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Home Biz of Baseball - Interviews Interview - Bowie Kuhn - Former Commissioner

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Interview - Bowie Kuhn - Former Commissioner PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Maury Brown   
Wednesday, 16 February 2005 12:00

Bowie Kuhn

Editor's Note: Bowie Kuhn passed away on March 15, 2007 at the age of 80 due to complications from pneumonia. He is survived by his wife, Luisa; his son, Stephen, of Chappaqua, N.Y.; his daughter, Alix Bower of Ridgefield, Conn.; two stepsons, Paul Degener, of Redding, Conn., and George Degener of Somers, N.Y.; a sister, Alice McKinley of St. Augustine, Fla.; and 10 grandchildren.

Former commissioner Bowie Kuhn's 15-year tenure was arguably the most tumultuous that any commissioner faced. This interview covers his selection as commissioner, the Braves litigation, the breaking of the Reserve Clause with the Seitz ruling, DC’s loss of the Senators and the Pilots move from Seattle to Milwaukee. He shares thoughts on Marvin Miller, Charlie Finley’s aborted trades, the little known negotiations that took place in 1975 to bring an exhibition game to Cuba, the political dynamic that comes with the position of commissioner, and much more.

On February 5, 1969, Bowie Kent Kuhn took over as commissioner of Major League Baseball at a time of great change in baseball—reflecting in many respects national movements. Vietnam, Civil Rights and changed social values seemed to go along with the changes that baseball and Kuhn would see.

During his tumultuous 15-year tenure, Kuhn saw the rise of the Players Union, the Curt Flood case, the breaking of the Reserve Clause, a shift in the types of owners that ran the game, the 2-year suspension of George Steinbrenner, feuds with the likes of Charlie Finley and work stoppages. Yet attendance grew and the game expanded.

Kuhn was born October 28, 1926, in Tacoma Park, Maryland just a few miles away from Washington, DC, where he was a scoreboard boy for the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium.

He attended high school at Theodore Roosevelt High School and then attended Franklin and Marshall College in the Naval V-12 Officer Training Program before attending Princeton University in 1945. He graduated with honors in 1945 with a B.A. in Economics. He then received his law degree in 1950 from the University of Virginia.

From there, Kuhn started the road that would lead him to baseball’s highest position as a member of the New York law firm Wilkie, Farr and Gallagher. Kuhn gained considerable visibility with the owners while representing the National League in defense of the move of the Milwaukee Braves to Atlanta. Opposing litigation ginned up by Bud Selig, Kuhn successfully argued the case all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

When Spike Eckert left the commissioner’s position under pressure, the owners deadlocked over the selecting either Mike Burke, the president of the New York Yankees, or Chub Feeney, the president of the National League, as the new commissioner.

When the impasse could not be broken, the owners compromised on Kuhn.

Over the next 15 years, the game became an ongoing push and pull between management and the Players Association, headed by Executive Director Marvin Miller. The tension created by several work stoppages lingers to this day.

Kuhn and Miller will always be linked.

Kuhn may have had more to deal with than any commissioner before or since after.

Despite recent heart surgery, the 78 year-old remains active in political and philanthropic endeavors.

In the following interview Kuhn reflects on his selection as commissioner, the Braves litigation, the breaking of the Reserve Clause with the Seitz ruling, DC’s loss of the Senators and the Pilots move from Seattle to Milwaukee. He shares thoughts on Marvin Miller , Charlie Finley’s aborted trades, the little known negotiations that took place in 1975 to bring an exhibition game to Cuba, the political dynamic that comes with the position of commissioner, and much more. – Maury Brown

BizBall: First of all, how's your health these days?

Kuhn: Well, I'm happy to know that you have that concern. I'm feeling really very well.

It's now almost… well it's creeping up on four months since I've had the operation. By that time you're probably either expired or doing well and I'm happy to say I'm doing well with that part of the equation. It takes awhile. I'm 78 years old and I was under anesthesia for about 8 hours, all told. That's major stuff and you don't spring out of it the way you might spring out of a broken bone. So it's been a slow process and it's taken some patience. That’s why patients are called patients I think--patience is required.

