Friday, March 16, 2007

Kuhn Didn't Always Do The Popular Thing, But He Was Relevant

Bowie Kuhn, at times, was a commissioner of baseball who was bigger than the game itself. And one who took the responsibility of being the game's keeper extremely seriously, probably too much so in certain instances. But he was relevant, which is more than you can say about others who came before him and who succeeded him.

Kuhn, who died yesterday at age 80, presided over baseball through what may have been its most important time -- at least its most evolving. He was commissioner from 1969 to 1984.

World Series games played at night. A switch to divisions, creating LCSs. The designated hitter. Free agency. All this happened when Kuhn was baseball's commissioner, and all were big moments in the game's history.

Kuhn was both vilified and hailed, especially when he made decisions based on, in his words, "the best interests of baseball." Maybe the most famous of these occurred whenever Kuhn would go toe-to-toe with Oakland A's owner Charlie O. Finley. Kind of like Pete Rozelle's tussles with Raiders managing partner Al Davis. When Finley tried to hold a mideason fire sale in 1976, attempting to jettison players like Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, and Ken Holtzman to the Yankees and Red Sox, Kuhn stepped in, blocking the transactions. Not on his watch would he allow an owner to sell his players off like it was a huge clearance event.

But Kuhn was also baseball's proprietor during the lengthy strike of 1981, which created the much-derided "first half" and "second half" divisional champs and ushered in an era of recurring labor problems. Some say the '81 strike greased the skids for his replacement, which happened in 1984 when Olympic executive Peter Ueberroth took over.

Baseball enjoyed an attendance boon in the 1970s, and much of it was because of the elements Kuhn helped to bring to the game, like the DH and free agency. Like them or not, those two introductions left an indelible mark.

But the bottom line is this: Bowie Kuhn was relevant. He was immersed in the game. And he wasn't always very popular as a result. But you knew who he was, and you talked about his decisions.

Kuhn often didn't care what others thought of his ideas and his vision for baseball. He only cared about keeping as much integrity and credibility in the game as possible. Some criticized him for being, in their eyes, a self-appointed caretaker at the expense of progress or the louder majority's desires. But nobody could accuse him of not caring.

He was one of sports' better commissioners, really.


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