He failed to show up for Henry Aaron’s historic 715th home run. He tried his darndest to break the players’ union and to quash free agency. He simply never understood the union’s leader, Marvin Miller, or his cause. He tolerated team owners who owned gambling establishments, but banned Hall of Fame players who worked in them.
He badly misread public opinion regarding the old Negro Leagues, and tried to forever segregate their stars into a separate wing of the Hall of Fame. He mishandled the 1981 baseball strike and was at a loss to find meaningful league-wide solutions to the growing cocaine problem among players. He engaged in disreputable business practices after he left baseball.
He even tried to suppress Jim Bouton’s best-selling memoir, Ball Four, which has since evolved into a sports classic.
And in 2007 Bowie Kuhn was elected to the Hall of Fame.
Bowie Kuhn’s election proves a long-held belief: The higher that executives rise in baseball, the more likely they are to get elected to the Hall of Fame despite themselves. What does it take for a former commissioner to avoid induction? Evidence of Soviet espionage?
Alas, Bowie died in March 2007, thus depriving baseball fans the opportunity of boycotting his induction. We must be content to lobby for his un-induction here.
Concentrating on Kuhn’s business acumen, we do see abundant evidence that he helped the teams reap record profits and restore some luster to the game. He was a champion of night World Series games (they are all now played at night) and of the playoff system. His television contracts infused huge amounts of cash into the league just as free agency was causing player salaries to balloon. The American League launched the designated hitter rule. He helped the leagues expand into six new markets, and he even reined in — slightly — a few of the more outrageous owners.
Kuhn stood up to the chicanery of Charles O. Finley, the owner of the Oakland A’s who in 1973 tried to manipulate his team’s World Series roster through the use of a falsified injury report. He suspended the Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for making illegal political contributions. He suspended Ted Turner, owner of the Braves, for tampering with Gary Matthews’ contract. He fined Ray Kroc, owner of the Padres, for player tampering. He voided player trades that he said were bad for baseball.
But these were acts that any league executive would have been forced to take, since bad publicity had already swelled each case to the status of a scandal. Kuhn’s record on more complicated issues is sorely lacking in accomplishments.
It started badly in the early 1970s. He launched a misbegotten investigation of Leo Durocher, the Cubs’ Hall of Fame manager and a perennial thorn in the side of many players and Cubs fans. The allegations were never clear and the investigation ended when Durocher’s wife threatened legal action.
Kuhn was an implacable foe of any kind of gambling and of players who gambled, but he turned a blind eye to team owners who had gambling business interests. He banned Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, both Hall of Famers, for being employed as casino greeters in Atlantic City; the lifetime ban was lifted by a later commissioner but the bad publicity clouded a rational discussion of the financial pressures faced by older players.
Harder to explain was Kuhn’s relatively brief 1970 suspension of Denny McLain, the Detroit Tigers’ star pitcher and the last person to win 30 games in a season. McLain admitted to past gambling ties, including a partnership in a bookmaking scheme. It’s hard to reconcile McLain’s astoundingly light three-month suspension for being an illegal bookmaker with Mays’ and Mantle’s lifetime bans for employment as greeters at legal casinos.
Perhaps it was easier for Kuhn to suspend McLain later that same season for carrying a gun aboard an airplane. He was certainly harsh with players who abused drugs, but the cocaine problems that festered during his administration did not explode into a major scandal until 1983 — one year before he left office. It was left to the next commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, to clean up the mess and suspend 11 players; Kuhn avoided most of the blame for ignoring the problem.
Shortly after Kuhn took office in 1969, he scored an early success: He negotiated a new contract between the team owners and the Major League Players Association. A strike in 1970 was avoided and everyone seemed happy with the deal and were willing to delay discussions about letting veteran players become free agents.
But Kuhn’s downfall was his utter failure just a few years year later to deal with the deeply fractured players’ union, its pugnacious boss Marvin Miller and the inevitability of free agency. When Kuhn and the owners in 1975 were tipped off that a labor arbitrator had decided to allow two players to become free agents, their only action was to immediately fire the arbitrator. This set the tone for the next decade.
So total was Kuhn’s inability to grasp the subtleties of free agency that even when the union gratuitously offered to impose significant restrictions on free agency, he turned them down. Kuhn and the owners were convinced that Major League Baseball would prevail in the courts, despite voluntarily waiving Baseball’s antitrust exemption. They lost.
(Interestingly, Marvin Miller later speculated that Kuhn might have readily agreed to some sort of free agency, absent pressure from the team owners. For a detailed history of the complicated free agency mess, see our essay advocating Curt Flood for the Hall of Fame.)
Kuhn and the owners turned to blunt instruments in their dealings with players in the late 1970s. The owners locked the players out of Spring Training. Kuhn blocked several trades and player transfers that were largely motivated by owners’ desires to offload star players before their contracts expired. In 1980 the owners finally decided to seek major changes in free agency, and the result was an eight-day strike at the end of Spring Training.
The sky fell in 1981 when a 50-day strike crippled baseball and alienated fans for many years to come. The players eventually agreed to a provision that compensated owners for the loss of free agents, but the hard-fought clause was later junked in the 1985 contract. By that time, mercifully, the owners had decided not to renew Kuhn’s contract. He was out in 1984.
Bowie Kuhn, a lawyer who could have shown real political skill and courage during the dark years of 1974 to 1984, didn’t. The strikes are a monument to his inability to act in the face of substantial challenges. Not exactly a Hall of Fame performance.
While we don’t advocate electing any baseball executive (or union boss) to the Hall of Fame, it’s nice to know that we are not alone in our discomfort at Kuhn’s election. A former baseball commissioner, Fay Vincent, wrote in a New York Times op-ed article, “The members of the committee that elected Bowie Kuhn and passed on Marvin Miller should feel ashamed.”
Yes, they should.