For the fourth time in his 13 years as commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn faces a desperate eleventh-hour battle to twist arms, smooth feathers and cage enough votes to keep his job.

Three times -- in 1970, in 1975 and again at last December's winter meetings when he survived a nine-owner "Dump Bowie" letter -- Kuhn has rallied his backers, called on the lobbying skills of a few powerful team owners and, within the final hours, built a coalition that could keep him in control.

This week in San Diego at the summer owners meeting, he faces the same task.

While Kuhn's job is definitely in jeopardy, the stakes may be even larger. If Kuhn is ousted, then most of the unifying proposals -- worked on for a year -- by baseball's Restructuring Committee, will probably not be voted on at this meeting. In fact, all of baseball's bizarre infighting factions would probably return to their corners and start plotting again from scratch.

The Revenue Sharers, the Big City Laissez Faire Poobahs, the Would-Be Cable TV Moguls, the Hardline Union Busters, the Moderates, the Big Business-Bottom Line Boys, the Hip New Wave Owners, the Staid Old-Timers and all the rest of the game's dizzying spectrum of schizophrenic special interests would go right back to their tag-team demolition derby act.

"Nobody in baseball has ever seen things get as complicated as they'll get if Kuhn isn't rehired. All the work of the Restructuring Committee will be thrown back up in the air. The potential progress that'll be lost will be large," said Montreal Expos President John McHale, who is one of Kuhn's staunchest supporters as well as virtually the only man in sight with measurable support as the next commissioner.

Never has Kuhn been closer to ouster than at this moment as a group of National League owners, led by Nelson Doubleday of the New York Mets and Augie Busch of St. Louis, are trying to lock up the four NL votes that would be necessary to block his reelection as commissioner on Wednesday.

If Kuhn cannot muster the support to get reelected -- and that's this week's No. 1 agenda item -- it's assumed within baseball circles that he would resign, even though his contract technically goes another year.

"These meetings could be very short," said one source at the heart of the anti-Kuhn movement. "If Bowie's not reelected, and we don't think he will be, then all the other matters on the table -- particularly the proposals put forward by the Restructuring Committee -- probably won't be addressed. People are going to have to go back home, pause and recalculate everything."

Never have Kuhn's supporters -- who make up the game's overwelming majority -- ever burned the long-distance telephone lines more than they have for the past three weeks. The task of Kuhn boosters like Peter O'Malley of Los Angeles and Bud Selig of Milwaukee is to make sure that no more brush fires of dissent spring up. At the same time, they must try to woo the three crucial NL swing votes that probably will determine the commissioner's fate. Those three swing votes are the deliberately mysterious Ted Turner of Atlanta, John McMullen of Houston and the Williams brothers (James and William) of Cincinnati.

"The infighting has been going on ever since the (Dump Bowie) letter surfaced in (Hollywood) Florida," said the anti-Kuhn source, referring to the letter signed by the owners of the Mets, Cardinals, Padres, Astros, Reds, Yankees, Orioles, Mariners and Rangers. "Nobody has anything personal against Bowie, it's just that baseball needs to be run in a more businesslike way. We don't need a lawyer (Kuhn's background) so much as a businessman, a kind of chief executive officer."

According to the same source, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution in case the commissioner is not dumped, Kuhn has "already been offered a compromise" in which he would retain many of his ceremonial, secondary The Zero Hour Ticks Away for Baseball, Kuhn By Thomas Boswell Washington Post Staff Writer

For the fourth time in his 13 years as commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn faces a desperate eleventh-hour battle to twist arms, smooth feathers and cage enough votes to keep his job.

Three times -- in 1970, in 1975 and again at last December's winter meetings when he survived a nine-owner "Dump Bowie" letter -- Kuhn has rallied his backers, called on the lobbying skills of a few powerful team owners and, within the final hours, built a coalition that could keep him in control.

This week in San Diego at the summer owners meeting, he faces the same task.

While Kuhn's job is definitely in jeopardy, the stakes may be even larger. If Kuhn is ousted, then most of the unifying proposals -- worked on for a year -- by baseball's Restructuring Committee, will probably not be voted on at this meeting. In fact, all of baseball's bizarre infighting factions would probably return to their corners and start plotting again from scratch.

