- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

Bowie Kuhn oversaw many significant changes during his 15 years as baseball commissioner (1969-84), but chances are he will be best remembered for two things:

The overcoat, or lack thereof, and his ongoing feud with Charlie Finley.

One of Kuhn’s worst ideas was moving the World Series to nighttime and prime time in 1971, thereby making it impossible for young fans to stay up for most games on TV and subjecting onsite spectators to frigid fall temperatures.

Then, by watching the games clad only in an expensive suit, Kuhn seemed to be saying, “Coat? Why should anyone need a coat?” His singular point of view left most others cold.

Kuhn, a native of Takoma Park who operated the manual scoreboard at Washington’s Griffith Stadium as a young man, was one of those people whose appearance and demeanor suggested — rightly or wrongly — that he was aloof and autocratic. When he died March 16 of pneumonia in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., at 80, older fans recalled a man whose slicked-back hair and stern expression marked him as the corporate lawyer he once was.

Of Kuhn’s many critics, famed sports columnist Red Smith was among the most vociferous. He repeatedly ripped the commissioner in the New York Times, saying the 1981 players strike “wouldn’t have happened if Bowie Kuhn were alive today” and “an empty car pulled up and Bowie Kuhn got out.”

Chances are that picture was incomplete. Kuhn loved the game passionately; until the end of his days, he lobbied for the election of boyhood heroes Cecil Travis and Mickey Vernon of the Washington Senators to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Kuhn was seen by players and many others as a tool of the owners who paid his salary. Yet he never hesitated to take off his coat, roll up his sleeves and mix it up with his bosses in behalf of what he always deemed “the best interests of baseball” — a vague phrase that nicely covered any controversial decisions he cared to make.

Under his aegis, baseball expanded into Canada, realigned the major leagues into two divisions each and instituted league championship series, generated huge TV revenues and witnessed the beginnings of free agency and soaring player salaries. He was the toughest commissioner since the first, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Among other things, he suspended owners George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees, Ted Turner of the Atlanta Braves and Ray Kroc of the San Diego Padres for various malfeasances.

His biggest battle, however, was with Finley, who owned the Oakland A’s. The pair seemed forever at odds, and the matchup was classic: starchy and formal Bowie against irascible and unpredictable Charlie.

Antagonism between the pair began soon after Kuhn, then the National League’s attorney, was elected as a compromise choice for commissioner. Kuhn once reprimanded Finley for sending Reggie Jackson to the minors briefly, later fined him for handing out illegal bonuses to his players after they won the 1972 World Series and fined him again for forcing second baseman Mike Andrews to sign a false affidavit that he was injured after Andrews committed two consecutive errors in the 1973 Series.

Finley, for his part, started an unsuccessful “Dump Bowie” movement in 1975 toward the end of the commissioner’s first term. When the impoverished owner decided to gut his three-time World Series champions the following year by selling ace left-hander Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million and closer Rollie Fingers and outfielder Joe Rudi to the Boston Red Sox for $1 million each, Kuhn vetoed both deals.

Enraged, Finley called Kuhn “the village idiot.” Then he apologized to village idiots.

Citing as legal precedents the Red Sox’s peddling of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 and Connie Mack’s breaking up of two championship Philadelphia Athletics squads for financial reasons, Finley sued Kuhn to have the deal go through. When the case reached the courts, federal Judge Frank McGarr ruled that Kuhn had acted — you guessed it — in “the best interests of baseball.”

When Finley subsequently sent reliever Paul Lindblad to the Texas Rangers for $400,000, Kuhn ruled that this figure would be the ceiling for sales of major league players.

Fortunately for Finley, if not for Oakland fans, most of the team’s stars (Blue, Rudi, Fingers, Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Sal Bando, Don Baylor, Gene Tenace) eventually departed via free agency. By 1979, the club was so bad (54-108), it was known as the “Triple-A’s.”

After Bando signed with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1977, he was asked whether he was sorry to leave the A’s. The third baseman’s reply said it all: “Would you be sorry to leave the Titanic?”

When Finley died in 1996, we may be sure he went to his eternal reward hating Kuhn. And vice versa.

Kuhn’s predecessor as commissioner, Gen. William Eckert, was so obscure that he was dubbed “the unknown soldier.” Kuhn’s successor, Peter Ueberroth, was widely perceived as a glad-hander who knew little about baseball.

There was little doubt, however, that Bowie Kuhn was a baseball fan from head to toe. And as far as Charlie Finley was undoubtedly concerned, Bowie should have remained just that.

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