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Saturday, March 17, 2007
RIP, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn

I should have posted on this yesterday, but I came late to the New York Times obit of former Commissioner of Major League Baseball Bowie Kuhn, who died Thursday at age 80.

Kuhn's name is familiar to most law students because he was the named respondent in Flood v. Kuhn, the 1971 case in which the United States Supreme Court rejected former player Curt Flood's challenge to the Reserve System, holding (actually, reaffirming an 80-year-old holding that the Court thought was wrong) that Major League Baseball was not subject to federal antitrust laws. For both student and professor, that opinion is either fun or ridiculous (depending on one's point of view) because all of Part I was an ode, written by Justice Blackmun, to the history and majesty of baseball. It included a listing of many great players of the pre-WW II era. Chief Justice Burger and Justice White refused to join that part of the opinion and, the story goes, Justice Marshall demanded that Blackmun include some Negro League players. Dean Roger Abrams, one of the leading sports-law scholars, recently wrote a paper on the players listed in the opinion.

What I think is noteworthy about Bowie Kuhn is that he may be the last independent baseball commissioner to serve for a substantial period. He was willing to wield his "Best Interests of Baseball" powers against the owners who, as a legal and practical matter, employ him. As the Times story describes, Kuhn repeatedly took on owners in a way I am not sure Bud Selig or whomever replaces him two years from now will be willing or able to do. Most notably, Kuhn wielded his "Best Interests" powers to void a series of deals when Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley tried to sell off the star players from his championship teams to avoid losing them to the early days of free agency.

Kuhn's commissionership is historically significant (arguably the second most historical, after Landis and before Selig) because of the massive changes that occurred on his watch. Some were for good (increasing attendance, increased television viewership, a fair labor system), some were for ill (multiple work stoppages and lingering racial tensions in the game) and some were for very ill (have you checked out the uniforms teams wore in the 1970s?).


NO, no, NO!!!!! The MLB uniforms are FAR WORSE now than those '60's/'70's/'80's uniforms. At least with those, one had an idea of which teams wore what colors, like other sports. Almost all of the teams' uniforms today [except Yankees, Red Sox, A's (green shirts), Orioles (orange/black), and a couple of others], all look alike. As I said, name another sport where most of the teams' uniforms look virtually identical to each other. (If anything, some of the NBA uniforms--i.e. Indiana, Charlotte, Sacramento, yes even Denver [the "baby blue" you cry about]--are far more hideous than even the Padres' brown from 1984.)

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/18/2007 4:14 AM  

Sorry, but I must disagree...

Bowie Kuhn was probably a good man and a virtuous man based on everything that has made its way into the public record. But as baseball commisssioner, he was feckless.

During his "reign" the MLB owners - the ones who hired him and paid his salary - started on a twenty year path as a pinata for the MLBPA. And his "internal actions" reagrding the game made it clear that Charlie Finely could not run his team as he saw fit to do. Except in the LONG run, Finley may have been far closer to "right" than "wrong".

Saying that Kuhn was akin to Commissioner Landis in terms of rectitude in terms of baseball history is damning by faint praise indeed. Landis - by his actions as commish - delayed the integration of baseball by at least 3 years an perhaps a few more years. Bill Veeck was ready to sign and play more than a couple of Negro League players to be part of MLB in 1943 when Landis ordered the sale of the Phillies - - but opposed any deal that brought Veeck into the fold of the owners.

Kuhn was not a racist in terms of his actions by any means. But Kuhn was hardly effective or efficient in his job as a custodian of the game or as an agent to expand the scope of the game beyond its established borders at the time he became commish.

I hope he rests in peace; I have no animosity towards him. But as a man of greatness in his profession - - - I'll have to abstain from those hosannahs.

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon -- 3/18/2007 11:38 PM  

Bowie Kuhn took a stand on the Finley "sales" of his players based on the "integrity of the game" but did little else.

His lack of competence was highlighted when Giamatti took office. That was when it became apparent that a strong commissioner could have strong impact. However, given the group of owners during Kuhn's times, they probably just wanted someone to keep the $$ coming in.

I do not think it is appropriate to lay fault for free agency on Kuhn. That was caused by the changing legal dynamics and the greedy owners. Had they been more cognizant of the legal landscape, they would have hired better counsel to deal with Marvin Miller. Instead, Mr. Miller's brilliance led to true free agency and the best pension benefits around.

Blogger qtlaw24 -- 3/19/2007 5:36 PM  


I am not sure I would describe Giammatti as an example of a strong commissioner having a strong impact. Beyond suspending Rose (a correct decision that may have sped up his heart attack), Giammatti was not in the office long enough to have an impact.


My point was about Kuhn's impact and significance as commissioner, which is not necessarily the same as his effectiveness or his rectitude. Kuhn is important simply because of the dramatic amount of nature of the changes that occurred on his lengthy (by MLB commissionerhsip standards) watch, regardless of whether or not he was the motive force behind those changes. I think he helped bring some about, while others (notably free agency) were thrust upon him by changes to the legal landscape and Kuhn found a way to make them work and to get the owners to make them work.

I do not know enough about the internal relationships and bargaining dynamics to say whether Kuhn should be blamed for starting the owners' string of defeats at the hands of the MLBPA or whether the owners as a group should be. The Commissioner works for management, but does he wield negotiating authority or do the owners collectively wield it? I do not know the answer to that question.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 3/20/2007 9:51 PM  

Here’s a nice article I found online relevant to the discussion on your blog:

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Blogger W2E -- 4/26/2007 10:57 AM  

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