Bowie Kuhn, 80; baseball’s commissioner in stormy era

Times Staff Writer

Bowie Kuhn, baseball commissioner during one of the sport’s stormiest eras -- and perhaps best remembered for sitting in his suit coat in 40-degree weather during the 1976 World Series -- died Thursday. He was 80.

According to his spokesman, Bob Wirz, Kuhn died at St. Luke’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., after a short bout with pneumonia that led to respiratory failure.

In his 15 years as commissioner, baseball experienced the end of the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams for as long as their teams wanted them; the emergence of free agency, which led to today’s multimillion-dollar contracts; lawsuits; labor strife; rebellion by owners and retaliation by Kuhn.


That same period also produced expansion, league and division playoffs, the designated hitter and unprecedented attendance and television booms.

Kuhn once said, “I want it to be remembered that I was commissioner during a time of tremendous growth in the popularity of the game and that it was a time in which no one could question the integrity of the game.”

Kuhn, a lawyer who had impressed baseball with his successful defense of the Braves, who were sued by the city of Milwaukee after moving to Atlanta in 1966, came into office in 1969 as a compromise candidate to serve a one-year trial term. He replaced William “Spike” Eckert, a former Air Force general under whom baseball had stagnated.

Things livened considerably under Kuhn, a hardly expected development considering that many viewed him as a stuffed shirt who spoke in bureaucratese.

Baseball insiders referred to him as “Boobie” Kuhn and Oakland A’s owner Charley Finley once called him “the village idiot.”

Still, Kuhn fought his battles as they came to him, feuding with owners, players and Marvin Miller, then head of the new players union.

He suspended the New York Yankees’ George Steinbrenner, baseball’s most powerful owner, and he barred former Yankees and Giants stars Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, two of baseball’s most popular players, from the game.

Kuhn faced down Finley, overruling player deals that he considered detrimental to baseball, suspended Braves owner Ted Turner for contract tampering, and fined San Diego Padres owner Ray Kroc $100,000 -- a considerable sum in 1979 -- for publicly coveting players from other teams.

Steinbrenner was suspended for two years, a term later reduced to 15 months, after he had been found guilty of illegal political campaign contributions.

Kuhn suspended Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain for his involvement in a bookmaking venture, and when Mantle and Mays signed on for casino promotions after their careers were done, Kuhn ordered them to sever their ties with baseball. All were later reinstated.

The player who forever will be linked to Kuhn, however, is the late outfielder Curt Flood, who in the fall of 1969 refused to report after having been traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, instead demanding in a letter to Kuhn that he be declared a free agent.

Kuhn refused, citing the reserve clause, and Flood responded with a lawsuit against Kuhn and Major League Baseball, alleging violation of antitrust law. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of baseball.

The gauntlet had been thrown, however, and only three years later, the players union challenged the reserve clause again and won in arbitration. The resulting free agency changed baseball forever.

Kuhn also tangled with pitcher Jim Bouton, describing Bouton’s book “Ball Four,” as “detrimental to baseball” and demanding that Bouton retract it.

Kuhn also inserted himself into Hank Aaron’s chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record. Then, when the feat was accomplished, he appeared to snub it.

Aaron, who was playing for the Atlanta Braves, started the 1974 season with 713 homers, one shy of the record. The Braves wanted Aaron to tie and break the record at home and were planning to not play him in the opening series at Cincinnati. Kuhn, however, ordered Braves Manager Eddie Mathews to play Aaron in at least two of the three road games.

Aaron tied the record in his first at-bat in Cincinnati but didn’t hit another homer in the series. Then, when the club returned to Atlanta, he hit No. 715 in the fourth inning of the series opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Kuhn was not in the stands.

Kuhn was in the stands, though, for the 1976 World Series, between the Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds. Cincinnati won the afternoon opener on a chilly Saturday, 5-1, and Sunday came up even colder. As it happened, Sunday’s game was to be the first weekend Series game played at night, and when the sun went down, it got even colder.

Fans bundled against the 40-degree chill, but Kuhn sat nonchalantly in his suit coat, drawing questioning stares, snickers and the ire of Cincinnati General Manager Bob Howsam, who had ripped the idea of moving World Series starting times to avoid conflicting with National Football League games on television.

Kuhn protested that he had not sold out to TV but later acknowledged that he had worn thermal underwear beneath his suit.

Kuhn also ordered that Game 6 of the 1982 World Series, between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Cardinals, be played to its conclusion, despite torrential downpours in St. Louis. Delays interrupted the game for 2 1/2 hours, but it eventually was completed, near midnight, a 4-1 Cardinals victory.

Many of the 53,723 fans had long since gone home, but Kuhn sat in the stands through the rain delays and stayed till the end.

By then, though, the owners who had hired him had had enough of Kuhn. A strike in 1981 -- the fifth work stoppage under Kuhn -- took most of the season, and on Nov. 1, 1982, a vote by owners failed to give him the 75% approval he needed for another term. He finished his term and served another season as baseball waited for his successor, Peter Ueberroth, to give the world the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Ueberroth succeeded Kuhn on Oct. 1, 1984.

Kuhn returned to law practice.

He was born Bowie Kent Kuhn -- named for ancestor Jim Bowie, legendary adventurer and inventor of the Bowie knife -- in Takoma Park, Md., on Oct. 26, 1926.

Kuhn grew up in Washington, D.C., an avid fan of the original Washington Senators, graduated from Princeton and got his law degree from the University of Virginia.

Said Ueberroth, now chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee: “As commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bowie was instrumental in expanding the visibility and popularity of the sport worldwide.

“He brought order to Major League Baseball and his many contributions to the growth of the game will serve as an enduring legacy. Bowie was a great commissioner, and in my opinion he belongs in the Hall of Fame.”

Kuhn had his own opinion.

“You’ve got to develop a sense of humor,” he said. “You have to be able to stand back and laugh. That’s invaluable, or you’re apt to go slightly balmy.”

He is survived by his wife, Luisa; son, Stephen Kuhn; daughter, Alex Bower; and stepsons, Paul and George Degener.


The Associated Press contributed to this report