Having his picture taken is perhaps the most common act in Bowie Kuhn's life. Some would say it is what he does best. So, he is on firm, familiar ground. "Let me get my shoes back on." he says swiveling in the leather chair in his office. He teases the photographer as he screws his feet back into his loafers and lounges on his couch.
"I'll have to work up to relaxing. Let's see. . .how about this?" He sticks out his tongue and crosses his eyes. "Or this?" He drapes one arm around a statuette of a swinging hitter and pokes his face under the batter's armpit like a little boy peeking out of the crook of a tree limb. "No, I guess that won't do."
Slowly, the 53-year-old czar with the silver sideburns puts his conservative gray coat over his loud yellow suspenders. He smooths his impeccably tailored attire with his manicured hands. The wry, arch and alert expression leaves his face, its place taken by a benevolent, tight-lipped partriarchal smile.
"My job carries with it a necessary overburden of the judicial," he observes.
"Your coat has a wrinkle sir? says the photographer. He obligingly joins in the attack on the wrinkle until he is seamless as a Gentlemen's Quarterly cover boy.
"You don't want to look like the Village Idiot," a reporter needles.
"I was promoted to 'The Nation's Idiot,' he retorts, feigning hurt. "After 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 Alexandr [the Great] before me and encompassed more.
"I could have been 'The World's Idiot."
With that, Bowie Kuhn composes himself, removes the rich play of expression from his face, looks implaceably into the camera and -- "click" -- is once more preserved for posterity.
The offices of the commissioner of baseball are in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper. It is ironic or perhaps appropriate that the man New York Times columnist Red Smith sarcastically called "baseball's supreme being" can sit in his mahogany-and -memorabilia-filled office and overlook the steeple of St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Bowie Kuhn once said of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis -- the prototypical commissioner with whom he is alwasy compared, either for good or ill -- that Landis was a man "who must be taken by parts." So it is with Kuhn himself, who is one of the least-fathomed and least-appreciated men in sports.
Kuhn is such a comfortable baseball fixture -- imposing and patrician, yet also pontifical and sentimental -- that it's difficult to realize that he has presided, with what can only be called spectacular success, over the most revolutionary and crisis-filled period in baseball history. Kuhn has always been easy to ignore, easy to lambaste or to caricature. The only thing on Kuhn's side is the record.
Consider the state of baseball before he arrived in February of 1969. consider the then and now, and what has happened in Kuhn years.
Baseball had no desingated hitter, no night World Series games, no $200,000-a-year players and almost no Astroturf. When Kuhn, after 19 years as a Wall Street lawyer, took a $100,000 pay cut to become commissioner, he entered a more traditional world that appeared to have a slower pace.
Then, attendance for 20 teams was 23 million. Then less than 30 million people watched a World Series game. Then, the esthetic of the game on the field was so pathetically out of whack that in 1968 only one player in the entire American League hit higher than .290 and 60 percent of the teams in the National League hit 81 or fewer home runs in a 162-game schedule. Then a baseball career was paying about $29,000 and had lost some of its appeal.
Now, attendance for 26 teams is 43 million. Now, 60 million watch the World Series. Now, thanks more than anything to Kuhn's perennial "fine tuning" of the balance between offense and defense with both rabbit balls and rule changes, baseball has its best blend of pitching, hitting power and speed in history. Now, player salaries have quintupled, college baseball has been fostered to the point where 73 percent of all players have attended college, and baseball -- with its mixture of longevity, high pay and low rate of injury -- is clearly the most appealing sport to the young multisport super athlete. Like one of those unprepossessing 15-3 pitchers on the old New York Yankee dynasty teams, it is hard to tell how much of Kuhn's winning percentage can be ascribed to his skill and how much to circumstances.
Kuhn took over the job with ill-defined responsibilities and powers after the speak-softly-and-carry-no-stick years of Ford Frick and Spike Eckert. Even Kuhn, though he took office by citing how Fanklin Roosevelt had found unsuspected powers in the presidency, could not have anticipated what an activist he would be. No player had dreamed of challenging the reserve clause before the Supreme Court, much less becoming a free agent. A player or umpire strike had never happened. Baseball's only labor issue was the pension fund.
Within a year of his taking office, baseball was sued by a player (curt Flood), a city (Seattle) and umpires (Saleron and Valentine) for damages of $35 million. His middle name ought to be "vs." as in Flood vs. Kuhn, Finley vs. Kuhn, Ludtke vs. Kuhn. "Frankly, there's no way I can believe that the times of Judge Landis would come close to today for difficulty,"
On one subject -- integrity of the game -- Kuhn has a hair trigger, though, after he has created the immediate impression of being Hangin' Bowie, he frequently tempers his sentences with mercy. Whether it be Denny McLain's business connections, George Steinbrenner's felony conviction of Ted Turner's tampering, Kuhn's first reaction has alwasy been to throw the book at 'em.
"The integrity of the game is a good issue on which to have a broad back and a thick skin.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 my children and the family, I expect the snickers. If people think that I'm whacky on the subject, if they think I'm going to come down like a freight train on an 'integrity' issue, that helps. I don't care if I'm praised or criticized on those issues, as long as the reaction is loud, because that means my position is understood. For the game, that's all that matters.""
