Last Thursday, former commissioner Bowie Kuhn died at the age of 80 due to complications from pneumonia. Statements from both Commissioner Selig and Executive Director Fehr were released shortly thereafter remarking about Kuhn as a man and as former commissioner.
The following day, the likes of Hal Bodley of USA Today, and Richard Goldstein of the NY Times talked of what Kuhn meant historically. MLB ran a full page ad in USA Today in his honor (see the image to the right, and click to see it in higher resolution)
Today, a selection of six notables that either knew Kuhn directly, or have studied him and his tenure will weigh in on his legacy. The list includes (in alphabetical order):
- Buzzie Bavasi – Bavasi, who has been, and continues to be on the Hall of Fame ballot for the Veterans Committee, was a key player in the front offices of the Dodgers, Padres, and Angels. Bavasi’s tenure overlapped with Kuhn’s.
- Maury Brown – Founder of BizOfBaseball.com, Maury Brown’s Biz of Sports, and an author for Baseball Prospectus. Brown is the former co-chair of SABR’s Business of Baseball committee.
- Tim Lemke – Lemke is currently the sports business reporter for the Washington Times.
- Roger Noll – Noll is Professor Emeritus of Economics, at Stanford University and has written extensively on baseball economics.
- Tal Smith – Smith is the president of player development for the Houston Astros, and was at Kuhn’s funeral on Tuesday (read the Biz of Baseball interview with Smith).
- Andrew Zimbalist – Zimbalist serves as the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College, and has written several books on sports economics, including the recently released, In the Best Interests of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig, which touches on Kuhn’s tenure. (read the Biz of Baseball interviews with Zimbalist from 2006 and 2004).
In compiling these thoughts on Kuhn, an interesting trend emerged: those that knew well of him personally had high praise for the former commissioner. Those that viewed him from an academic standpoint or knew of him only in passing, had views that were somewhat less flattering regarding his place in history.
Below are six views of former commissioner Bowie Kuhn. (select Read More for details)
Buzzie Bavasi - I put Bowie right behind Ford Frick and to me Ford was the best.
The day he was dismissed as commissioner, Bowie and Luisa (Kuhn’s wife) asked Evit, my wife, and myself out to dinner. Not once during that two hour period did Bowie say anything critical of the folks that dismissed him. However, I had plenty to say.
At the meeting (to dismiss Kuhn before the dinner), Ted Turner, went into a tirade about Bowie’s 15 years as commissioner. I interrupted and read a clipping that was in the N.Y. Daily news the week before. It read, "This is such a good TV package that I have changed my mind and am voting for Bowie". I asked who was being quoted. No one acknowledged the quote. I finally said to Ted, “This is your quote, Ted." "Yeah,” said Turner. “But I hadn't read the contract when I made that statement." Think that tells you everything.
Maury Brown – I was fortunate enough to interview Kuhn in 2005, and could count on one hand the number of phone calls I had with him. Sadly, I was left with a sense that he was not the warmest man, and my view of him historically is one of seeing a man at a particular place in history, rather than a man who proactively made history. Maybe that is due to my limited access to the man personally. Maybe my distance allows me to be unfettered by personal experience. Be that as it may, here are my views on the man’s tenure.
Much has been made of how player salaries escalated during his tenure. The AP in reporting his death mentioned that when his tenure started in February of 1969, the average salary was $19,000 and by the end of his tenure, the average salary was nearly $330,000. This was more the doing of Marvin Miller than anything as Kuhn fought through multiple legal channels to overturn the reserve clause, which allowed for the rapid escalation in salary growth. Yet, his actions actually worked in the players favor. As Miller said in his autobiography, “His inability to distinguish between reality and his prejudices, his lack of concern for the rights of players, sections of the press, and even the stray unpopular owner—all combined to make Kuhn a vital ingredient in the growth and strength of the union. To paraphrase Voltaire on God, if Bowie Kuhn had never existed, we would have had to invent him.”
Miller’s accounting of Kuhn seems to encapsulate my views on him: a man that was at some of the most important moments in baseball history, who was not the visionary of those moments, but rather a man that seemed to simply react to them, thereby creating history.
When I asked him if he had any regrets in life, his response seems to further this view of mine. “On Jim Bouton’s book, Ball Four, I expressed some reservations about his story in the clubhouse matters—which in baseball were considered sacrosanct—and I did nothing but sell the book,” Kuhn said. “I wouldn't do that again.”
