- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

For the second straight year, the Baseball Hall of Fame will hail a 6-foot-5 man who indeed was a giant of the game during its annual induction exercises Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Last July, of course, the towering honoree was Cal Ripken, respected throughout the sport for his simple humanity and the work ethic that allowed him play in 2,632 consecutive games over 17 seasons.

This summer’s tall guy is the late Bowie Kuhn, whose legacy is less clear-cut but who perhaps influenced the sport more than any other commissioner since Happy Chandler. It’s interesting if not necessarily significant that both Hall of Famers were born hereabouts, Ripken in Aberdeen, Md., and Kuhn in Takoma Park.

During 15 tumultuous years (1969-84) as boss of the game, Bowie had his good and bad days. Perceived by many as a tool of the owners who hired him and paid his salary, he nonetheless oversaw the destruction of the hoary reserve clause that allowed clubs to hold players in perpetual bondage, thereby setting the stage for free agency and today’s enormous salaries.

As a retiree in Ponte Vedra, Fla., some years ago, Kuhn lobbied hard for the as yet unachieved addition of Washington Senators stars Cecil Travis and Mickey Vernon to the Hall of Fame. This spoke not to the starchy Wall Street lawyer Bowie became but to the teenager who had a close view of their exploits while working as a scoreboard operator at Washington’s Griffith Stadium in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

For all his formal appearance and mannerisms as commissioner, Kuhn never stopped loving baseball - loving it as a man who ironically had the body but not the eyesight to play it at a high level.

Red Smith, the revered New York sports columnist who detested Kuhn for reasons known only to himself, once described the commissioner as “a village idiot” and then apologized to other village idiots for the slur. Smith was entitled to his opinion. But the great writer was operating from a false premise because whether you liked Kuhn, you always knew he was there.

Baseball commissioners tend to be titanic or terrible. The first, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was a total despot who did more than his part to keep the so-called national pastime segregated for 24 years until Chandler, his successor and also a Southerner, supported the arrival of black players in the late 1940s.

Ford Frick was unquestionably the owners’ man. Gen. William Eckert and Peter Ueberroth were zeroes. Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent were visionaries whose terms ended in death and dismissal, respectively.

No definitive verdict can be rendered immediately on incumbent Bud Selig, though he seems to operate with a constant fear that the owners will spank him and send him to bed without supper if he misbehaves.

But of Bowie Kuhn, as of numerous politicians, it might be said that we could love him for the enemies he made.

His adversaries for various reasons included imperious owners George Steinbrenner, Charles Finley and Ted Turner; Marvin Miller, the tunnel-visioned executive director of the players’ association; Curt Flood, the classy Cardinals center fielder who sat out a year rather than accept a trade and started his final season of 1971 languishing with the expansion Senators in their final season; and fellow Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.

Then there were the assorted users of drugs and performance-enhancing substances whom Kuhn hounded relentlessly. We can only speculate how he would have dealt with such current suspects as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro. Chances are he would have thrown the book - doubtless an imposing law tome - at them.

In any evaluation of Kuhn’s tenure, it must be noted that baseball grew enormously during his decade and a half in office, from 20 to 26 clubs and from 22.3 million to 45.5 million in attendance, In terms of financial gains, he was a rousing success.

What Kuhn might have needed, more than anything else, was a good PR man, although he likely didn’t give a rodent’s rump what people thought of him.

He was said to have a dandy sense of humor that the public never saw; most pictures showed him looking stern and prosecutorial. When he appeared coatless in 1971 at the first World Series night game with the temperature somewhere in the 30s, it occasioned widespread ridicule. And in truth, the idea of contesting all Series games after dark was a bad one that denied millions of young fans the opportunity to watch the sport’s ultimate showdown without falling asleep in front of the TV.

No Bowie Kuhn wasn’t perfect, even if he usually acted that way. But he carried out with honor his mandate to protect “the best interests of the game,” and for that reason he belongs in Cooperstown every bit as much as Cal Ripken, fellow 2008 inductee Goose Gossage and Hall of Famers to come.

It’s a shame that Bowie, who died last year at 80, won’t be there to see it. He might even have been smiling.

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