He was hired because in 10 years as the lawyer who represented the National League in its dealings with the player's union he always believed that the best interest of baseball were synonymous with the best interests of the owners. Kuhn doesn't see things the management way because he is paid to see them that way.
"I will say that the greatest long-term interest in the game is held by the club people. Their financial interest is longest and deepest. They'll still be around as the generations of players pass." It has always been kuhn's conviction that his role in labor disputes was "super umpire" or "the good ear." He might push individual clubs around to get them back into line with "the best interests of the game," but it was not his job to push all the clubs. That was their business.
Perhaps the Kuhn Misundersanding began on the very day of his election when the reaction to his name was that baseball had replaced poor old Gen. Ecker -- the Unknown Soldier -- with Kuhn -- the Unknown unknown Lawyer. "Good God, they've elected a race track,'' said the critics.
It has been a small blow to kuhn's pride -- both his civic and his symbolic sense -- that he has not placed the titular national pastime in the national capital. A far more galling, and significant Kuhn failure, however, has been his persistent inability -- despite his protestations of constant effort -- to get baseballto find significant places for blacks as managers, coaches or executives.
What baseball needs now on the issue of race is a swift kick in the pants, not nurturing. The majors currently haved zero black managers, zero black general managers, zero black farm directors, and one black third base coach -- montreal's Ozzie Virgil.
Once, late in 1974, Kuhn felt it necessary to put much of his weight behind the cause of getting a first black manager. "I'm pained that it hasn't happened. I can't order anybody, but I'm trying to exert pressure. If you push some issues long and unsucessfully, you eventually undermine your role. I could not continue to function as commissioner if I keep pushing this and lose." Baseball had Frank Robinson as manager in 1975.
"I have great independence in this job," says Kuhn, who in a dozen areas other than labor relations, has the record to back him. "I don't need this job tomorrow. The only way to do my job is to act as if you weren't going to stay in it another day." The point that is missed -- and perhaps it is only vital if you happen to be Kuhn himself and have to look in the mirror in the morning -- is that he is one of those rare men whose wallet and principles have always agreed.
In his first two years, Kuhn received credit for getting both players and the clubs to keep talking and stop screaming during the spring disputes of 1969 and 1970. His good sense, and his natural affinity for the younger, brighter owners, or the older progressives, like his baseball godfather Walter O'Malley, were a gift of welcome intelligence in those negotiations. However, by 1972, Kuhn had adopted the positon during a labor crisis that he still stubbornly holds. He believes it is high-principled and impartial -- worthy perhaps of Wilson or Wilkie -- but others see it as impractical and irresponsible.
"Timing was very critical. While some thought I should have taken overt action early, I felt that there was an exact moment when both sides would be amenable to a constructive settlement," said Kuhn the day the baseball labor crisis ended. "The job of commissioner in this situation is a very lonely one. One cannot be partisan. All he can do is work behind the scenes and try to keep negotiations on a level course."
Kuhn said these things in April 1972 after a two-week strike, not in May of 1980 after a barely averted strike. Nevertheless, his words this spring -- his talk of "timing" and "playing my hole card" -- were almost identical. That standoffish, I'm-above-the-battle posture seemed untenable to some, especially since Kuhn has long been on record as thinking that the owners' partial compensation plan -- which he may have helped evolve -- was the proper final solution to baseball free agency.
Here, we recreate a scene between a deeply worried and financially strapped owner, who was lobbying for a soft-line settlement with the players, and his commissioner. "Bowie, we're getting no leadership from you in this." the owner told Kuhn, just days before the players' threatened strike deadline. t"We're being absolutely inflexible. Our negotiating position is locked in concrete. We must show some movement. Lead, Bowie. We [the owners] are desperate for it. It's going to be on your tombstone: Bowie Kuhn, the Commissioner When Baseball Died. Forget the rest. Just remember one thing. What you do now will be on you r epitaph."
Such emotional appeals put Kuhn in a moral quandary. If the owners as a group are perceived as Republicans, then Kuhn is a member of that party's liberal wing -- philosophically in tune with owners like Orioles' Edward Bennett Williams and the Astros' John McMullen. It is no secret that Williams and McMullen were against taking a hard line during the recent labor negotiations. But Kuhn, clinging to his avowed postion as a commissioner who must remain above the fray, refused to side with them. "I'm not a good nose-counter or back-room politician. With me, the simplest explanation is usually right."
Whether it is attendance-per-game, ticket prices, TV ratings, size of TV contract, worth of an average franchise, or the lastest Harris poll of baseball's popularity vs. the NFL, Kuhn ought to be a contented commissioner.
His numbers play in Peoria.
In kuhn's years, his game has come a great distance forward. But, as he says, his job gets more difficult every year as the stakes rise. As soon as this season ends, and the current labor truce ends with it, those stakes will escalate again as the owner's and players pitch their tents for what may be the final battle to determine the outlines of free agency and the whole financial underpinning of the game for the future.
Out of the owner's camp will come one man -- the conscience, the ear, the preacher of his game. In his own mind, he will be a knight in shining armor. To others, he may seem an impractical, soft-hearted Don Quixote.
He will ask the same thing he has been requesting for a dozen years: That he be understood as a smart, decent man who doesn't need the job he holds, who has no aces up his sleeve, and asks only that he be understood to have the best interests of baseball at heart.