As baseball’s Commissioner from 1969-1984, Kuhn presided over the sport’s period of greatest affluence but also, paradoxically, one of its most strife-ridden eras. With the major leagues threatened by a player’s strike before the 1969 season and with the office of the Commissioner vacant after the firing of General Eckert in December 1968, the owners hired Kuhn, a lawyer for the National League and a favorite of Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley. In the style that he would use throughout his three terms, Kuhn verbally placated the owners and then gave in to all the Players Association demands. He dealt with the controversial Curt Flood case at the end of the year, denying Flood’s request to overturn the reserve clause and, more specifically, allow Flood to circumvent a trade that had sent him from the contending Cardinals to the cellar-dwelling Phillies.
Kuhn went on to withstand a Spring Training strike in 1972 that cut into the heart of the season, and he forced the owners to abandon a pre-season lockout in 1976 following a pro-player decision by an independent arbitrator in the Messersmith-McNally challenge to the reserve clause. Kuhn had advised against the use of an arbitrator in the case, his law background perhaps leading him to realize what shaky ground the owners were on. Kuhn forestalled a player strike in 1980, but was unable to prevent the mid-season strike of 1981, when the owners stood firm in an ultimately unsuccessful rear-guard action against free agency.
Despite his frequent, albeit forced, accomodations of player demands, Kuhn was perceived as a tool of the owners and as overmatched by the head of the Players Association, Marvin Miller. Kuhn regularly chided the players for their demands, called them overpaid, and preached of the potential evils of free agency, all stances pleasing to his employers, the owners. But Kuhn’s officious, pompous manner gained him enemies beyond the ranks of the players. His handling of an investigation of Cubs manager Leo Durocher ended in personal, although largely private, embarrassment. Writer Red Smith excoriated Kuhn in many columns, producing such bon mots during the 1981 strike as “this strike wouldn’t have happened if Bowie Kuhn were alive today” and “an empty car pulled up and Bowie Kuhn got out.” Kuhn also feuded with A’s owner Charlie Finley, who referred to Kuhn as a “village idiot” and then apologized for the offense to village idiots. Kuhn vetoed some of Finley’s innovations, and in 1973 he prevented Finley from vindictively placing second baseman Mike Andrews on the DL during the World Series following a costly error. Their biggest clash came when Kuhn voided the sales, and lopsided trades involving cash, of A’s stars Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, and others. The players were going to leave Oakland as free agents to escape Finley’s tyrannical ownership, and Finley was trying to get some value for them. Many owners in the past had sold off their stars; Connie Mack, who had guided the A’s for a half-century, was famous for breaking up his great teams. But Kuhn ruled that Finley’s deals were not “in the best interests of baseball.” Kuhn also suspended Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for a year after he was convicted of perjury and making illegal contributions to the election campaign of Richard Nixon, and suspended Braves owner Ted Turner for tampering.
Kuhn may ultimately be remembered for the spectacular growth of baseball in the 1970s and 1980s, a period that began with expansion in 1969, the same year Kuhn became Commissioner. Attendance in 1980 was more than triple what it had been in 1968, and television revenue was up more than $ 10 million dollars in the same period. But the eagerness of baseball to bow to the demands of network TV resulted in concessions criticized by purists. The most notable of these concessions was night baseball during the World Series. The first such game, in 1971, found Kuhn attending bareheaded and coatless despite the cold weather, with cameras frequently focusing on him in an attempt to deny the effects of the temperature.