Former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn takes his turn at bat. Discusses battles with owners, players during his years in job

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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.

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.

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``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.

Kuhn says, however, that despite such ``evidence,'' he is actually a traditionalist at heart - that he went the other way in these cases only after much soul-searching, and because, on balance, he felt the pluses outweighed the minuses. A lot of this, he says, goes back to the condition he found the game in when he took over. It was still the 1960s, he reminds us, with all that implied in terms of social upheaval. Some people were saying that baseball, like other institutions, was pass'e - that more action-oriented and TV-focused sports like football were usurping its place in the public imagination.

``Baseball had problems,'' he recalled. ``We were at the point where we had to do something to show we cared, to show we were alive. I remember Bob Reynolds [co-owner of the California Angels] telling me: `...do something, even if it's wrong, do something.'''

He pushed for the designated hitter (``the game needed to be shaken up''), and for night World Series games - a move he still defends.

``TV was absolutely the key to baseball's resurgence in the '70s, and the main thing was the postseason night games,'' he said.

Kuhn writes at one point in his book that ``The two great nightmares of my time as commissioner were the strike of 1981 and drug abuse.'' And again he faults the players and their union - contending that by refusing to cooperate in testing programs they are disregarding the game's best interests.

``Some progress has been made,'' he told the Monitor. ``Peter [Ueberroth] has done some good things - particularly in the minor leagues where he has more flexibiity in things like testing. But I don't see the ideal situation emerging unless the union and the clubs work together on the problem. So far they haven't been doing this.''

Throughout his tenure, Kuhn also was ever-vigilant concerning gambling, and he cautions that the game and its leaders must remain so.

``You have to take a tough stand ... send people a message,'' he said. ``The growth of illegal gambling has been enormous. There's an awful lot of it on all team sports, which creates a danger to the sport's integrity.

Kuhn's stance on this issue was generally applauded, yet even here he was sometimes accused of going too far. When he decreed that Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle couldn't work for gambling casinos and retain their official ties to organized baseball, for example, there was quite an outcry - even though he had made similar rulings involving club owners and other management people with virtually no adverse reaction.

``I did accuse people of having a double standard in these cases,'' he said. ``... You can pound the owners, I guess - but not popular ballplayers.''

Kuhn was on more popular ground in his many well-publicized battles with some of the game's more controversial owners - George Steinbrenner, Ted Turner, Charlie Finley, etc. Whenever he was reprimanding, suspending, fining, or taking legal action against these types, the press and public were usually with him. Indeed, even some of the commissioner's severest critics conceded that anyone who numbered this trio among his enemies must be doing something right!

Anyway, the long, tough struggle in a thankless position is over now for Kuhn, who is settled back again with his New York law firm. And while he concentrates on his old-new career, where does he see the game heading?

Referring to an interview nine years ago when his long-range predictions included expansion, alteration of divisional structures, and international play, Kuhn said:

``I'll stick by all of those - and I don't think the wait will be so long now. I expect more expansion in three to five years. And within 10 years I think they will have the plan I developed for expanding from 26 to 32 teams.''

Finally, how does he feel looking back on those 15 tumultuous years? Was it worth all the aggravation?

``That one's easy,'' he said. ``With all the problems, all the Finleys, the Steinbrenners, the Turners, and the rest, I wouldn't give up a minute of it!''

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