Nobody needs to shed many tears for Bowie Kuhn. He wasn't that good a commissioner. But anybody who wants to shed a tear for baseball has permission.
There were many times in the past 13 years when firing Kuhn wouldn't have been altogether a bad idea. Or, at least, lighting a fire under him.
However, as befits the game's backward, bizarre style, baseball waited to dump Kuhn until the one juncture in its history when that act would have the most destructive, disorganizing implications.
When five National League owners voted Monday in Chicago not to rehire Kuhn, they perpetrated a minor injustice against Kuhn, but, far more important, did a major disservice to the future of the sport in the '80s.
In the wake of 1981's strike, many of baseball's best minds came to a number of interlocking conclusions:
* The sport's owners should take direct control of their own business through the mechanism of their Executive Council, which includes four owners from each league plus two league presidents and (for ties) the commissioner. The final say on what was in the "best interests of baseball" would rest with them.
* The commissioner should report to that Executive Council and, essentially, retain only one vital area of concern -- the judicial role for which the job was originally created. Only on matters concerning the "integrity of the game" would the commissioner have the final word.
* Decisions on player relations (labor problems) would be left to the Executive Council. Never again would an employe -- read, Ray Grebey -- tell the owners what to do during a strike.
* For the sake of economic solvency, some form of revenue sharing among all teams was essential, particularly the sharing of future cable-TV money.
* A chief business executive should be hired to oversee the workings of several baseball departments: marketing, promotion, network and cable-TV deals.
* Baseball's archaic voting structure should be changed so that no decision, no matter how important, would require more than a three-quarters vote of both leagues combined. And, for that matter, most lesser matters should be decided by a mere majority.
Who, you ask, had all or, at least, most of these sensible thoughts?
Smart, broad-minded, and experienced executives and owners like Peter O'Malley of the Dodgers, Bud Selig and Harry Dalton of Milwaukee, Edward Bennett Williams and Hank Peters of Baltimore, and Roy Eisenhardt of Oakland.
People like John McHale of Montreal, Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, Buzzie Bavasi of California, Ballard Smith of San Diego, Dan Galbreath of Pittsburgh and a half-dozen more.
No one of them was wedded to all of the points made above, but they could live with the whole package.
Taken together, they formed a coalition with more than two-thirds of the game's brass.
The feeling is here, they comprised almost 100 percent of the voices in baseball that are sufficiently disinterested and farsighted to be worth hearing.
These men understood that baseball's first order of business was to trim the powers of the commissioner's office, while simultaneously retaining the services of the experienced Kuhn who, whatever his other faults, had a good record as a disciplinarian of eccentric owners.
Also, as a lobbyist to Congress, legal mind and all-purpose handshaker, he was a good man. Keep him around. Let him do what he does best. But don't let him get in the way.
All this, believe it or not, delighted Kuhn. He never wanted any part of labor relations and was delighted to be rid of it.
He has no particular head for business and welcomed some blue-chip hotshot from the Fortune 500. In recent years, he had even come to see the light on revenue sharing.
All Kuhn asked was that the commissionership retain the powers necessary to keep the game clean. No guys with mob connections buying teams. No tampering between teams.
No auctioning of players a la Connie Mack and Charlie Finley. No chief business executive pushing quick-money plans like legalized gambling.
Between the backroom trauma of a nine-owner "dump Bowie" letter in the winter of '81 and opening day in April of '82, it seemed a whole new progressive consensus had finally been reached within ownership -- a marriage of convenience struck, largely, on the bond of common sense.
It's amazing how watching $25 million go down the drain can clear the old brain, make new ideas seem sane.
Baseball's problem isn't that the game's Gang of Eight has stood in the way of Kuhn. The problem is that it may be prepared to stand in the way of the sport's whole new agenda.
The tangled issue of the commissionership--and it's a doozie--just complicates and delays everything.
The vote (7-5 by the NL owners, 11-3 by the AL) in Chicago wasn't just against Kuhn, it was against what was beginning to look like a promising, redesigned future for the game.
Now, what has baseball got?
Can Kuhn somehow succeed himself as commissioner next August? Can anybody find an alternative candidate who won't arouse more opposition than Kuhn? Will any qualified person want the job in its present undefined state?
Hell, nobody knows.
How can you go forward with the game's much-needed restructuring proposal--the real coalition brainstorm that's at the bottom of this Byzantine morass?
What comes first -- finding a commissioner, finding a chief business executive, finding a superhuman, one-man-does-all, combination commissioner-chief business executive? Or do you try to vote on the restructuring proposal first?
Hell, nobody knows.
Thanks to the Three-Piece Stooges who gave Kuhn the boot -- all of them grudge holders or greedy, special-interest pleaders -- baseball is farther from addressing its problems (much less solving them) than it was the day that the strike ended.
Angels President Bavasi was asked what baseball should do next.
"I don't know," he said, "but it doesn't really matter. Whichever way is backwards, that's how we'll do it."
Now, what does baseball have?
* An 86-year-old St. Louis owner, Augie Busch, who is still mad at Kuhn over a disciplinary wrist-slap years ago. And a Cincinnati team president, Dick Wagner, who is determined to settle old scores with Kuhn for voiding his trade for Vida Blue and for having a guilty hand in the split-season fiasco of '81.
* A suicide pact between two clubs -- St. Louis and the Mets -- which ruined the 11th-hour compromise that Kuhn's backers thought they had salvaged.
* An ugly never-never-never alliance between Atlanta's Ted Turner ("It took me seven years, but I got him") and Houston's John McMullen, who seem to wish for the game to stay in a state of complete deadlock indefinitely. They seem to think it suits their way of doing business.
When Kuhn's commissionership is evaluated, it will be a very mixed bag. All the defenses of his performance are inductive, not deductive; that's to say, since the game grew vastly in popularity and wealth during a period that almost exactly paralleled his tenure, he probably was a contributing factor.
However, a list of Kuhn's greatest hits would not be terribly long. Against that, we have memories of his periodic fatuousness, each instance more obtuse and comic than the last: barring women from locker rooms; kicking Willie Mays out of baseball for being a greeter at a casino; defending the theory of the reserve clause; making annual poor-mouth speeches without confirming evidence; wringing his hands over competitive imbalance as balance improved in every year of free agency; talking a good game on projects like baseball-for-Washington, but never delivering; driving civil libertarians daffy by fining Bill Lee for saying he sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes.
Okay, so all these issues are more complicated, more two-sided than this. But what a gift the man had for making himself look like what Finley called him: "His Highness, the Idiot in Charge."
Ironically, it wasn't the weaknesses that got Kuhn fired; it was one of his strengths -- disciplining rogue owners.
Finally, Kuhn told off one adolescent millionaire too many. So, they ganged up and got him.
Cynics will say that the worst criticism that can be made of Kuhn is that it took him so long to make sufficient enemies to get canned.
Nevertheless, this was not the hour when baseball needed to get rid of Bowie Kuhn. In fact, this is exactly the time when he should have been kept. Not because he represented the solution to any problem, but because his firing creates the possibility for such a mare's-nest of new, unnecessary difficulties.
The rehiring of Kuhn might have been the first small but essential domino to fall in a chain that might have brought baseball a new and better hierarchy, a more progressive approach toward administering the whole game.
Instead, the domino fell backwards.
And, as a result, who knows how many more will also fall the wrong way?