Bowie Kuhn; Commissioner Modernized Baseball

Bowie Kuhn honors the Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron after he tied Babe Ruth for career home runs. Under Kuhn, the number of teams grew and the World Series moved to nights.
Bowie Kuhn honors the Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron after he tied Babe Ruth for career home runs. Under Kuhn, the number of teams grew and the World Series moved to nights. (1974 Photo By Bob Johnson -- Associated Press)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

Bowie Kuhn, 80, a lawyer whose first job in baseball was operating the old Griffith Stadium scoreboard while growing up in Washington and who would go on to serve as commissioner of baseball during a particularly tumultuous time in the game's history, died March 15 of pneumonia at St. Luke's Hospital in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. He had heart surgery in October 2004.

During his 15-year tenure, the second-longest among nine commissioners, Major League Baseball expanded into Canada, realigned its two leagues into divisions and instituted a playoff system. Mr. Kuhn presided over a tradition-laden sport that transformed itself into a high-profile entertainment business, complete with free agency and soaring salaries for players, huge TV revenue and the occasional work stoppage.

An imposing Wall Street lawyer, Mr. Kuhn was instantly recognizable even to casual fans after Game 2 of the 1976 World Series, played at night in Cincinnati. Mr. Kuhn was the tall man in a front-row box who was not wearing an overcoat, despite the frigid weather.

He had made the decision in 1971 to switch the World Series games from afternoon to night, expecting to attract a prime-time audience. Spurning an overcoat was meant to show that autumn weather after the sun went down was of negligible concern to players and fans. World Series games continue to be played at night.

Playing the World Series in prime time was one of many decisions by Mr. Kuhn that had a lasting effect on the game. During his tenure, baseball went from a 20-team sport with no playoffs and an average player salary of about $19,000 to 26 teams in four divisions and an average salary of nearly $330,000. Attendance grew from 23 million in 1968 to 44.6 million in 1982.

Shortly after taking office, he was forced to deal with a legal challenge to baseball's historic reserve clause, which bound players to their clubs until they were traded or released. The challenge came from St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood, who refused to play when he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969.

"After 12 years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes," Flood wrote to Mr. Kuhn.

The star outfielder sued the commissioner and Major League Baseball, alleging a violation of federal antitrust laws. Mr. Kuhn testified against him, arguing that without the reserve clause, teams would lose their individual identities and fans would be unable to relate to a new crop of players each year. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld lower court decisions in favor of Major League Baseball, ruling that federal antitrust laws did not apply.

In 1975, the players union won an arbitration case that in effect put an end to the reserve clause. Player salaries skyrocketed as they marketed their services to the highest bidder.

Mr. Kuhn dealt with five work stoppages. He suspended Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain for dealing with bookmakers and barred legends Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from associating with the game after they took promotional jobs with casinos. He also suspended New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for his guilty plea regarding illegal contributions to President Richard M. Nixon's reelection campaign.

Mr. Kuhn butted heads with a number of colorful and strong-willed owners, not only Steinbrenner but also Ted Turner of the Atlanta Braves, Ray Kroc of the San Diego Padres and Charles O. Finley of the Oakland A's (who called him "the village idiot").

Bowie Kent Kuhn, a descendant on his mother's side of Texas frontiersman and Alamo martyr Jim Bowie, was born in Takoma Park and grew up in the District. His father, a Bavarian immigrant, was in the retail oil business.

At Theodore Roosevelt High School, he was president of the Honor Society, the Bank Club, the Saber Club and the Spanish Club and was elected "most likely to succeed" his senior year. He played basketball -- his coach was the legendary Red Auerbach -- but he was always second-string despite being 6-foot-5. He worked the Griffith Stadium scoreboard during summer vacations for a dollar a game.

He studied at Franklin and Marshall College before receiving a bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1947 and a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1950.

Taking a position with the New York firm of Willkie, Farr and Gallagher, he served as legal counsel to several baseball teams in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1968, he represented National League club owners in negotiations with the Major League Baseball Players Association, which was threatening to strike over pension demands. At the same time, club owners were looking for a new commissioner. They settled on 42-year-old Mr. Kuhn as a compromise, and Feb. 4, 1969, they elected him to a one-year term as commissioner pro tempore. Later in the year he was elected to the first of two seven-year terms.

Forced out as commissioner after the 1984 season, shortly after negotiating a $1.2 billion television contract for Major League Baseball, Mr. Kuhn rejoined Willkie Farr and Gallagher before joining lawyer Marvin D. Myerson in 1987. Myerson and Kuhn declared bankruptcy two years later, and Mr. Myerson was indicted on charges of bilking clients of more than $3.5 million.

Mr. Kuhn was not implicated in the criminal investigation, although he was forced to sell his $1.2 million home in Ridgewood, N.J., and move to Ponte Vedra Beach. The law firm's creditors charged him with moving to Florida to take advantage of legal protection the state provided to personal property in bankruptcies. He denied the charge, saying his family had strong roots in the area.

In later years, he was president of the Kent Group Inc., a sports and financial consulting firm, and was a board member with the Ave Maria Foundation and Legatus, an organization for Catholic businesspeople.

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Luisa Kuhn of Ponte Vedra Beach; two children, Stephen Kuhn of Chappaqua, N.Y., and Alix Kuhn Bower of Ridgefield, Conn.; and two stepsons, Paul Degener of Redding, Conn., and George Degener of Somers, N.Y.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company