The Revenue Sharers, the Big City Laissez Faire Poobahs, the Would-Be Cable TV Moguls, the Hardline Union Busters, the Moderates, the Big Business-Bottom Line Boys, the Hip New Wave Owners, the Staid Old-Timers and all the rest of the game's dizzying spectrum of schizophrenic special interests would go right back to their tag-team demolition derby act.

"Nobody in baseball has ever seen things get as complicated as they'll get if Kuhn isn't rehired. All the work of the Restructuring Committee will be thrown back up in the air. The potential progress that'll be lost will be large," said Montreal Expos President John McHale, who is one of Kuhn's staunchest supporters as well as virtually the only man in sight with measurable support as the next commissioner.

Never has Kuhn been closer to ouster than at this moment as a group of National League owners, led by Nelson Doubleday of the New York Mets and Augie Busch of St. Louis, are trying to lock up the four NL votes that would be necessary to block his reelection as commissioner on Wednesday.

If Kuhn cannot muster the support to get reelected -- and that's this week's No. 1 agenda item -- it's assumed within baseball circles that he would resign, even though his contract technically goes another year.

"These meetings could be very short," said one source at the heart of the anti-Kuhn movement. "If Bowie's not reelected, and we don't think he will be, then all the other matters on the table -- particularly the proposals put forward by the Restructuring Committee -- probably won't be addressed. People are going to have to go back home, pause and recalculate everything."

Never have Kuhn's supporters -- who make up the game's overwelming majority -- ever burned the long-distance telephone lines more than they have for the past three weeks. The task of Kuhn boosters like Peter O'Malley of Los Angeles and Bud Selig of Milwaukee is to make sure that no more brush fires of dissent spring up. At the same time, they must try to woo the three crucial NL swing votes that probably will determine the commissioner's fate. Those three swing votes are the deliberately mysterious Ted Turner of Atlanta, John McMullen of Houston and the Williams brothers (James and William) of Cincinnati.

"The infighting has been going on ever since the (Dump Bowie) letter surfaced in (Hollywood) Florida," said the anti-Kuhn source, referring to the letter signed by the owners of the Mets, Cardinals, Padres, Astros, Reds, Yankees, Orioles, Mariners and Rangers. "Nobody has anything personal against Bowie, it's just that baseball needs to be run in a more businesslike way. We don't need a lawyer (Kuhn's background) so much as a businessman, a kind of chief executive officer."

According to the same source, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution in case the commissioner is not dumped, Kuhn has "already been offered a compromise" in which he would retain many of his ceremonial, secondary functions and title, but would have to report to a new No. 1 businessman who would, in effect, be the game's chief executive officer.

"We've gotten down to pocket-book issues, and, when pocketbook issues are involved, votes can change very quickly," said the Boot Bowie insider. "There could be a lot of switching in the last 24 hours. I really don't know what's going to happen . . . wouldn't bet my house . . .Bowie has friends who are good at last-minute leverage. Look at the Milwaukee massacre (in '75). That was an all-out (AL) battle to unseat him, prevent his reelection, but, suddenly, some guys changed their votes. In particular, George Steinbrenner, who had been suspended from baseball, then, a couple of months after that vote, was back in ahead of schedule."

Kuhn, as he has done throughout this latest threat to his job, refused comment last week. At Cooperstown, N.Y., recently, he said: "The question of my job has been bandied about long enough, and it needs to be decided."

Who is against Kuhn, and why?

The answers to this stumper demonstrate how complex baseball has become:

Doubleday and the Mets hate Kuhn's support of revenue sharing and think that any team in a mega-market like theirs is crazy to give away any of its profit potential, particularly in the area of future pay TV revenues. And guess what the second topic is on the winter meetings agenda? "Progress report by Revenue Sharing Committee (pertaining to) national and local pay TV revenues."

Archconservative Busch of St. Louis, and, more particularly, his out-front lawyer Lou Susman, are the most emotionally opposed to Kuhn. The Sporting News has quoted Busch as saying that he "will not rest until that man (Kuhn) is removed from office." In ownership meetings the past three years, Busch has often been the loudest voice in favor of hard line, tough-it-out, anti-union measures; he was, and is, furious over the August 1981 strike settlement, viewing it as the worst in a series of defeats at the hands of union leader Marvin Miller. Also, Busch was once fined by Kuhn for "tampering."

Turner has had numerous run-ins with Kuhn, but his most serious beef is with Kuhn's testimony before congressional subcommittees that legislation is needed to control the extent of burgeoning cable and pay TV. Kuhn considers the supersaturation of the baseball market with cable games as the sport's most serious long-term problem; Turner, with his heavy investment in cable, naturally disagrees.