So I'm doing fine. I'm doing a heavy duty therapy program of exercise, swimming, walking, biking and other equipment such as elliptical cross trainers. So, I'm doing all that and surviving it seems like and I'm getting my fitness back. So tell them I am doing very well and, more importantly, my cardiologist thinks I'm doing very well.

BizBall: Well that's certainly good to hear. One of the cases that seemed to bring you some high visibility within the owners’ ranks before you were commissioner was the case involving the Braves move to Atlanta. At the time, did you have a feeling about how that case impacted you within the internal politics of baseball?

Click to read the Marvin Miller interview Kuhn: Sure.

It was at or about that time that Marvin Miller came along and the players got an effective Players Association and I was the interface between Major League Baseball and that initially. So I had the Braves litigation plus the representation really of essentially all the major league clubs with the union going. And it did occur to me.... We won the Braves case and I argued it in the Supreme Court of Wisconsin where we won it—and that was considered unlikely to say the least. I think they voted out of office all four judges who were the majority in that case. As each came up for reelection, each was voted out of office. So it was an extraordinarily brave decision on the part of those judges, I thought.

BizBall: You became commissioner, really at a time of crisis. The players had organized into a cohesive union with Marvin Miller and were looking to continue to hold out over contracts on the players’ pension program. Spike Eckert had resigned under pressure and the commissioner’s position was basically at a stalemate.

In your autobiography you mentioned that you weren't surprised that Christmas of '68 when Mike Burke called and asked you if you were interested in the position. By the time the owners had reconvened in Florida in February of '69, you had had some time to absorb the offer. When the offer was made to be pro tempore for a year, knowing that there had been an internal stalemate over the position, did you worry that there might have been a compromise decision or did you see an opportunity to restructure the league?

Kuhn: You know ... I didn't worry. I would have sooner have been hired without the pro tempore, but ... and I think there was some compromise. I think those who favored my election solved the problem of whoever might be raising any questions by saying: “Okay let's do it for a year and see how he does.” That never bothered me for a second. I may be a bit too much self-confident but I thought that it would occur as it did. Indeed I think that whatever the period of time was, it's in the book—six months or so, they called a meeting and elected me to a full term. They didn't wait out that year.

BizBall: One of the first issues that you had to deal with involved the trade of Rusty Staub to the Expos in exchange for Donn Clendenon of the Astros. The problem was Clendenon decided to retire after the trade, which would have voided the trade via rule 12F. Yet, much to the dismay of Roy Hofheinz, you allowed the trade to be restructured, citing the best interests of the game. Was this done to help the new expansion Expos and did you worry that it might create both precedent and ill will amongst some of the owners?

Kuhn: Well, anytime you make an unusual decision you are going to worry somebody in the ownership world and you are going to worry somebody.... The union was increasingly active Rusty Staubin regards to any decision involving players. Now, this one they didn't go after, but other times they did. So you had that front to worry about, you had the owners to worry about, but you know, I was ... my view was very uncomplex.

I looked at something and said: “Is this going to be ... if I do something here, will it be a good thing to do in terms of the overall situation of the game?” And it didn't particularly bother me that it would stir anybody up. I really felt that you did what you had to do. I didn't need the job. I could have gone back to practicing law at anytime and made a lot more money than I was making as baseball commissioner and would probably still be today. So, I didn't worry about that. I had a lot of self-confidence. I loved the game. I understood the game. I understood the people in the game and all of that gave me a certain self-confidence about doing things that might prove unpopular initially. But I always felt that if I was right about the benefit to the game then it would take care of itself.

BizBall: Given the fact that there had been numerous cases where the reserve clause was tested—there was Gardella, there was Toolson, and then there obviously was Curt Flood—why do you think the owners expressed considerable surprise at the Seitz's ruling on free agency?

Kuhn: Well, it was just bad … just bad law.

There was no way he could find free agency within the reserve system. It didn't exist legally.

He simply said: “I can find free agency in there” and that plays out as an option. There was nothing of that kind in the free agency system. Pardon me, the reserve system had been examined by courts and others for years and the criticism of baseball was that it locked the player in too thoroughly. There was no opening such as Seitz purported to find and it just was—legally, it was simply a wrong decision. There was no way you could support it legally.

