Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball since 1969, gave up the job he loved today "for the good of the game."
Faced with the unrelenting opposition of six teams in the National League and wavering support among some of those who backed him, Kuhn decided to end his fight to continue as commissioner. He said the decision is "final, irrevocable and emphatic."
Although he informed the owners' executive council of his decision in a meeting Tuesday, most owners were not aware of it until he made his announcement at the beginning of the annual summer meetings this morning. It was greeted with "awesome silence," Kuhn said.
"It was very, very quiet," said Roy Eisenhardt, president of the Oakland A's. "You could have heard a pin drop. Baseball has lost a valuable resource that is essentially unreplaceable."
No replacements were presented or discussed today. The owners approved a resolution by the Milwaukee Brewers' Bud Selig, chairman of the search committee, that Kuhn would stay on until the search committee finds a replacement, or until Dec. 31 at the latest. "That was unanimously adopted," Kuhn said. "So apparently I finally found a way to get the complete vote."
Kuhn, 56, actually lost his job 276 days ago, when he failed to receive the necessary three-fourths vote from each league that would have given him a third seven-year term. He was opposed then by five National League and three American League teams--the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cincinnati Reds, the Houston Astros, the New York Mets, the Atlanta Braves, the Seattle Mariners, the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees.
"It does upset me that we have a three-fourths rule in baseball," said Edward Bennett Williams, owner of the Baltimore Orioles. "The College of Cardinals doesn't have a three-fourths vote. John Paul II might have a hard time getting reelected."
Since the vote, Kuhn's supporters have worked to sway the votes against him and to find a compromise that would allow him to remain in the job. There were discussions that centered on shortening the term of the commissioner, giving some of his opponents seats on the executive council and hiring a businessman to supplement the commissioner. By Tuesday, it was clear the opposition was intact and that efforts at compromise had failed.
There was one other alternative. The executive council, which is made up of four owners from each league and the two league presidents, would have assumed responsibility for running baseball when Kuhn's term expires Aug. 12. They had considered the possibility of naming Kuhn administrator and had solicited legal opinions from the American League, National League and major league counsels assuring them they could do so.
"Having to go ahead as an administrator, which was the route open, would have undermined the commissioner's office and the game," Kuhn said. "Clearly, the council would have gone that route if I had wanted to go that route. I think they had mixed emotions about it but I think they were prepared to do it."
Sources say some of Kuhn's supporters on the executive council began to waver, realizing the hopelessness of the deadlock and the potential battles that loomed if they proceeded with the plan. Asked if his supporters had become discouraged and had, in turn, discouraged Kuhn from continuing to fight, Eddie Einhorn, coowner of the Chicago White Sox, said, "I don't know if 'discouraged' is the right word. Reality set in . . . The commissioner had become a cause celebre for a much bigger picture. When you start to think about it in terms of reality, it just was not right."
"I think they conveyed to him the reality, that the votes were not going to change," said one owner. "They presented the facts. He made the decision."
"His friends went over the side," one management source said pointedly.
Kuhn's first job in baseball was working the scoreboard at the old Griffith Stadium in Washington, where he earned $1 a day. He was the attorney for the National League when he was named commissioner pro tem Feb. 4, 1969, succeeding Gen. William D. Eckert. He was elected to a full seven-year term in August 1969 and to a second full term in July 1975.
He came perilously close to losing the job then, when his opposition came from the American League. But Walter O'Malley, then the owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, got a one-day delay in the proceedings and the votes of Texas and the New York Yankees were changed.
This time, there was no angel of mercy. Now the owners must turn their attention to finding a replacement for Kuhn. Selig said he hoped to present a candidate or candidates within 30 to 60 days.
He said it was never his intention to propose candidates today. Selig said he has interviewed some candidates--fewer than five--but declined to name any of them. He said the owners have not been told who those candidates are.
"The candidates they have interviewed said their names can't be used as long as Bowie was a candidate," said Jerry Reinsdorf, coowner of the Chicago White Sox.
There is general agreement that Kuhn's unresolved status hampered the attempts of the search committee because many of the candidates did not want to fight for the job.
Kuhn's successor will occupy an office that has been significantly strengthened. This afternoon, the owners approved proposals that will bring their player relations committee and the Promotion Corporation Inc., which handles licensing, under the commissioner's domain.
The owners also approved changes in the methods by which they make their decisions. Beginning in December, the rule requiring a three-fourths vote in each league will be replaced by a simple majority of the 26 teams, except in specific instances. Decisions regarding interleague play and three-division play will still require a 75-percent vote of approval from each league, for example. No change was made in the voting procedure for a new commmissioner.
Kuhn, who said he came close to announcing his decision last week, leaves with no apologies and no bitterness. "That's not my style," he said.
"If I were in his place," said Gene Autry, owner of the California Angels, "I would have said the same thing: 'Take this job and shove it.' "