Without Playing Politics, Kuhn Governed the Game Well

"The integrity of the game is a good issue on which to have a broad back and a thick skin," Bowie Kuhn said. (1979 Associated Press Photo)
By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, March 17, 2007

One day in 1980, when he'd been baseball commissioner for a dozen seasons, but before things started going wrong -- the strike, the coup, the bankruptcy -- Bowie Kuhn sat in his office high above Manhattan, goofing off for a photographer. "I'll have to work up to relaxing. Let's see about this," Kuhn said, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue. "Or this," he said, throwing his arm around a statue of a player and sticking his head out under the arm, like a kid in the crook of a tree. "No, I guess that won't do," said Kuhn, famous as the stuffy, patrician lawyer who often invoked "the integrity of the game."

"You don't want to look like the Village Idiot," I told him.

"I was promoted to the 'Nation's Idiot,' " Kuhn said, pretending to be hurt. "After [former Athletics owner] Charley Finley called me the 'Nation's Idiot,' he wouldn't go any further. Perhaps I should have been disappointed. Somehow I felt that I could have reached out, like Alexander [the Great] before me and encompassed more. I could have been the 'World's Idiot.' "

Everybody sees a different man. For me, the people who made fun of Kuhn, who died Thursday at age 80, often were the ones who didn't get it. They thought he was pompous. But he could drop that pose in a blink to talk about how much he loved to garden with his wife. He'd laugh that he was the 6-foot-5 klutz who couldn't make Red Auerbach's basketball first string at Theodore Roosevelt High in the District. He was the kid working the scoreboard at Griffith Stadium because he loved the game better than he played it.

Kuhn's image was of arrogant stiffness. Yet he was so visibly uncomfortable with power that it made him seem trustworthy. If you teased him, he sometimes enjoyed loosening the buttons of his facade. He knew his strengths. He was an intellectual, a man of integrity who scored high on decisions based in ethical reasoning. But he was an indifferent head-counter, a poor politician. His secret may have been that there was plenty of insecurity hidden under his elegant suit and Ivy League manners.

His critics thought he had ulterior motives, that he was just a frontman, a mouthpiece for the owners who paid him. On labor relations, that was true. During the '81 strike, the owners simply ordered him to stay out of their brawl. And he did. It was consistent with his nature. Street fighters scared him. And the owners of his era epitomized the breed. Yet, true to his code, Kuhn took on those owners -- one at a time, never as a group -- on every important issue except labor.

"The integrity of the game is a good issue on which to have a broad back and a thick skin," he said. "We live in a country where everything is increasingly viewed with cynicism. When I talk about the image of the game and its impact on children and the family, I expect the snickers. If people think that I'm wacky on the subject, if they think I'm going to come down like a freight train on an integrity issue, then that helps. I don't care, as long as the reaction is loud and my position is clear."

Few in baseball knew Kuhn as long or as closely as current commissioner Bud Selig. "I grew up under Bowie," Selig said yesterday. "His 15 years as commissioner [1969-1984] were times of tumultuous change. People don't understand how hard it was for him to accomplish things because they don't remember what those times were like. . . .

"Bowie was a man of impeccable integrity in the middle of all these controversies and strong-willed owners. And look how it turned out. The game was stuck in neutral when he took the job. When he left, we'd expanded [by six teams], added divisions and expanded the playoffs. Our attendance had doubled. He moved the World Series to night. The game was in vastly better health when he left than when he arrived."

Over time, Kuhn's many integrity-of-the-game stands cost him enemies. "Plow up enough dirt and there are snakes everywhere," an owner said during one of four attempts between 1970 and 1982 to oust the commissioner. Because of all the palace intrigue during his period, some assumed that Kuhn had private agendas or grudges. More likely, his motives were idealistic and corny, like his heroes, Woodrow Wilson and Wendell Willkie.

Bowie stepped on big toes, crossing Ted Turner, Nelson Doubleday and George Steinbrenner. All were instrumental in finally forcing him out. During one of the Kuhn coup attempts, Steinbrenner had T-shirts made for the large majority of owners who still supported Kuhn as commissioner. "They said 'Bowie's Bobos' on the front," one former owner said yesterday. "I'll be proudly wearing my 'Bowie's Bobos' shirt tomorrow."

After leaving baseball, Kuhn's fortunes turned sour. In 1987, he formed a law firm with flamboyant trial lawyer Harvey Myerson, who was known for driving a Rolls-Royce, owning five homes, smoking Cuban cigars, wearing raccoon coats and squiring models. Perhaps Kuhn should have noted that while Myerson had made headlines by representing the USFL in its victorious suit against the NFL, he only collected $3 in damages. That's $3, not $3 million.

By most accounts, Kuhn merely had his name on the door of Myerson & Kuhn, pulled down a healthy salary and lent credibility as the firm quickly hired 170 lawyers. "That was a sad chapter in Bowie's life," said one former baseball owner who was among those who warned Kuhn. "It was Harvey Myerson, for heaven's sake. Everybody else in America knew."

Within two years, the firm was bankrupt. Myerson was convicted of overbilling a major client by $2 million. Kuhn, the man known for integrity, moved to a Florida home, taking advantage of that state's legal protection of personal property in bankruptcies.

Perhaps partially as a result of this embarrassment, Kuhn went from famous to almost invisible over the past 20 years. Yet his good influence did not disappear. "Oh, how he loved Washington. He was in my ear all the time about how baseball should come back to Washington," Selig said. When the commissioner was deciding who'd get to buy the Nationals, Kuhn was a key player, endorsing his old Roosevelt High friend Ted Lerner. What are the odds: same class, one commissioner, one owner.

"Ted Lerner isn't a good guy," Kuhn told Selig. "He's a great guy."

"Bowie called after we got the team," Lerner said yesterday. "We were very delighted to learn he'd been in the background, helping us. We're all saddened. The last time I talked to him he seemed to be in good health."

But then, the good health that Bowie Kuhn did most to foster was the good health of baseball.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company