 So I think that was a surprise to many.

I think they were coming around to understanding.

I think Seitz understood that sooner or later baseball was going to have to give some ground on the reserve system. I tried my best to preserve the reserve system with such adjustments as I felt would protect the interest of the players.

Salary arbitration is probably in place—was put in place then and probably is in place now—because I supported it. And I thought it was important if you had a reserve system to have some way of reviewing what the player's salary was so that he would get a fair shot at the right salary— whatever the market might indicate was fair salary to be.

So I very much—and talk about unpopular moves on the part of the commish—that was an unpopular move with a lot of the old-time general managers who were most of the general managers then. So I think Seitz felt that the ownership had not moved sufficiently on free agency and therefore he would make up some law and rule against them. I think it was as simple as that.

BizBall: Regarding the work stoppages during your tenure, I interviewed Marvin Miller and I'll pose the same question to you.

Is the public’s concern something that comes to the negotiating table during collective bargaining or is the overriding concern to get as much for their respective constituency as possible? When is enough, enough?

Kuhn: Well, you asked that question of Marvin Miller properly.

I think quite clearly—and I don't think Marvin makes any bones about it—it's not his job to protect the long term interest for the game of professional baseball. It's his job to protect the interests of—financial interests of—the players and the working conditions of the players.

That's his mission. That's was his mission. Been the mission, pretty much, of the union since it was founded by Miller or since Miller came into the picture.

My greatest criticism of the union is exactly on that point because I felt that as commissioner I had to override any kind of special consideration and look to the total welfare of the game and I didn't feel the Players Association did that. They obviously advanced the financial benefit enormously, but “when is enough, enough?” is the right question.

BizBall: You also arrived at a time when the old guard which seemed to hold the status of the game in very high regard gave way to those who viewed the game of baseball simply as business. Do you believe your position as commissioner was to ensure the integrity of the game of baseball and did the new guard pose a danger to the integrity of the game?

Well, certainly one of the primary things the commissioner is expected to do is to protect integrity. I think anytime you get away from the traditional values of the game you threaten the game. You're going to threaten its integrity in some way. I think that's probably right, so I was concerned that the people who were coming in should be people that had a real interest in the game.

I'd say even though we began to get more business-like, the way our franchises were run, there were very few new owners who didn't have a great affection for the game itself. Not to the same extent that say the Carpenters of Philadelphia or Galbreaths of Pittsburgh or Fetzer of Detroit, but to a considerable degree I think the new owners cared— cared about the game. Hofheinz would be an example. He had a great care, concern for the game but he was a new kind of owner.

BizBall: Do you think it's fair to say that the owners were in a reactionary state as opposed to being proactive during the early labor negotiations of your tenure?

Kuhn: Yes, I would say so.

They liked the system the way it was. They liked the reserve system, as it was. They weren't very anxious to change anything.

Baseball was not a very big money-making sport, you understand. They thought that that was a factor that should be taken into consideration in having the restrictive player development system that existed. If they were making untold millions of dollars out of the system and players weren't getting a fair benefit, that would be a different story. But that was … they were not. We had the studies done at the time. A professor at Princeton University wrote a study that was on the whole state of the game and concluded that it was one strange monopoly, if it was a monopoly at all. And that the profit levels were very marginal, if at all. So I think they felt—the ownership felt—that [they were] preserving the institution and reacted against anything that would undermine the institution and baseball more than any other sport has striven to protect the tradition and institutional nature of the game.

BizBall: In 1975 there was negotiations occurring between the US and Cuba to try and hold an exhibition game in Cuba. There's documentation that shows that communications between Henry Kissinger, Castro's sports ministry, and it's been reported yourself on the matter. What were some of the details regarding these negotiations?

Kuhn: Do you mean government documentation?

BizBall: Yes

Kuhn: Oh that was definitely so.

Castro and NixonThere's no question that those negotiations were underway; there was nothing secret or private about that. They were, I think, publicly known and I was involved in those negotiations. It didn't work out, but I was definitely involved in negotiations. I wanted it to work out.

BizBall: Was it an attempt to assist the Nixon administration in warming relations with Cuba?

