MR. CLEAN : As Commissioner, Kuhn Took No-Nonsense Stand on Baseball and Gambling

Times Staff Writer

Last weekend, when Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski and Red Schoendienst were inducted into the Hall of Fame, Bowie Kuhn, the former commissioner of baseball, attended a reception for some Hall of Famers in Cooperstown, N.Y.

There was a discussion of “Field of Dreams,” the film fantasy about baseball. One of the longtime Hall of Fame members said that he hadn’t cared for the movie. Kuhn asked him why and got a vague answer. Kuhn persisted, and finally the Hall of Famer said:

“Because it makes Shoeless Joe Jackson look like a hero.”

Bowie Kent Kuhn hadn’t been born when the Chicago White Sox became the Black Sox after eight of them were accused of conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series, a scheme that led to super-hitter Jackson’s expulsion from baseball. But as a boy in the 1930s in Washington, D.C., the son of a German immigrant, Kuhn was a baseball fan extremely familiar with Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the federal judge who had become the first commissioner of baseball and had banned the Black Sox.


“Landis made a great impression on me,” Kuhn said the other day. “He was very much admired in our household.”

In 1969, Kuhn went from being a baseball attorney to baseball commissioner, the same job his idol, Landis, had held. Kuhn’s tenure ended in 1987, and now, at 62, he is a partner in a large corporate law firm here.

With baseball’s investigation of alleged gambling by Pete Rose prominent in recent months, some thoughts have gone back to Kuhn, the commissioner who:

--Suspended pitcher Denny McLain for gambling.


--Blocked Edward J. DeBartolo’s attempted purchase of the White Sox because he owned race tracks.

--Told Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle that they couldn’t work in baseball while they were employed by casinos.

Considering the Rose situation, was Kuhn a man ahead of his time? During an interview last week in his office on Manhattan’s East Side, Kuhn sidestepped that label.

“The Rose matter just reinforces the need for baseball to always be on guard,” Kuhn said. “Baseball would be naive if it thinks that it’s not possible to fix games. But no matter what baseball does, I think we will see the time when some games are fixed. It’s unavoidable.”


Kuhn has seen the 225-page report on the Cincinnati Reds’ manager that lawyer John Dowd prepared for commissioner Bart Giamatti.

“They’ve built a fairly impressive case,” Kuhn said. “Now, Pete Rose has denied what’s in there. I’d like to hear how he backs up those denials.”

Since Kuhn, baseball has quickly had two commissioners--Peter Ueberroth, on the heels of his success as the financial wizard of the 1984 Olympics, and Giamatti, the former president of Yale who was president of the National League before succeeding Ueberroth and inheriting the Rose case.

Last weekend, Cooperstown, with Bench being inducted into the Hall of Fame, was filled by Cincinnati Reds fans, who didn’t miss the chance to lobby Giamatti on behalf of Rose. From the street-front balcony of the Green Dragoon, a local pub, hung a neatly lettered, full-sized bed sheet that said:










When Giamatti was president of the National League, he suspended Rose for bumping an umpire during an argument.


If Rose is guilty of betting on baseball, including games involving his own team, he may have had a better chance for a lighter penalty had Ueberroth remained as commissioner. It was Ueberroth who rescinded Kuhn’s ruling on Mays and Mantle, the Hall of Fame center fielders who had been prevented from working for ball clubs while they were working in public relations for casinos in Atlantic City.

“When Peter took over as commissioner, he and I had several talks,” Kuhn said. “I had a hunch he was going in the other direction.”

The day Ueberroth announced that Mays and Mantle were welcome back in baseball, he first called Kuhn, to tell his predecessor what was coming.

“Peter said that he expected me to think he was wrong,” Kuhn said. “I told him that he was right--I did think he was wrong, and I would say so. He was sending out the wrong message as far as baseball was concerned.”


In 1970, a grand jury found that McLain, who won 31 games in 1968, was involved in a bookmaking operation. “There was no baseball betting on McLain’s part, but what he was doing was clearly illegal,” Kuhn said. “And even worse, he was associating with a criminal element. By suspending him, I was insulating baseball against the ultimate sin--betting on baseball games.”

