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28 Oct 1926 1
Death:
15 Mar 2007 1
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Full Name:
Bowie K Kuhn 1
Birth:
28 Oct 1926 1
Death:
15 Mar 2007 1
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Last Residence: Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 1
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Bowie Kuhn, 80, Former Baseball Commissioner, Dies

  Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball during a tumultuous 15-year period when the game experienced dramatic growth accompanied by unprecedented labor strife, died yesterday at a hospital in Jacksonville, Fla. Kuhn, who lived in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., was 80.

Associated Press

Bowie Kuhn addressing members of the news media in 1970 when he suspended Denny McLain, a star pitcher for the Detroit Tigers.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, his family said. Kuhn had heart surgery in October 2004.

In Kuhn’s tenure as baseball’s fifth commissioner — from 1969 to 1984 — attendance, salaries, television revenue and franchise values soared, the major leagues expanded into Canada and realigned into divisional play, the World Series became a night-time spectacle, and players won the right to free agency and staged their first strikes.

Kuhn was in the midst of the storms. He fined or suspended high-profile owners like the Yankees’ George Steinbrenner, the Oakland Athletics’ Charles O. Finley and the Atlanta Braves’ Ted Turner. He struck down million-dollar sales of star players, vied against the players’ union leader, Marvin Miller, and fended off threats to his job.

Kuhn viewed himself as a lifelong fan determined to uphold the integrity of baseball, promote competitive balance and enhance the game’s marketing, all the while bemoaning sharply rising salaries that he claimed imperiled the sport’s financial viability. But to his detractors, he was often self-righteous, pompous and inconsistent in his rulings, and subservient to the owners who hired him.

Finley, the maverick basher of the baseball establishment, likened Kuhn to “the village idiot.”

But Peter O’Malley, then the Los Angeles Dodgers’ owner, viewed Kuhn as having upheld important values. “His support of the integrity of the game was excellent,” O’Malley said as Kuhn’s tenure neared its end. “The game has never been more popular.”

Bowie Kent Kuhn grew up in Washington, the youngest of three children. His father, Louis, an immigrant from Bavaria, was an executive with a fuel company. His mother, Alice, her roots in 17th-century Maryland, descended from five governors, two United States senators and the frontiersman Jim Bowie.

As a youngster, Kuhn worked in a $1-a-day job tending to the scoreboard at the Washington Senators’ Griffith Stadium.

He graduated from Princeton and the University of Virginia Law School, and became a partner in Willkie Farr & Gallagher, the National League’s law firm. In 1966, he won an antitrust court battle clearing the way for the Braves’ move from Milwaukee to Atlanta.

Kuhn was elected baseball commissioner as a compromise choice on Feb. 4, 1969, two months after the club owners fired William D. Eckert, a retired Air Force general who was a figurehead. Kuhn was a baseball insider, he was familiar with the legal challenges increasingly facing the game, and he was a good speaker with a 6-foot-5-inch frame cutting a forceful image.

The owners gave Kuhn a one-year, interim contract, but he quickly asserted himself. When the players’ union urged its members not to sign contacts for the 1969 season, imperiling spring training, in a dispute over pension demands, Kuhn orchestrated a settlement favorable to the players.

Expansion teams began play in 1969 in Montreal, Seattle, San Diego and Kansas City. With two 12-team leagues split into divisions, baseball inaugurated a playoff system as a prelude to the World Series, foreshadowing a rise in the game’s popularity.

In August 1970, Kuhn was elected to a seven-year term with a contract valued at more than $1 million. But troubles had arrived for the baseball hierarchy.

Curt Flood, a star outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals, had asked Kuhn to void his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season and allow him to sign with a team of his choice. Flood maintained that the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams until they were traded or released, violated federal antitrust law.

Kuhn rejected the demand, and when Flood sued in federal court, Kuhn testified against him, predicting that baseball would be engulfed in chaos if players could sell themselves to the highest bidder. Flood ultimately lost in the Supreme Court, but the drive for free agency had begun.

Bowie Kuhn, 80, Former Baseball Commissioner, Dies II

Kuhn’s suspension of the Detroit Tigers’ star pitcher Denny McLain from April 1 to July 1, 1970, for past involvement with bookmakers, was alternately criticized as too lenient or too harsh. When Jim Bouton, then pitching for the Houston Astros, collaborated with the journalist Leonard Schechter on “Ball Four,” a behind-the-scenes and sometimes risqué look at baseball, Kuhn called him in to voice his dismay. The flap served only to boost the book’s sales.

