Baseball's Battle of Bowie went into its 11th hour tonight with the fate of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn still very much up in the air.
At league meetings here this evening, the American League gave Kuhn a mildly surprising boost, while the National League gave him another kick in the shins.
Then, everybody adjourned to a party thrown by San Diego owner Ballard Smith with Kuhn in conspicuous attendance. There, according to several owners, save-Kuhn compromises will be sought into the wee hours amidst the canapes.
This evening, the AL came up with a unanimous voice vote of support for Kuhn's reelection; their vote was less than a complete ringing endorsement for Kuhn since it was tied to what one source called "a compromise package" concerning the extent of Kuhn's future powers. Nonetheless, for Kuhn, that AL vote was very good, since it further isolated his National League critics, making them look like a tiny obstructionist minority.
As Minnesota owner Calvin Griffith put it, "It's a disgrace that four votes in the NL could fire Kuhn and outweigh what 22 other owners want. If the country elected its politicians that way, nothing would ever get done."
On the other hand, the National League, after more than 90 minutes of debate, was still a hung jury on Kuhn's fate. Thus, the anti-Kuhn faction successfully carried its Dump Bowie fight into Wednesday morning's joint major league meeting when a decisive vote will almost certainly be taken. For Kuhn, that's bad.
His supporters had hoped that, at today's NL meeting, mystery man Ted Turner of Atlanta would turn out to be pro-Kuhn after all; that, in effect, would have killed this insurrection which was started by the New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros.
Instead, Turner -- plainly visible from a hotel corridor -- banged the table with his fist during the NL meeting, waved his arms and hardly looked the part of an easily conciliated man.
The general feeling here is that the Mets and Cards are almost unshakably opposed to Kuhn. Also, Cincinnati and perhaps even Chicago might join the anti-Kuhn vote IF it were certain that the four votes for firing were locked in place. Turner and perhaps Houston's John McMullen are seen as the men -- the power brokers -- whom Kuhn's minions will have to sweet-talk and appease before Wednesday's day-long showdown.
"There's going to be a lot of lobbying during the night," said Phillies owner Bill Giles. "I would not say there was three-quarters agreement on anything in our (NL) meeting."
As might be expected, this evening's sound and fury could be given any of many interpretations. St. Louis owner Auggie Busch, so anxious to see Kuhn slain that he hobbled into the meeting on his cane, said, "We've been told not to say anything for now. (Big grin.) But there'll be plenty to say tomorrow."
Other Kuhn supporters, such as Ed Williams of Baltimore and Roy Eisenhardt of Oakland, seemed bitterly disappointed after meeting on an outside walkway with Dodger owner Peter O'Malley to get a report on the NL meeting.
More than one veteran baseball observer studied their funereal faces and concluded, "Bowie is dead."
By contrast, Montreal President John McHale, who is pro-Kuhn, said, "I was encouraged. There are some votes that are less dug-in than we expected. The lines of debates were clearly drawn, but there weren't many 'no' votes that seemed like they couldn't be changed . . . The American League announcement of their support was a pretty dramatic development. I can't forecast, but we've come a long way. It's certainly all coming to a head."
What are the remaining area's of possible compromise?
* One is length of contract for Kuhn: the normal seven years; five years (which Kuhn seems to prefer); or a mere two years, which would be the flimsiest of mandates.
* The most basic is probably the nature and function of a new baseball position. A kind of chief operating officer, this new man would oversee many of baseball's business aspects, perhaps including such basic future projects as revenue sharing and cable TV growth. The question being fought is whether this officer would be UNDER Kuhn, OVER Kuhn or simply independent of him.
Kuhn supporters adamantly believe that unless Kuhn is clearly over such an official, the commissioner's role would quickly diminish to that of ceremonial figurehead.
As matters stand, the issue of the commissioner -- rehiring him, firing him or replacing him -- must be settled before baseball can go on to any of its other business: voting on the proposals of the Restructuring Committee, dealing with the report by the committee on revenue sharing.
That issue, however, will not be settled cheerfully. Mets owner Nelson Doubleday, who has been ramrodding the anti-Kuhn cattle drive here, refers to the Executive Council -- which is uniformly pro-Kuhn and which met this morning -- as "The Black Hats."
"I think there'll be a compromise and we'll keep Bowie," said Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. "I think there'll be a new chief operating officer who will NOT report to Kuhn, but, instead, report only to the 26 owners. Kuhn will continue to look after the 'integrity of the game' issues, though I'm not sure his powers will be as broad as they were back in the days when he could do anything that he deemed 'in the best interests of baseball.' "
As the sun went down on Mission Bay, baseball's millionaires headed for the hills of La Jolla to drink and think, munch and punch. No one, not the richest nor the most powerful of them, knew what the next sunrise would bring in their conflicted little world.