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.