Kuhn: Well, it certainly would be accurate to say that the Nixon administration considered it. The Secretary of State was not standing in our way, and we wouldn't have been doing it if the administration had been opposed. So they weren't standing in our way and they were perfectly happy to see us go in.

BizBall: What in your opinion caused the strike in '81 and how much long-lasting damage did it cause in terms of the fans and relationship with the players' union?

Kuhn: Well, you know, that’s a more complex situation than we can probably deal with in this talk.

The fundamental difference was, and cause of the strike, was over the clubs getting compensation for lost free agents. That was the driving issue.

The clubs wanted to have a system whereby players that were lost would be evaluated and at a certain level an evaluation and that compensation would vary … that they would get.

The union agreed to a one year delay, at the end of which time the management would be permitted to impose their own program for compensation and the union would reserve the right to strike if they didn't like it. And what happened was that there was the year delay. Management imposed their own arrangement, as permitted, and the union, as permitted, struck. I do believe that it had a very bad effect on the relationship between management and the Players Association because the management, including me, was fully convinced that the union meant to make a deal—more or less—around the proposal that management was permitted to implement. When they didn't, I thought it was bad faith and I think most people on the management side felt it was bad faith and that's why there was such an impasse on it and a strike occurred. Management would not give away its position and would not change its position and the strike occurred.

BizBall: It's well documented that you and Charlie Finley were at odds a great deal of the time during your respective tenures. Do you think that Connie Mack selling off two different championship teams decades earlier provided any precedent for what Finley was trying to do with the proposed liquidation of the A's players in Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, and Rollie Fingers. If not, what was the major difference between the two?

Kuhn: Well, maybe just time.

I think Finley was well aware of what Mack had done, twice as you say; though one of them was pretty old, one of them goes way back to the teens and the second one's in the thirties. But, whatever the needs of the game may have been in 1931, Mack won in 29, 30, and 31 and then sold off his players—the Red Sox being a major beneficiary of that. That’s how Charlie FinleyJimmie Foxx and Grove got to Boston.

However, those occurred in one situation. There was a depression. Baseball was in a rather different situation than I found it in by the time Charlie tried to sell off his players. We were now trying—and everybody's knows we're trying—to build a more competitive game—a more up to date game—and we would pay attention. The commissioner is going to pay attention to how well teams are competing and he's going to try to level competition as much as possible.

So we have a more competitive situation. We didn't like the situation dominated by the New York Yankees as it had been for many years and to some extent the Cardinals excellent teams under Branch Rickey. We wanted to spread the talent out and have more teams in competition. Well, nobody was worrying about that in 1931 when Mack did what he did and Landis did nothing.

BizBall: In your autobiography, you devote an entire chapter on trying to keep the Washington Senators in DC. You were a scoreboard boy at Griffith Stadium.
You grew up watching the Senators and you obviously had a great affection for them.

You said in your bio regarding the move of the Senators in '71, "Some people inside and outside of baseball felt Kuhn's Autobiography - Hardball. Click to purchasemy views were biased by my personal history as a Washingtonian. I can honestly say my history was not a factor, there were persuasive reasons for staying in Washington that had nothing to do with sentiment." Yet, when the second vote was taken on Short's move to Arlington and the move was approved 10-2, you said "I found it hard to speak, this was an emotional situation for me and my usually sure voice had no resolve. Never good at concealing disappointment or putting on a bright face in defeat, I was bitterly and visibly upset," and that tears were glistening in your eyes.

Given your bias, what did you do that you may not have done for another franchise in attempting to keep the Senators in Washington DC?

Kuhn: The answer's “nothing.”

Seattle was faced with the same situation. I went out to Seattle and went door to door with my hat in my hand trying to get somebody to save the Seattle Pilots and keep them in  Seattle. That's exactly what I did with Washington. I stopped the idea of the American League moving it for a whole .... As I tell in that chapter, I spent a good part of the summer trying to find somebody to buy it—keep it in Washington—and I failed.

I hated the movement of franchises; still do. I think any sport should. You sort of betray your fan base when you do that and the problem is not usually one of the fans letting you down, it's one of management not being good enough to figure out how to succeed in the marketplace. There is not a bad market for baseball in the whole country.

