Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of major league baseball from 1969-1984, died yesterday at age 80. Kuhn served as commissioner during the years that I really started paying attention to baseball; indeed, he is the first commissioner about whom I remember hearing. I remember not liking him very much. The best I can recall, I thought that he was too dictatorial in the way that he did his job. From what I have read since his death was reported, some contemporaries of his had the same opinion that my self-righteous adolescent brain formed.
Now that I think about it, though, I understand better what a tough job he had. The position has a basic conflict built into it; the commissioner is supposed to uphold the integrity of baseball, a game which is of course played by the players and coached by the coaches and umpired by the umpires, but he is an employee of the owners. Nevertheless, he also has some authority over the owners; he can suspend an owner for conduct deemed detrimental to the game, for example. He famously suspended some of the most famous owners in the game, including Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Braves owner Ted Turner. But the commissioner is in a tough spot just by the nature of the job.
Kuhn presided over a period of tremendous progress but also of tremendous upheaval. World Series night games were first played during his tenure. I remember watching the very first one; it was played on October 13, 1971 between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. For a school-aged fan, that was a positive development. During the time that he served, major league baseball expanded by two teams in both the American and National Leagues with each league being divided into two divisions the winners of which would meet in a playoff series to determine the World Series participants. I liked that because in the first year of divisional play in 1969 my beloved Braves won the Western Division, even though they lost in the playoffs to the Miracle Mets.
(It was weird that the Braves were in the Western division along with San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Houston. It was especially weird when you consider that the Eastern Division included, besides New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal, the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. The last time I checked, Atlanta was east of Chicago and St. Louis. St. Louis is the “Gateway to the West,” for crying out loud. That ridiculous situation was finally rectified in 1994 when the leagues went to three divisions and the Braves were moved to the Eastern Division. Unfortunately, that realignment also led to the introduction of a “wild card” team into the playoffs, a move to which I was and am opposed. Second-place teams should not be in the baseball playoffs, and I don’t care how many of them win the World Series.)
Many developments occurred on the labor front in baseball during Kuhn’s tenure. Salaries skyrocketed mainly due to the advent of free agency. Under the reserve clause system, a player was bound to his team even after his contract expired unless the team traded or sold him to another team. A federal arbitrator ruled in 1975 that players could leave their team when their contract expired, which of course made them available to the highest bidder. (One of the first free agents was pitcher Andy Messersmith, who signed with the Braves. Ted Turner wanted him to wear number 17 with the word “Channel” over it as an advertisement for Turner’s cable channel WTBS which carried the Braves’ games. That was not allowed).
Kuhn made one of his most controversial moves just as free agency was coming into play. In June of 1976, Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley, knowing that he was about to lose some of his stars without getting anything in return for them, sold the contract of pitcher Vida Blue to the New York Yankees for $1.5 million and the contracts of outfielder Joe Rudi and pitcher Rollie Fingers to the Boston Red Sox for $1 million each. Kuhn voided that sale because he judged it to be detrimental to baseball. The Red Sox were and are my favorite American League team, so I was miffed. In retrospect, I can see the validity of Kuhn’s concerns. The idea of owners auctioning off their best players was troubling. I’m not sure, though, that it is any more troubling than the players auctioning themselves off. On the one hand, Finley was astute in seeing what was coming and in trying to get ahead of the game; he was skilled at that. On the other hand, Kuhn was justified in trying to keep a lid on a volatile and still developing situation.
The bottom line is this: leadership is tough. As a pastor, I think about such issues all the time. A pastor wants to be true first and foremost to the Savior who has called her or him to the ministry of the Word and to the service of the Kingdom of Heaven. But in the real world of the church, there are competing visions and conflicting concerns and differing constituencies. Nobody will agree with you all of the time and sometimes nobody will agree with you at all. Like a baseball commissioner or any other leader, you just have to follow the best light you have and be as true to your core principles as you can be. Hopefully, when you die, people will be able to say what they are saying today about Bowie Kuhn: “We didn’t always agree with him, but we did respect him.”