Despite support, Kuhn steps aside as baseball boss

Bowie Kuhn's most vocal opposition in his 141/2 years as baseball commissioner has come from people like Charlie Finley, George Steinbrenner, and Ted Turner. Obviously he must have been doing something right!

Most of the game's owners, in fact, thought he was doing plenty right - so much so that nearly 70 percent of them voted to re-elect him to a third seven-year term starting this year. But under baseball's archaic political structure, a dissident minority was able to impose its will and drive him out of office.

All this took place during 20 months of byzantine maneuvering, with Kuhn's announcement of his resignation last week just the final, perhaps inevitable act. What it will mean for baseball, and who the next commissioner will be are questions that only time can answer. But the whole sorry episode pretty well illustrates the truth of the old saying that ''Baseball is a great game; it has to be to survive the people who run it.''

Kuhn's supporters, who included most of the owners with established baseball names and stable, well-run organizations, pointed to the tremendous growth the game has experienced during his tenure. When he took over in 1969, total annual major league attendance was about 23 million, and baseball seemed to be standing still or even falling behind in its battle with pro football and other sports for public favor. By last year, though, attendance had risen to 44.5 million; television revenues had also increased dramatically; and no longer did we see headlines asking, ''Can baseball survive?'' or ''Is baseball doomed?''

The anti-Kuhn cabal, however, was not satisfied. This group consists primarily of ''new breed'' owners - egocentric, image-conscious types whose only idea of how to build a successful organization is to spend more than the other guy in the free-agent market, and whose main interest in life seems to be seeing their pictures in the newspapers or on TV. If they had any real, concrete objection to Kuhn, they never did fully explain it.

They didn't have to, though. Under the game's voting rules (which have been on the books since 1921 but may well be changed in the wake of all this), it takes a three-fourths majority in each league to elect or re-elect a commissioner. And while Kuhn got this margin in the American League, a solid bloc of National League votes held fast against him.

The drama began in December 1981, when nine of the 26 major league owners indicated they would not support Kuhn for reelection. Some positions changed back and forth during the next 11 months, but the pro and con numbers stayed about the same, and when it came time for decision in November 1982, the tally was 18-8 in the commissioner's favor. That's a landslide in an ordinary election , of course, but here it wasn't enough. The breakdown was 11-3 in the American League, but only 7-5 in the National, the latter obviously falling short of the three-fourths requirement.

This meant Kuhn would be through when his second term ended Aug. 12, but his supporters devised a way to keep him in office. The plan called for the Executive Council, which is empowered to run the game in the absence of a commissioner, to take over on Aug. 13 and name Kuhn its ''administrator.''

Kuhn and his supporters had the votes, and they had legal advice that it would stand up in court. But in the end the commissioner, who even his foes admit has always had the best interests of the game at heart, decided against this option. Instead he announced his ''irrevocable and emphatic'' decision to resign, saying that only in this way might the game's establishment regain ''harmony and good will free of the acrimony which has marred our affairs since Dec. 1981.''

The owners then voted 26-0 to extend Kuhn's term in the $250,000-a-year job to Dec. 31 (prompting the commissioner to joke that he was able to get them to agree unanimously on something), and embarked on the search for a new man. Names that have been mentioned include those of Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee; Dr. A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale University; Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association; and former treasury secretary William Simon, who currently serves as president of the US Olympic Committee;

All of them seem like good candidates, but, of course, once the eventual choice actually settles into the position he will begin to look different to some owners. The office itself always has been and probably always will be a natural focal point for controversy.

It began in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal involving fixed World Series games, when the owners, believing that a strong hand at the top was needed to save the game, appointed Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to the post and gave him virtual carte blanche. After his death in 1944, however, the owners made it increasingly clear that they no longer wanted to endow anyone with such absolute power. Landis's successor, former Kentucky Gov. Albert B. (Happy) Chandler, was ousted after one term in a coup similar to the current one. Next came Ford C. Frick for two terms, William D. Eckert for just three years, then Kuhn, a Wall Street lawyer who had been active in baseball legislation.

Since the image of the office had declined to the point where anyone who held it was viewed as a tool of the owners, Kuhn started out with the proverbial two strikes against him - and in his early years the media had a field day at his expense. At 6 ft. 5 in., the commissioner is an unmistakable presence, and his ultra-dignified appearance made him an easy subject for caricature. Then too, he sometimes left himself wide open, as in the famous ''thermal underwear'' caper when he sat through a World Series game sans topcoat one freezing night in an effort to demonstrate that it wasn't really all that cold.

Things like this tended to obscure Kuhn's overall record. In an ironic twist dating back to some of his predecessors, Kuhn was sometimes viewed as a ''do-nothing'' commissioner when in fact he was frequently a strong and forceful one. Several times, for instance, he used the power of his office to prevent rich teams from tipping the competitive scales too far by buying up talent. He also showed a willingness to act decisively and independently of the owners in support of his principles - as in his suspensions at different times of Steinbrenner, the controversial principal owner of the New York Yankees, and Turner, the flamboyant ''Captain Outrageous'' of yachting fame who owns the Atlanta Braves.

These and other moves alienated specific owners - as will the actions of any effective commissioner. Meanwhile, various teams had other real or imaginary complaints. A few opposed his support for eventual revenue-sharing, which could work against clubs in big market areas or lucrative cable TV situations. Other critics seemed to think he was somehow to blame for the escalation in player salaries, which was pretty ridiculous since it was a court decision that created free agency and it is the owners' own childishness that has led to the wild bidding for talent.

There were those who felt he might have done more to get the 1981 strike settled, though this, too, is questionable in view of the lack of authority the commissioner had in what was strictly a labor-management confrontation. Finally, there was a vague notion that he should have been more business-oriented, which flies in the face of the economic gains the game has made during his tenure.

Indeed, it is hard to get away from the idea that the coup - as one pro-Kuhn spokesman put it - really revolved around individual whims and special interests and was engineered by people ''who haven't the slightest concern with the best interests of the game.''

But maybe Kuhn will have the last laugh after all. Asked what he was planning to do next, he indicated he might become an owner himself. ''Then,'' he said with obvious relish, ''I could go to all the meetings and tell the commissioner what a lousy job he's doing!''

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