On a shelf in Kuhn’s office is a copy of “Strikeout,” the book McLain wrote.

The decisions Kuhn made about DeBartolo, George Steinbrenner, Charlie Finley and the Bob Levy family were not as clear cut.

Steinbrenner, already the owner of the New York Yankees, bought a substantial interest in a race track in Tampa, Fla., without telling the commissioner.


“What I had on my hands was a fait accompli, " Kuhn said. “Well, there was some sort of a precedent. John Galbreath and his family owned some stock in Churchill Downs and they also owned the Pittsburgh Pirates, long before I had become commissioner. So I went along with Steinbrenner owning the race track. Uncomfortably, but I went along with it.”

But Kuhn forced Finley, owner of the Oakland A’s, to sell a small stock holding in a company that operated casinos. And the Bob Levy family, which owned the race track in Atlantic City, had to put that interest in a trust to become part of a group that bought the Philadelphia Phillies.

DeBartolo’s attempt to buy the White Sox in 1980 was not resolved as easily, however. A shopping-center magnate, DeBartolo already had purchased football’s San Francisco 49ers and hockey’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

But the drawback, in Kuhn’s eyes, was that DeBartolo also owned race tracks in Cleveland, Chicago and Louisiana. To that point, Kuhn had been inconsistent about the overlap of racing with baseball. “The time had come to do something about it, to establish a hard policy, and I decided to do it,” Kuhn said. “In Brown vs. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court reversed itself on segregation. Admittedly, this issue wasn’t as highfalutin as that, but the principle was the same.”


Despite Kuhn’s opposition, the first vote by the American League club owners was only 8-6 against DeBartolo, who needed 10 votes to buy the team.

There was to be a second vote, in Dallas, but shortly before the meeting, Vince Bartimo, who ran Louisiana Downs for DeBartolo, publicly said that Kuhn opposed his employer because the commissioner suspected DeBartolo of links with organized crime.

The vote went 11-3 against DeBartolo the second time.

“I had no reason to dislike DeBartolo personally,” Kuhn says. “I had the highest regard for one of his top people, Paul Martha (the former defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers). But that outburst (by Bartimo) was the clincher. I’ve been accused of many things, but being anti-Italian has never been one of them. Some of the top people who worked in my office were Italian-Americans.”


In his book, “Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner,” Kuhn gave his reasons for opposing DeBartolo:

” . . . I was motivated by two perils. First was the illegal betting on sports. . . . Second, I was concerned about the increasing efforts to legalize gambling on team sports. I was determined to keep baseball on the highest possible ground to avoid these perils. The further we were removed from gambling of all kinds, whether legal or illegal, the better positioned we would be to resist gambling on our game.”

At the time, Kuhn was portrayed by the racing industry as someone who had slurred their legalized sport. But now, in the context of the Rose case and a push by some racing executives to intermingle horse betting with betting on team sports at race tracks, Kuhn’s hard-line stance in 1980 seems to have been on the mark.

Bob Levy, by the way, as president of the international trade group called the Thoroughbred Racing Assns., is one of those executives who is interested in establishing track betting on team sports.


“When I was commissioner, we sued Canada to keep it from taking bets on baseball games,” Kuhn said. “This is another factor that baseball should be stiff-arming. Delaware had a fling at betting on pro football, and now Oregon’s going ahead with a plan. The message that baseball sends to state legislators should be clear. This is not to say that there’s any crookedness necessarily connected with legalized gambling. It’s just that there is a danger connected with gambling in any form. The potential for bad associations is there. It’s a potential that is always possible of leading into gambling on baseball.”

When Kuhn was commissioner, he tried to strengthen baseball’s security operation.

“We knew Pete Rose (as a player) was a race-track bettor,” Kuhn said. “Everybody knew it. We had people who warned him that he must not bet on baseball.”

Kuhn remembered a time when Rose’s publicity was more positive.


“Some of the top players were under fire from the public for not giving their all,” Kuhn said. “They were being accused of not giving 100% in order to protect their longevity.

“Then there was Rose, a guy who would run into a wall for any ball he thought he might get to. He was the game’s best role model. I strongly admired him. Now it’s very sad, what has transpired.”