Nine months ago when Charlie Finley hauled Bowie Kuhn into court over the canceled sale of three Oakland A's players, the standard joke was that baseball would soon have more suits than Pierre Cardin.
There were also facetious suggestions that pictures of the lawyers involved ought to be placed on bubblegum cards since there would probably be more of them in baseball's employ than players.
Frank J. McGarr, a federal judge in Chicago, may have ended that snickering with his ruling Thursday that baseball commissioner Kuhn has unbridled power to act in the best interests of the game.
Such authority, McGarr noted, had been conferred upon the commissioner by the club owners through the Major League Agreement of which Finley was a signator.
McGarr's decision is not expected to have any significant impact on the other professional sports where the powers of the commissioner or president are more narrowly defined.
Although different sections of baseball's constitution spell out what the commissioner "may" do, McGarr said, those sections do not limit what he can do in taking preventive or remedial action. If the owners had wanted to proscribe his options, they could have done so and still may, the judge observed.
During the course of the 15-day trial, 19 owners and two league presidents testified to Kuhn's all-encompassing power - testimony the judge said was influential in his decision.
Marvin Miller, president of the players' union, said the owners "will have to live with that testimony. It would not surprise me if some of them in the period ahead would have second thoughts about it."
"The case is not a Finley-Kuhn popularity contest - though many fans so view it," McGarr wrote in concluding that Kuhn had the authority to void Finley's attempted $3.5 million sales and had done so in good faith.
"This is good for the game because it's so big and complex that you need some kind of authority to head off a lot of squabbling," Kuhn said afterward. "Maybe now we'll be able to get down to playing baseball."
Whether McGarr's decision will serve as a tranquilizer for the tumult baseball has endured in the last year may finally be determined on an appeal Finley said he would carry "up to the U.S. Supreme Court."
Kuhn's attorneys - Peter K. Bleakley, Irvin B. Nathan and Paul S. Reichler - said they are confident Kuhn will be sustained on appeal because of "the credibility of the witnesses and incontestable documents" supporting prior similar actions.
Finley's lawyer, Neil Papiano, has been unavailable for comment.
Regardless of how the Finley appeal fares, the restoration of peace to baseball - outside of possible future labor-management problems - may face still another challenge next month.
Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner is asking a federal judge to order Kuhn to lift his one-year suspension of Turner for tampering with a player's contract.
Turner's taking the issue to court, as Finley did, is in violation of a section of baseball's constitution under which the owners agree to be bound by the commissioner's decisions and waive judicial appeal.
McGarr did not rule on the validity of the section. But he indicated that the most that could be challenged under it is the meaning and applicability of a contract and not the wisdom of the commissioner's decision.
"Whether (Kuhn) was right or wrong is beyond the competence and jurisdiction of this court to decide," McGarr said at one point.
Turner's lawyers are expected to argue that Kuhn exceeded his authority and that his decision is an appropriate subject for court review.
On another front on this issue, McGarr has set a March 29 hearing at which the Boston Red Sox, once a codefendant with Kuhn, may seek damages from Finley for breaking the waiver rule and forcing the Red Sox into costly litigation.
The Yankees, who were codefendants until the judge dismissed them from the case together with Boston, have not indicated whether they will also seek legal costs. McGarr has not yet ruled whether Finley will be responsible for court costs for the defense.
Just as murky right now is Finley's future in baseball.