Bowie Kuhn will wage another battle Wednesday in his long war of attrition to remain commissioner of baseball as the owners hold their summer meetings in Boston.
Kuhn, who was fired last November and who will probably be refired next week by the same margin--five negative votes in the National League--is seeking victory through boredom and stagnation.
The 14-year commissioner, whose term technically will expire Aug. 12, hopes that by stalemating his handful of enemies among NL owners, and by letting stagnate all the important business on the agenda, he will eventually be chosen to succeed himself as commissioner. Kuhn's NL foes learned last November in Chicago how easy it was to thwart Kuhn's reelection.
Now, those same owners, who stood in the way of the will of a large majority of the other owners (at least 18 of the game's 26 owners favor Kuhn) will find out how hard it is to elect anybody they prefer to Kuhn. The long-entrenched commissioner, his position strengthened by a billion-dollar TV deal that he helped negotiate this spring, has many old friends who are looking forward to frustrating November's plotters.
Baseball's task of finding its next commissioner is considerably complicated by the fact that the reputable men who have expressed interest in the job or had their names endorsed--like leading candidate William Simon, Jack Valenti, Tal Smith, Lee MacPhail, John McHale, Hank Peters and Harry Dalton--are not anxious to be seen as having walked over Kuhn's body to get the top job.
In fact, at the moment, Kuhn's prestige is so high there's not one serious candidate in sight who will admit that he wants to be commissioner of baseball. Frank Mankiewicz and Tom Eagleton have said they would take the job, but the job won't take them.
One owner said "all the prominent names which have been mentioned are still being considered. They've publicly said they don't want the job, but privately, I'd say they're all still interested."
The only active candidate remains Kuhn, who, at this month's All-Star Game, reiterated that he was still "optimistic" about his chances of being commissioner a year hence "so long as the powers of the commissionership are not weakened."
Those who support Kuhn, and they include almost all of the sport's most stable franchises and its old-line families, think Kuhn has spent the last year acting nobly.
They see Kuhn as a man who worked hard to make a billion dollars for the very men who had just canned him--all because his main concern is baseball's health.
They see him as an educated, civilized fellow who, after years of aggravation, doesn't need the money or the fame that his job brings. If he stepped aside today, they believe he would leave the game in a state of such unparalleled good health--record attendance and TV revenue, superb competitive balance, tolerable labor-management prospects--that his reputation would grow after he left the game.
In fact, they wonder if any other commissioner could tend so well to the sport's integrity. While the NFL and NBA are awash in drug and gambling scandals, baseball has escaped with nothing more than an occasional player diving into a detox center to clean up his bad habits.
Kuhn has consciously contributed to his public image as the man above the fray. He assiduously points out that he refuses to nose-count or politic to keep his job, pretending he'll be one of the last to know what Wednesday's vote will be.
Kuhn's essential argument is that he's primarily concerned with preserving the strength of the commissioner's office--the powers he won in court a decade ago that said he could do almost anything he wanted "in the best interests of baseball." Kuhn thinks that legal victory is the most fundamental accomplishment of his tenure; had he been willing to sacrifice it, he could have accepted a compromise plan and gotten another term last November.
To all this high-minded and somewhat theoretical stuff, Kuhn foes give a good horse laugh. They think he's done nothing but stall and obfuscate and play politics and wait for the wind to change ever since his job security got shaky during the strike of 1981. They think that, like many a man before him, he's fallen in love with fame and a little power. Kuhn thinks he's indispensable, they mutter.
Kuhn's bedrock opponents--Nelson Doubleday of the Mets, Ted Turner of the Braves, John McMullen of the Astros and Augie Busch of the Cardinals--say that the commissioner is really concerned most about the best interests of Bowie.
Kuhn's backers, on the other hand, have been bad-mouthing the palace revolters for a year. To them, Doubleday is a baseball novice who just wants a whiff of wheeling and dealing; Turner is a gadfly who cares little about the long-term good of baseball and only wants to get a know-nothing commissioner who will let cable TV operators run amok; Augie Busch is living in the wrong century and is looking for a scapegoat to blame for the player salaries that enrage his skinflint heart; and McMullen is the bright guy who fired Tal Smith a month after Smith, as general manager, had won him a division title.
For the moment, baseball is, thanks to Kuhn, in the equivalent of an executive four-corner offense. The game's decision-making gears have been paralyzed for almost 18 months. No one even discusses the restructuring committee proposals that seemed so innovative and much-needed a year ago.
Since last winter, one vote has probably swung to Kuhn. With the firing of President Dick Wagner by Cincinnati, the Reds will probably favor Kuhn now that interim president Bob Howsam, a longtime Kuhn backer, has the ear of the Williams brothers who own the team and hold the vote. "If I'm asked," said Howsam, "I'll say, 'Vote for Kuhn.' "
However, one vote has recently shifted against Kuhn. Chicago Cubs owner Andrew McKenna is expected to vote, "Nay." Last time, he was on the fence and voted "Yea" for appearances' sake. Now McKenna is in the "fire him" corner.
If McKenna could be swayed, then Kuhn's four remaining foes might conceivably fold their cards since, in November, they were concerned about having more than the minimum of four votes needed to block Kuhn's reelection. This, however, remains unlikely. If Kuhn's camp can't break loose the votes it needs to get Sir Bowie reelected, then, on Aug. 12, the powers of the commissioner will devolve upon the game's executive council, the group that traditionally "advises" the commissioner and has, for years, been the sport's behind-the-scenes power center.
"We'll be like the Politburo," joked Baltimore Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams.
Only Kuhn knows how active a candidate he will be after Aug. 12, or whether he will step aside and let other prospective commissioners step out of his shadow and try to create a constituency among the owners.
Last November, baseball executives expressed great anxiety over the logjam concerning Kuhn. Since then, MacPhail (owners) and Ken Moffett (players) have emerged as the sport's new, and apparently moderate, labor negotiators; fear of another strike (after the '84 season) is much reduced. Also, that billion-dollar TV deal has defused all of the alarmist talk about baseball being in immediate financial difficulty. As a bonus, 14 teams are within two games of first place at the moment and record pennant-race attendance this season seems probable.
At the moment, the game seems healthy, wealthy and lucky enough to prosper with or without Kuhn, or even without any commissioner for a few months.
That's fortunate because, within the week, Kuhn will probably be snubbed once more, and, if so, a week after that, baseball will enter an uncharted no man's land.