After 14 years of forced impartiality, Bowie Kuhn can go back to being a fan. "But the Senators are gone," he said wistfully, after giving up the fight to remain in his job.
So much has happened to baseball since Kuhn became commissioner Feb. 4, 1969. The Senators left Washington, leaving the city in which Kuhn grew up without a team and without hope for one.
During his tenure, he suspended Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers and George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees. He voided the sale of three Oakland A's for a total of $3.5 million and was sued by Charlie Finley. "That put the Kuhn stamp on the commissioner's office," he said.
The DH became part of the vocabulary. The reserve clause, which had bound players to their clubs in perpetuity, was replaced by free agency. During the bitter, divisive strike of 1981, fought over the issue of compensation for free agents, he remained above and beyond the fray. One of his greatest regrets, he said, was letting that issue slide from 1980 to 1981.
"The public still thinks of the commissioner as Landis-like," he said, referring to baseball's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. "The laws have changed. You can't tell the owners, 'You're going to do this and the players do this.' "
In the last 14 years, the major leagues expanded from 20 to 26 clubs; attendance increased from 23 million in 1968 to 44.6 million in 1982. The integrity of game, which he spoke about so often, remained intact. And, this year, after the men who employed him had decided not renew his seven-year contract for a third time, Kuhn negotiated a $1.2 billion television contract, perhaps hoping that would be enough to change some minds.
It wasn't. He said he "pretty much made up my mind to it weeks ago" and told his family several weeks ago that he thought it would go this way. Today, as he prepared to take his leave, he said, "I leave feeling baseball has come light years."
Today, he informed the men who fired him that he had accepted his fate. "He was a very formidable figure that felt he gave a lot to the game doing something he didn't want to do, leave the game," said Eddie Einhorn, coowner of the Chicago White Sox. "He was trying to be a rock but it was very emotional. A couple of times his voice cracked. I was emotional myself and didn't want to look up."
He is not sure what he will do when he leaves office Dec. 31, or sooner if the owners find a replacement. In many ways, he said, it would have been easier to leave now.
Someone has even raised the possibility of buying into a baseball franchise. For the next few days, he said, "I'm just going to watch the waves hit the shore."
As he spoke, a reporter representing a morning television show rushed over, pleading for an interview Thursday morning. "I'm not sure what I'll be doing," he said. "I may be holding my head."