Nobody needs to feel sorry for Bowie Kuhn.

He was commissioner of baseball longer than Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. Kuhn had a good long run, left a strong record of uninspired but high-minded competence behind and departed the sport under circumstances that may eventually make him a kind of unlikely folk hero.

The jackel owners who forced Kuhn's resignation this week may actually have done the 14-year commissioner the greatest favor of his life. They couldn't possibly have arranged a set of circumstances which, in history's eye, will make Kuhn look taller than he was, and which will, with the years, make them look even smaller than they were.

Nelson Doubleday, Ted Turner, Augie Busch and John McMullen will never have to wonder what their baseball epitaphs will be. No matter how many games their teams win, they will always be remembered for trying to drag down a decent man. And failing.

These four, with the dithering assistance of the factotums in charge of the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs, managed to force Kuhn into a distinguished resignation that will go a light year toward reversing his image as an impractical bumbler.

In the wake of baseball's new billion-dollar TV contract, plus welcome signs of moderation in the game's labor struggle, Kuhn will probably get credit for a subtlety of stewardship he did not really possess.

The TV contract fell into Kuhn's lap and the arrival of Lee MacPhail and Ken Moffett on the labor scene was only a gut reaction by all concerned to the disasters caused by the blood-sport style of non-negotiation practiced by those masters of the counterproductive insult, Ray Grebey and Marvin Miller.

Baseball is in sound financial health today for the same reason it was deeply worried just a few months ago: the death of the reserve clause.

The free-market, free-agent era Kuhn resisted with all his might is the most likely cause for the game's competitive balance. That balance, and the concomitant audience-building pennant races of recent years, are the reasons that TV is willing to shell out a billion bucks.

In other words, the idea Kuhn fought hardest--free agentry--is the cornerstone of the TV deal that is bringing him such praise now.

At the simplest level, Kuhn really does love baseball and truly does believe that maintaining its public image of integrity is his central job as commissioner. When Kuhn saw that he did not have the votes for reelection this week on the eve of the expiration of his term, he did the only highfalutin Bowie-like thing.

He quit.

That stand tall and look 'em in the eye resignation will win him more friends in the bleachers and the press box--where the intricacy and difficulty of so many of his previous decisions have been unappreciated--than all his logic chopping and moral anguish.

Fans and reporters, like everybody else, prefer simple answers. Throughout his years, Kuhn always seemed to reach the ambiguous, tangled sort of conclusions that satisfied his lawyer's mind.

He looked and acted like an up-tight headmaster. In an age devoted to youth culture and a sliding scale of moral values Kuhn was the easiest sort of cartoon figure. He learned to enjoy his out-of-kilter image with a perversity worthy of his heros Woodrow Wilson and Wendell Wilkie.

On the day Kuhn resigned, the NFL had one of the worst in its apparently endless "integrity" scandals--the Tony Peters bust. Kuhn leaves with his game intact and at its all-time high point in attendance, popularity and--compared to other pro team sports--credibility.

Nobody's laughing now about Kuhn's decade-old obsession with keeping unsavory money out of baseball's ownership, fining admitted drug user Steve Howe $54,000 and setting an old-fashioned moral tone by banning Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays from baseball for representing gambling casinos.

The best that can be said of Kuhn's years as commissioner is that he left the sport in such solid condition that even his resignation barely left a ripple of damage. If baseball could survive an invisible commissioner like Spike Eckert, the Unknown Soldier, then it can do without a competent leader like Kuhn.

As baseball looks to its future, it is oddly appropriate Kuhn should have the last word. At the Hall of Fame last Sunday, Kuhn said baseball's most important concern was his favorite catch phrase--"the integrity of the game." And, Kuhn added, the game's greatest danger comes from those who didn't understand this.

All baseball has to do is look at the miseries of the NFL to know Kuhn was right. What baseball needs most now is not a lawyer, businessman, cable-TV genius, labor negotiator or silver-haired public spokesman.

What baseball needs is a person of ingrained moral sense who understands that gambling and drug-use among players, and racketeers in the boardroom, constitute the most fundamental concern of any pro sport.

Of course, that man--the best available commissioner for the rest of the '80s--was Bowie Kuhn. He may be better suited to the years ahead than he was to the years behind.

But, now, he's gone.

After 14 years of taking gaff, Kuhn finally gets the last laugh, bitter though it may be.