Bowie Kuhn: Man of Substance Served Baseball In Style
America’s great divide is not right v. left, rap v. bluegrass, or Bud Light v. Tanqueray: Instead, it splits into style v. substance. Style is outer-directed. Substance turns inward. People of style love trend. People of substance deem decency deep-down. This week a man of substance was elected to the Hall of Fame — the man who ushered baseball into the Television Age.
Baseball has had nine Commissioners since the post’s 1920 creation. Bowie Kuhn was the fifth (1969-84) — and in many ways, the best. We judge a leader by how he finds, and leaves, his job. Kuhn found baseball on a respirator. He left the summer game in bloom.
Kuhn, who died this year at 80, grew up in Washington, his Senators the Atlantis of the American League. "I never had to tell who was winning. People knew," said announcer Bob Wolff. "I only had to give the score." Adversity strengthened Kuhn, priming him to swim upstream.
In a 1964 Harris Poll, 48 percent of America named baseball their favorite sport. Half that did when Kuhn became Commissioner. Forbes mourned "our beat-up national sport," too bland, it seemed, for a hip and inchoate age. Aping a 1971 film, baseball resembled sport’s Last Picture Show. Kuhn vowed that the last would be first.
He opposed free agency, fearing a caste system: teams with the gold rule. Baseball brooked five work stoppages, but expanded from 20 to 26 teams. Attendance doubled. Postseason swelled: the League Championship Series. Kuhn KOd the designated hitter, tired of a pitcher trying to hit: dull as seeing paint dry, hearing George W. Bush speak, or reevaluating Al Gore.
Kuhn fined Ted Turner, for player tampering, and George Steinbrenner, for illegal campaign funding. Above all, he understand television’s role, and need. In 1969, baseball had one network series: NBC’s Game of the Week. Worse, pro football blanketed TV syndication. Kuhn craved a weekly half-hour show of highlight, lowlight, feature, and other fare.
First, he inked a dual-network ABC/NBC pact. Joe Garagiola replaced phlegmatic Curt Gowdy. Kuhn tried to bounce Howard Cosell, touted Al Michaels and Vin Scully, and created This Week In Baseball : syndicated sports highest-rated serial. Ultimately, no baseball series so bespoke one man: host Mel Allen, hired by Bowie Kuhn.
Kuhn moved the World Series schedule from weekday to night ("Working men can’t see day games") but kept weekend’s in the afternoon ("for kids, our next generation"). The balance thrived till his successor made the Series all-nocturnal: also, killing Game and spurring salary collusion. Peter Ueberroth was a shallow, glib poseur: a stylist, to the core.
By contrast, under Kuhn, baseball regained parity with the NFL. His reward was a 1980s firing. "What’s dumber than football’s dumbest owner?" said Orioles don Edward Bennett Williams. "Baseball’s smartest owner." Some writers seemed as dumb. Kuhn was formal: how old-timey. A devout Catholic: how bourgeois. A model family man: how square. His foil was players union leader Marvin Miller. The New York Times, among others, never forgave Bowie, then or now. Forgetting nothing, it learned nothing, too.
Recently sports economist Andrew Zimbalist bayed that "Kuhn never did anything enlightening." Bitter over Miller’s rejection by the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, Timesman Murray Chass tarred Kuhn’s "legacy as unclear." On what 1969-84 planet did such ideologues live? Emerson wrote of Napoleon, "He was no saint, to use his word, no capuchin, and he is no hero in the high sense." Neither saint nor hero, Bowie was a good man who each day went out and did his job.
Kuhn’s Hall election honors, among other things, his fine private sense of humor. This Induction Day, the last laugh will be on those who could, or would, not grasp his substance: still blind as a bat, deaf as a doorknob, and dim as a burned-out bulb.