Kuhn was a passionate leader
Late Commissioner upheld game's integrity, oversaw growth
I think of Bowie Kuhn and I think of a friend. More important, I think of a man who had a great passion for the game of baseball.
I think of a man who was intelligent and who placed the highest value on his own personal integrity and the integrity of the game he governed as the Commissioner of Baseball.
Kuhn passed away last week at the age of 80, and I'm sure he would have anticipated some of the reviews of his career that ran on the critical side.
Kuhn, you see, never tried to win favors with the press. He simply tried to do the right thing and to be fair at all times.
"He never did anything enlightening; he never did anything that anticipated the future," stated Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College and the author of several books on baseball.
Very frankly, Zimbalist couldn't be more off-base.
Kuhn became the Commissioner of Baseball on Feb. 4, 1969, when the game was looked upon as a fading sport.
In the 15 years Kuhn led Major League Baseball, attendance grew from 23 million in 1968 to 44.6 million in 1982 and its revenue rose from $163 million in 1975 to $624 million in 1984. In 1983, baseball signed a $1.2 billion television contract that would earn each team $7 million a year for six seasons.
These advances, reflecting the growth of the game, didn't just happen by chance.
Kuhn was instrumental in seeing that baseball improved its marketing efforts and brought in a leading advertising executive, Tommy Villante, to help lead the way. It was during Kuhn's term and under his guidance that individual Major League teams vastly improved their marketing and public relations efforts. For the first time, teams would gather in the fall for marketing, sales and television meetings.
Anticipating the future? Have you heard of the World Baseball Classic? The forerunner to this was baseball's presence in the Olympic Games in 1984, and it was Kuhn who was a key figure in baseball's international efforts and growth.
No Commissioner worked harder at building relationships with the Minor League structure of professional baseball. Kuhn delighted in spending time with people in the Minor League system because he had a true love and passion for the game.
It wasn't marketing or promotion where Kuhn made his greatest impact, however. It was in a much more important area: protecting the integrity of the game. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important to Kuhn than the integrity of the game.
He wasn't afraid to stand up and square off against owners such as Charlie Finley, Ted Turner and George Steinbrenner.
"Bowie had an impossible job, working for a group of even more impossible employers," said former Major League executive Peter Bavasi. "At the time, baseball was undergoing historic and rapid changes, which most of the owners were not prepared to accept. Too many of them took out their unhappiness with the inevitable on Bowie."
Kuhn suspended New York Yankee owner Steinbrenner in 1974 for two years -- later shortened to 15 months -- for his guilty plea regarding illegal campaign contributions to President Nixon's reelection campaign.
"Bowie was a good guy, and I admired him," Steinbrenner said last week. "Even though we had our disagreements, I never lost my respect for his integrity.
Bowie Kuhn never looked for a fight, but he never ran from a tough decision. Kuhn felt strongly that baseball and gambling didn't mix, and he wouldn't give an inch on this point.
He barred Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays from employment in baseball for their associations with Atlantic City, N.J. casinos.
"The fact is that the Commissioner told both Mantle and Mays that they could have employment in baseball as long as they didn't have an association with gambling," says Bob Wirz, the communications director during most of the time Kuhn was in office.
Kuhn also felt strongly about the dangers of drug use, although in his time as Commissioner the drugs that troubled baseball were marijuana and cocaine.
From a personal standpoint, I will never forget a trip I made to New York in December 1983 to visit with Kuhn regarding the case of troubled Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Steve Howe.
It was a tough time for Kuhn in that there was a number of owners who wanted to boot him out of office, and the last thing he needed was a fight with the players union over a ruling.
Even so, Kuhn looked at the facts in the Howe case related to drug use and suspended the pitcher for one year. He made the decision because he wanted Howe to get help, and he also wanted to send a message about the use of cocaine. A grievance by the union soon followed.
After that, Kuhn knew his days were numbered as Commissioner, and in October 1984 he was replaced by Peter Ueberroth, who was coming off the success of running the Olympic games.
Bowie Kuhn had taken over the leadership of baseball at a time when he was desperately needed. He had been the lawyer for the National League and understood the legal and business side of a game that was headed for dramatic changes.
Once asked how he would like to be thought of during his time as Commissioner, Kuhn replied: "I want it to be remembered that I was Commissioner during a time of tremendous growth in the popularity of the game and that it was a time in which no one could question the integrity of the game."
Bowie Kuhn succeeded on both points.
I will remember his leadership and his friendship. And I will remember a cold December day in New York when he had the courage to make a decision that he knew would bring a fight.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice president and general manager. His book, "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue," was published by SportsPublishingLLC. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.