with, and the one that, in the long term, came out not nearly as well as I had hoped,'' he said. ``If I could be granted one great wish for baseball, it would be for player-management relations to get on a more even keel.''
Kuhn makes no bones about which side he thinks deserves most of the blame for the various labor problems that occurred during his tenure, climaxed by the two-month strike of 1981.
``In terms of enlightenment, management has come light years during my time in the game,'' he said. ``The players haven't done so.''
Of course it is statements like this that add fuel to the fire of Kuhn's critics, who see them as evidence of a pro-management bias. The ex-commissioner, however, contends that his concern has always been the long-term interest of the game, and that his views simply represent an objective assessment of the situation.
``I think I knew more about the game and its welfare than anybody - and I still do,'' he said. ``If that's arrogant, so be it.''
Kuhn's knowledge of baseball both on and off the field is indeed impressive - a fact conveniently ignored by his critics. They preferred to paint him as as a ``stuffed shirt'' lawyer whose only interest in the game was as a corporate client. And if this wasn't really an accurate depiction of the onetime scoreboard boy at Washington's Griffith Stadium, or of the adult who is still an avid and knowledgeable fan, well, why let the facts stand in the way of a good story?
``Yes, I think a lot of them had very strong preconceptions,'' Kuhn said when asked about his media critics. ``I was a Wall Street lawyer, and I was named Bowie. I was 6-5 and had a big voice. And I had represented the National League.
``Once people have such a thought, they want to stick with it,'' he added. ``It becomes a matter of pride.''
Perhaps the most recurrent criticism leveled at Kuhn by writers (including this one) was that he was too involved with the TV and marketing aspects of baseball as opposed to the traditional values of the game. Exhibit A is his support for the designated hitter, while Exhibit B is the fact that it was he who introduced World Series night games and then escalated them to the point where the entire show is now held on late-October evenings that are frequently unsuitable for top-quality baseball and/or uncomfortable for both players and paying customers.