BizBall: When Ray Kroc moved in at the 11th hour and kept the Padres in San Diego instead of heading to DC to reclaim the market, what other steps did you take to try and get a team for Washington?

Kuhn: Well by the time Ray Kroc stepped in, the efforts we had made to find a buyer for Washington—should have been Danzansky—had fallen through. I mean Danzansky still wanted it and said he could find the money. But he couldn't, he didn't have the bank commitment.

It was just sort of heart breaking from Washington's point of view, but the league had no alternative and I had no alternative but to let the move of the Senators go through.

BizBall: Do you plan on attending the Washington National's home opener this year?

Kuhn: April 14, I'll be there.

BizBall: You witnessed unbelievable growth and expansion during your tenure in which the league grew from 20 to 26 teams. What are your thoughts regarding expansion in '93 and '98 and what are your thoughts about contraction, which was considered by the league in 2001?

Kuhn: Well, I'm not sure how seriously they considered contraction. They talked about it.

BizBall: Do you think it was a bargaining ploy?

Well, I think it was certainly part of the bargaining process. It's not inconceivable that, if things had gone a certain way, they might have been forced to try contraction, but I don't think there was. I don't think the commissioner or anybody else really wanted to implement that idea. But it was … it was a possibility.

BizBall: What are your thoughts on relocation—especially the relocation of the Montreal Expos to DC given your history with Washington? What standards should MLB apply to 1) allowing relocation and 2) selecting a location in which to relocate?

Kuhn: Well I think relocation should be—if approached—it should be used sparingly.

When you read my language about [Washington, DC], there are other reasons and my sentimental ones for keeping baseball in Washington, those other reasons are still there.  It's the seat of government and, if anything, it's the seat of government more than ever. The power of the country is—much of it is—right there—and the Congress and the White House and the Executive Branch and so forth. And all of them play a role in how sports are operated these days and it's therefore, in my judgment, foolish not to have a franchise in the capital city—particularly when you take into account the enormous growth of the market place. Baltimore-Washington is now an enormous complex and it's spreading out to the north and to the south toward Richmond and surely can support both the Baltimore club and the Washington club. So I think it was the right move—if you had to move the Montreal club. My preference would have been to not move the Montreal club. But I saw no way that it could be ... that it looked from my seat, outside, I saw no way that could be done.

BizBall: MLB has been in negotiations with Baltimore owner Peter Angelos over an indemnification package due to the Expos moving in to what he feels is the Orioles' market. Given the fact that the DC site locations do not sit within any of Baltimore's territories, doesn't MLB run the risk of setting precedent for the future relocation or expansion by using this indemnification package?

Kuhn: You know I have no idea what those talks are. All I know is what I read in the newspaper. I've never talked to Bud Selig about it or anybody else in baseball. I have no idea what's going on there. So I'm sort of loath to comment on that.

BizBall: Back to relocation, the A's have talked about or there has been some talk about them moving to San Jose, which the Giants are now opposing. Do you feel that allowing Finley to move into Oakland was a mistake and, if options run out in Oakland, do you think that that would be a reasonable relocation candidate?

Kuhn: You know I don't have a strong opinion on it.

The only thing I could tell you is that I feel about the main markets, as I feel about Washington and Baltimore, there is plenty of room for two well-operated clubs. I think the  ownership of Oakland, after Finley demonstrated that Oakland was viable, could be viable, did a good job with it, greatly improved .... I mean Finley -- I don't know if he ever drew a million people in a season with three championship clubs.

So Finley, while he was an incredibly shrewd general manager you might say, he was no good at all at trying to market a franchise. So, my strong preference would be to stay in Oakland—which is still my idea that we shouldn't be moving franchises. You can't say never—because I do believe that Montreal had to be moved—but I think that it should be done .... But nothing's been moved since Washington moved to Texas.

BizBall: In your book that you said at the time that you were disappointed at the time when the Pilots moved from Seattle because you felt the Pacific Northwest was a good baseball market.

Kuhn: Right.

BizBall: And the Seattle Mariners have proven to be a successful franchise recently and there has been talk about relocation or expansion into Portland. Looking back do you feel some sense of vindication regarding the Pacific Northwest market?

