Interesting to read all the comments regarding the legacy of former major league commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who died Thursday at age 80. For the most part, most of them are dead accurate, as are the obits of his passing. Kuhn, more than anything, was a product of his time. The game underwent incredible growth and endured incredible turmoil during his 15 years in charge, but it’s likely anybody who sat in that desk during that particular time period would’ve overseen the same thing.
Now, whether that makes him a good commissioner is an entirely different question. HIs combative nature led to a pair of in-season work stoppages, the initial one (in 1972) the first of its kind in professional sports and the second one (in 1981) a two-month hiatus that left a significant wound and eventually led to his downfall. And he fought with several oweners (A’s owner Charlie O. Finley), a couple of legends (Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle), a pioneer (Curt Flood) and a union leader (Marvin Miller), all to the game’s detriment. So clearly, baseball might’ve been better served with a leader more educated in the finer points of mediation.
It was also under Kuhn that night games at the World Series were introduced, including ones on the weekend. Over the long run, I’m not sure that was in the game’s best interest, but it certainly wasn’t in the fans’, especially those on the East Coast.
On the other hand, Kuhn also brought us the designated hitter, and an endless debate about what set of rules are better, the American League’s or the National League’s. He also oversaw the growth of baseball from 20-26 teams, creating more jobs for dozens of players who otherwise may have toiled forever in the minors. Salaries exploded, attendance records were set, and the game essentially moved into the modern era. Many of the staples of the modern game may not be here were it not for Kuhn.
What will always stand out to me is the way he at least made an attempt to show the game cared about the fans. I’ll never forget getting the call from a friend of my parents on that June night in 1976, telling me that Finley had just sold Joe Rudi (still, my all-time idol), Rollie Fingers and Vida Blue to the Boston Red Sox. I burst into tears, ran into my room, and told my mother through my sniffles that it couldn’t be true. I believe it was the next day that Kuhn voided the deal under the “best interests of baseball” clause. In my 7-year-old mind, Kuhn was as great a leader as they come.
Of course, Rudi and Fingers left that following winter anyway, as the forces of free agency started to gain steam (Blue eventually was traded to the Giants). Progress, if we can call it that, is a painful thing. And Kuhn, like most others, was probably powerless to stop it.