Kuhn championed World Series night games, inaugurated in 1971, a move that brought enhanced television revenue but much criticism. When Kuhn sat in the stands without a topcoat, seemingly in denial while everyone else was shivering, during Game 2 of the 1976 World Series on a frigid night in Cincinnati, he became the object of ridicule.

In 1972, the players staged their first general strike, a 13-day walkout, with pensions again at issue. Kuhn essentially stayed out of the dispute, leaving matters to management’s Player Relations Committee.

Kuhn was faced with a contentious issue of another sort when the Atlanta Braves sought to hold Hank Aaron out of their 1974 season-opening series in Cincinnati so he could eclipse Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714 when the team played at home. Kuhn ordered the Braves to play Aaron in Cincinnati, citing the need to protect the integrity of the game.

Aaron tied Ruth’s record in the season opener, with Kuhn present. But when Aaron broke the record in the Braves’ first home game, against the Dodgers, Kuhn was in Cleveland. He had sent Monte Irvin, a baseball official and one of the major leagues’ first black stars, in his place, rankling Aaron for some time to come.

Kuhn became embroiled, meanwhile, in disputes with owners. He fined or reprimanded Finley several times, and in November 1974 he suspended Steinbrenner for two years after he pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign. (The ban was dropped after 15 months.)

In the summer of 1975, Finley was among several owners who sought to block Kuhn from a second seven-year term that would begin in August 1976, but Kuhn won re-election with key support from O’Malley.

In December 1975, an arbitrator ruled that players were bound to their teams only for the lengths of their contracts, a fatal blow to the reserve system that Flood had challenged.

Labor turmoil arose once more 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 June 1976, Finley, anticipating the loss of his best players to free agency, sold pitcher Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million and outfielder Joe Rudi and reliever Rollie Fingers to the Boston Red Sox for $1 million each. Kuhn voided the sales on grounds that they would upset the sport’s competitive balance. It was the first time a commissioner had canceled a cash deal. Finley sued Kuhn and the major leagues in federal court, but lost.

Kuhn clashed with ownership again in 1977, levying a one-year suspension against the Braves’ Turner for improper conduct in pursuing Gary Matthews, a San Francisco Giantsoutfielder, when he was planning to file for free agency.

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. That resulted in the Cincinnati Reds’ failing to make the playoffs, although they had the best overall record in the major leagues.

When Kuhn became commissioner, baseball was often derided as slow and dull in comparison with pro football. Baseball became revitalized in Kuhn’s years as commissioner, but management’s battles with Miller and the players’ union overshadowed the turnaround.

“There was about Miller a wariness one would find in an abused animal,” Kuhn wrote in “Hardball,” his memoir. “It precluded trust or affection.”

Miller had been pleased with the labor accord Kuhn brokered in 1969, but their relationship deteriorated over the years. In his own memoir, “A Whole Different Ball Game,” Miller accused Kuhn of violating “basic rights” of players and others in the game “in his efforts to give the impression that he was in control.”

On a front beyond the labor strife, Kuhn was determined to be vigilant against gambling. He barred Willie Mays, in 1979, and Mickey Mantle, in 1983, from further association with baseball because of their promotional work for casinos.

Although most owners continued to support him, Kuhn failed to muster enough votes for a third seven-year term, which would have begun in 1983. He stayed on during a search for his successor, then left on Oct. 1, 1984, when Peter Ueberroth replaced him. Soon after his election, Ueberroth reinstated Mays and Mantle.

Kuhn returned to his former law firm, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, then joined with the lawyer Harvey Myerson to form Myerson & Kuhn in January 1988. Their firm filed for bankruptcy in December 1989, and Kuhn moved from New Jersey to Florida. His creditors charged that Kuhn was seeking to avoid them, but he denied that. He later formed a consulting firm and spoke widely about his Roman Catholic beliefs.

He is survived by his wife, Luisa; his son, Stephen, of Chappaqua, N.Y.; his daughter, Alix Bower of Ridgefield, Conn.; two stepsons, Paul Degener, of Redding, Conn., and George Degener of Somers, N.Y.; a sister, Alice McKinley of St. Augustine, Fla.; and 10 grandchildren.

Upon losing his bid for a third term, Kuhn summed up his perception of the commissioner’s mandate in offering advice for his successor.

“He’ll be told, for instance, that legalized gambling and baseball are perfectly compatible and that we can even turn a profit from the relationship,” Kuhn wrote in The New York Times. “He should tell the compromisers to get lost. They are burglars of our patrimony. They will never understand the threat to baseball posed by such things as legalized gambling, sports betting, drug abuse and undesirable associations. He should use his powers fearlessly to protect the integrity of the game. The critics will call him self-righteous and moralistic. Have courage. Ignore them.”

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