In Kuhn’s defense, he viewed himself as an overseer of the great game of baseball, without the understanding that he was simply an employer of the owners—the CEO model with which Selig seems to embrace. There is little doubt in my mind that Kuhn cared deeply about baseball and acted in what he viewed in his mind was in its best interest. It seems the times changed around Kuhn, and he—and many of the owners of the day—simply did not grasp the fundamental shift that occurred when Miller and the Player’s Association made their ascension.
And in that, maybe I’m being too harsh on Kuhn. After all, he was a product of the owners and acting mostly on their behalf.
Kuhn’s undoing is that he not only fought back the players, but also fought with the owners. Certainly Finley despised him when he overturned the trades of Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox, along with Vida Blue to the Yankees—Finley’s infamous fire sale. And it wasn’t just Finley; Steinbrenner, and Ted Turner were others he alienated.
So, it was a sad day when Kuhn passed. But, it should be sad, for the reasons that the passing of any one person when they leave this mortal coil. For his family. For his friends. History, on the other hand, may view Kuhn as less of an imposing figure, than he was physically in life.
Tim Lemke - No baseball commissioner will ever be beloved by everyone. All of the game's top executives have left a bag of mixed reactions, and Bowie Kuhn is no exception. But there is really only one question you need to answer when evaluating a commissioner's career: was baseball in better shape at the end of his tenure than at the beginning of it? In Kuhn's case, it's clear that the answer is yes.
Kuhn oversaw one of the biggest explosions in the game's popularity, as attendance nearly doubled during his 16 years at the helm. Without Kuhn, prime-time baseball would have come along much later and the television contracts enjoyed by the league would be smaller in scale. Yes, the strike in 1981 was messy, but history will show that the stoppage of 1994 was considerably more damaging to baseball.
I never knew Kuhn, and was just a boy when he left the game. But I did have the pleasure of speaking to him last year when he openly campaigned--successfully--for baseball to select his former classmate Ted Lerner to be the new owner of the Nationals.
My favorite anecdote relates to his creation of a "lifetime baseball pass" for all 52 of the Iran hostages after they were brought home in 1981. Given the current world climate, that seems like an idea worth renewing. In fact, it's a pretty darn good idea no matter what the situation. Let's call it the Bowie Kuhn Pass, and hand out a few thousand of them with our thanks.
Roger Noll - Bowie Kuhn was a better Commissioner than most, which I admit is rather like declaring the nicest day in January in Duluth.
Baseball Commissioner is a tough job. Superficially, the Commissioner has great power, but because the owners employ the Commissioner at will, no one can long survive in office without running the game in the interests of most owners as they perceive it at the time. And their perception of their own interest is not always accurate. Just ask Fay Vincent.
Bowie Kuhn did many things that most regard as prudish or wrong-headed. But he was an effective advocate and facilitator of the world view of owners in the 1960s and 1970s. And sometimes he surprised people.
His most courageous act was ending the lock-out after the McNally-Messersmith decision threatened to make all players free agents within a year. Whereas no one believed more deeply in the (incorrect) proposition that free-agency could destroy baseball, Kuhn also stood up to a majority of owners who were willing to shut down the sport if the players would not agree to give back what they had won in the arbitration process. By ending the lock-out, Kuhn did more than save the start of the 1976 season, he also changed the terms of the debate between labor and management, and thereby ushered in the modern era of free agency. Marvin Miller was the architect, but Kuhn cleared the site.
We do not know precisely why Kuhn lost his job, but the leading candidates were issues of principle: drugs and collusion.
Kuhn vigorously tried to cleanse baseball of hard drugs, which did not go down well with some owners when a valuable player was suspended. While his policies and actions may have been excessively harsh, at least they were clear and fairly implemented, unlike baseball's current policies and practices regarding performance-enhancing drugs. Second, while he had as much distaste for high player salaries as any owner, he also favored playing by the rules. His successor happily facilitated collusion over player salaries. This lapse of judgment cost baseball dearly: hundreds of millions in damages, plus poisoning the collective bargaining relationship that led to the debacle of 1994.
So farewell, Bowie. You did a pretty fair job, given the times and the people that you worked for.
Tal Smith - I thought Bowie was a fine man and a good commissioner.
The landscape was far different during his administration. They were trying times. The union was flexing its muscles which resulted in a great deal of labor strife. And Bowie's constituency - the clubs and their owners - was difficult and, in some case cases, irascible.
Bowie loved baseball and was well steeped in its history. He governed so as to do everything in his power to preserve and protect the game's integrity and to foster its growth. He served it well with class and dignity.
Andrew Zimbalist - One never wants to be disrespectful at such times, so it is uncomfortable when the imperative for truth is so strong. As I said to Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe on the matter, I think Bowie established a pattern of antagonism and acrimony and distrust between the owners and players in the 1970s that took baseball 25-plus years to work through.