"I don't think it's personal with him," said McHale. "You have to figure that he's going to have to vote the way that's best for (his superstation) WTBS."

What might influence Turner to support Kuhn? "If Turner were assured that a genuine cable man, somebody he approved of, would get a position of influence near the commissioner, that might be a compromise," said a source.

And what might influence Turner to vote "No"? One of the biggest advertisers in Turner's TV empire is a certain brand of beer -- the nation's No. 1 seller -- which just happens to be owned by Busch.

Says Turner, through a spokesman, "I haven't made up my mind yet."

In other words, what am I bid for my vote?

Houston director McMullen is also deeply involved with future cable TV deals, particularly because he's just bought a National Hockey League franchise. In addition, McMullen faces a complex cash-flow problem later this year when he must decide whether to buy out his Astros partners, or risk having them buy him out.

"It just keeps getting worse all the time," says McHale with a resigned laugh. "There are so many fingers in so many pots that it's getting so you can't even guess at all of these owners' motives. Plow up enough dirt and there are snakes everywhere." Nevertheless, another Kuhn supporter says, "Houston's (anti-Kuhn) vote is definitely shakable."

Perhaps the weakest of the anti-Kuhn votes is Cincinnati's. Mostly, the Reds are still angry about the strike-induced split-season of '81 in which Cincinnati, with the best record in baseball, was left out of the playoffs; that one lands at Kuhn's door, even though the real second-season culprit may be Ray Grebey, chief of the Player Relations Committee. Many in baseball think that the entire second-season and three-tiered playoff setup was a one-shot money-maker that was actually part and parcel of the strike settlement.

"The Williams boys have been convinced by (team president) Dick Wagner that they should vote against Kuhn," says a high-placed NL source. "But Dick's voice may not be heard as loudly as it was a year ago. Wagner's job's not too safe (with the Reds deep in last place).

"The Williamses are just damn decent guys who will probably listen to a decent argument," continues this source. "If there are 21 or 22 clubs in favor of reelecting Kuhn, it's hard to believe that the Williamses would let their (hurt) feelings stand in the way of the will of such a large majority."

What do the next three days hold? For one thing, NL owners in Cincinnati, Atlanta, New York, St. Louis and Houston are going to hear a lot of persuasive talk. What will it sound like? Listen to McHale, whom Phillies President Bill Giles has been quoted as calling, "The only (career) baseball man who might get enough votes (to be commissioner)."

"It's a shame that a handful of people with an obstructionist positon may stand in the way of 20 or more teams," says McHale.

"Where is their guy on a white horse? They don't have one. In the past, there's always been some general or politician who looked good. Now, there's not one strong name in the picture to be the 'next' commissioner.

"We've got a lot of new owners, eight in the last couple of years, and, even though they pop off quite a bit, they don't always know what they're talking about," continues McHale. "We hear 'Fire Kuhn,' but do we even know what it is that we want in a new commissioner, much less who it would be ?

"Does one man exist who understands all our problems? I really doubt it.

"We want a judge who can arbitrate disputes between teams. We want a lawyer because we have so many court hassles. We want an expert on cable TV, because that's a big part of the future. We want somebody with the constitution of a horse because he's always on the go. We want somebody with some baseball savvy and common sense. We want a guy who can hold hands with 26 different markets.

"Now we're saying he's got to be a superbusinessman and a great labor negotiator. And, of course, we don't want him to have lunch at '21' too often. He can't offend anybody or they won't reelect him, and he can't let himself become more famous than Turner or Steinbrenner or they'll be jealous of him.

"On top of this, we forget the most important function of the commissioner -- the reason the job was created in the first place. The commissioner must protect the integrity of the game. That's what Kuhn has always done best. Once the public doubts the honesty of the game on the field, your basic product is tainted. Too many of us take that integrity for granted.

"When you read about NFL running backs with a cocaine habit, it doesn't take much imagination to figure out how you could have drug dealers, underworld gamblers and players mixed up in a new (fixing) scandal in any major sport.

"We don't want to forget what a good job Kuhn has done in helping keep baseball clean.

"Before we fire a man who, on balance, has done a good job, and a man, who, by the way, stayed out of the strike because the owners ordered him to, maybe we should consider the alternative," McHale says. "It's chaos."