Occasionally during the World Series, the TV cameras dutifully swung toward the ground-level box of Bowie Kuhn, the best seat in the house. At every game, it was ritual, this perfunctory recognition that his eminence, the baseball commissioner, was in attendance. But it could not be called a happy face that the cameras were recording.
Missing from the commissioner's box were the customary joy of the season, the high good spirits of other World Series years. Bowie Kuhn was a man under siege, knowing that the job he has held and cherished for nearly 14 years as baseball's Supreme Being may no longer be his after Nov. 1.
On that date, in a Chicago motel near O'Hare Airport, Kuhn will call to order a joint meeting of the 26 National and American league club owners. Then he will turn over the gavel to the league presidents and make an uncustomary exit, to isolate himself somewhere in the city and await the vote of his friends and enemies among the 26. All the vibrations should tell Kuhn he has no future as baseball's commissioner.
Under the rules, he needs the endorsement of three-fourths of each league's votes for reelection to another seven-year term. Four of the 12 National League owners can defeat him, and Kuhn can count. Steadfast in their resolve to vote him out of office have been the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros. Kuhn can hope only for a last-minute switch of a vote. "I am an optimist," he says. That may be a lonely view.
The warm glimmer of hope for Kuhn lies at a belief that Lou Sussman, the Cardinals' attorney who often speaks for owner Gussie Busch, may yet be persuaded to change that team's vote. Sussman, who has Busch's confidence, is regarded as the man with the pivotal ballot. Several days ago he said there was no change in the Cardinals' anti-Kuhn position, but there are reports that Sussman has been fiercely lobbied by Kuhn people in recent days.
Why do they want Kuhn out? He's a decent, intelligent man who has stood resolutely for the integrity of the game. Under his regime, baseball has flourished. Attendance has broken all records and television revenues have hit a new high. But aye, there's the rub. It is the TV thing that is doing Kuhn in.
It is what the club owners perceive down the road, the giddy promise of more bloated millions from pay TV that has given them concern about Kuhn. Some owners, enough to unseat him, think Kuhn is not the man to market their game to the fullest.
Unspoken by the anti-Kuhn clique is the obvious envy of the National Football League's $2.2 billion, five-year TV package that breaks down to $441 million a year to be divided among its 28 clubs. Baseball's national TV revenue reckons out to a mere $50 million a year total for its 26 teams.
The push has been for a chief executive officer to handle the game's business affairs, with Kuhn reduced to a figurehead, ceremonial role. But Kuhn has said he would not hold still for a CEO to whom he would be subordinate.
Baseball's loose workings has sometimes led it to be called the world's worst-run big business. No other corporate body would hold still for such nonsense as 15 percent of the electorate being able to call the important shots. But only four discontented NL club owners can fire the commissioner and will, unless there is a last-ditch switch.
Kuhn does have powerful friends in the owners' ranks, chief among them being Peter O'Malley, president of the Dodgers; Orioles owner Edward B. Williams, and Charles Bronfman of Montreal, all of them persuasive. It is a safe assumption that they and others are lobbying fiercely for Kuhn in the final hours of his need for support.
Peter O'Malley often voices his loyalty to Kuhn, calling him "a good man who deserves another term for the good work he has done." He sees no need for a new commissioner, adding "Anyway, they'll find fault with a new man the first time he makes a decision they don't like. You can't please everybody."
Last Aug. 18, when the owners held a preliminary meeting in San Diego to discuss Kuhn's fate, it was Bronfman who vowed loudest to battle for Kuhn to the end.
Ted Turner (Atlanta), John McMullen (Houston), Busch and Peter Doubleday (Mets), the four men who avowedly want Kuhn's scalp, have their special reasons for seeking a new commissioner.
Turner is unforgiving of Kuhn for suspending him for a full year for tampering with another team's player (Gary Mathews). Also in Turner's craw is Kuhn's opposition to Turner's pleas before Congress that his Atlanta superstation be allowed to telecast games nationally.
Doubleday says he likes Kuhn personally, but is in violent disagreeement with Kuhn's position that all local TV-radio revenues be shared equally by the 26 teams. Kuhn would help the smaller, disadvantaged cities. But Doubleday, who paid a record price for his franchise, says, "Nobody helped us to put up the $21 million to buy the Mets." He has a point there.
McMullen blames Kuhn for "letting player salaries get out of hand." An odd complaint, inasmuch as Kuhn had no part whatsoever in the frantic bidding of club owners against each other for free agents in their attempts to buy pennants.
Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox, a backer of Kuhn, said, "A while back, I thought there was hope for compromise, but I am not that hopeful now." Reinsdorf said the White Sox, the first team to install pay TV, need 45,000 subscribers to break even. "We have 25,000 subscribers now," he said. Pay TV is a big issue for baseball, what with the Players Association's already having filed suit in Chicago for a part of that loot.
Why can't Kuhn's heavy majority of owners vote a change in the rule that says a mere four of them can oust the commissioner? Aha, because baseball is bound by another of its primitive rules that says four out of 12 National League club owners can prevent such a reordering of baseball's archaic laws. So much for progress.
The sentiment here is that it will be a dirty shame if they oust the man who should get high marks for the growth of the game and his 13 year record of rugged surveillance that has kept baseball honest. But unfortunately for Kuhn, it seems that baseball's next order of business after the World Series is firing the commissioner. It is an ugly thing.