Kuhn: Absolutely.

BizBall: How much of the commissioner's position revolves around the political and personality dynamic of the ownership brethren?

Kuhn: Oh, I think a fair amount. Any commissioner's job in any sport's got it's political side. It's impossible to deal only with the best hitters of the game and stop there because in order to make things happen there is a political aspect in that. You need to be recognized; you need support. A commissioner that doesn't create support for things he wants to do won't be commissioner very long and he's not going to get much done. So you've got to recognize there are political considerations and, within reason, try to work with those political considerations to achieve your goals.

BizBall: There's been talk about Marvin Miller possibly being in the Hall of Fame. Do you think he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame?

Kuhn: I'm on the Board of the Hall of Fame so I am very reluctant to comment on anybody getting into the Hall of Fame.

BizBall: What was your greatest achievement during your tenure?

Kuhn: Well, I think the ..., you mentioned it awhile ago, that at the time I came in baseball was in a distressed situation and it was losing attendance, losing popularity. The other three major sports were all on the ascendance, and by the time I left nobody was worrying about baseball. We were doing just great and I think we were arguably the most popular sport around.

BizBall: What, if any, regrets do you have regarding your tenure?

Kuhn: Oh, I might have done a few things differently than I did. On Jim Bouton’s book, Ball Four, I expressed some reservations about his story in the clubhouse matters—which in  baseball were considered sacrosanct—and I did nothing but sell the book. I wouldn't do that again.

Anything else, well yes, I regret that in addition to salary arbitration, I think I would like to have been more effective in persuading the ownership that the reserve system had to be further loosened up beyond salary arbitration. Salary arbitration was a great step, I'm proud of it. I'm proud of supporting it. I'm not proud about it being there anymore because it's not necessary anymore but it's there. But it was awfully hard in persuading the management in those days that the reserve system had to be changed. There were a few owners that understood that—Wrigley in Chicago being the prime example—but most, they didn't recognize that and I was not able to persuade them.

I would certainly put that in there.

BizBall: And finally, what has baseball meant to you in terms of your life. You know, I'm in my forties and I'm not nearly as involved in it as you are and, you know, at a certain point in life, it's the game and then it moves on to something else, but then you know there's family. What has baseball meant to you outside of you working directly in it?

Kuhn: Well it's meant a lot. In this sense, I mean ... how old are you? Forty-what?

BizBall: I'm coming up on forty-four.

Kuhn: Okay, I was younger, two years younger than you when I became commissioner of Baseball. I was the youngest and remain the youngest person ever to serve as commissioner of Baseball. So I was there for sixteen years. By the time I'm gone I was fifty-eight years old and I'm still feeling pretty darn vigorous and ready to do some other things.

What baseball did for me was it gave me the ability to communicate publicly ... with confidence. Most Wall Street lawyers, in my opinion, are not particularly good at that. I developed that. So that was an asset.

It also gave me a very great national platform so that I was pretty much a household word around the country. People knew who I was and I emphasize the past tense because that's not necessarily true today, but people knew then. Therefore I had a lot of access nationally that I wouldn't otherwise have had for those things I care about. And I, ever since 1958, to an increasing degree, have worked in the public sector to support the kind of causes I believe in—like education. I've been on the board of a number of universities and seem to be going on a new one every so often. I love education; I love working with that. I'm a very Bowie Kuhnseriously religious person. I like promoting religious values. I go around the country and I speak about the things I believe in. I've worked in the Republican campaign for some cycles passed including the just finished one—worked very hard for Mel Martinez in the Senate race here in Florida. In fact, I put off my operation by about three or four days while I went down to Miami to give a fundraising speech for Martinez and then I said: “Okay, you can carve me open.”

So, it's given me tremendous access and still does. While the name Bowie Kuhn might not resonate like it once did, it resonates in the corridors of power—a lot.

 Bowie Kuhn - October 28, 1926 – March 15, 2007

The following interview was originally published on the SABR Business of Baseball website, and can be read here: SABR Business of Baseball Interviews Page

Interview conducted by Maury Brown on 2/16/05.
Transcribed by Brian Mac Millian .
Edited by John Ruoff



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