Bowie Kuhn, baseball’s fifth commissioner, passed away this week at the age of 80. I never met the man. In private, he may have made Gandhi look like Ted Nugent. For all we know, he spent weekends warming terminally ill puppies against his sweet perfumed bosom. But when it comes to his 15-year reign as commissioner, from 1969-1984, it is more than appropriate to bury Mr. Kuhn, not praise him. Major League Baseball’s website, in their Selig-sanctioned obituary, claims that Bowie Kuhn “presided over the dawn of free agency and the end of the reserve system.” [The reserve system bound a player to their team for life.] That’s sort of like saying the Czar Nicholas II “presided over” the Russian Revolution.
The truth is that Kuhn “presided over” a game that saw players as bonded labor to be bought and sold. He also “presided over” the ignominious routing of the Major League plantation system. The reserve clause, on his watch, was swept into the dustbin of baseball history alongside the color line and the spitball.
The man who stood up to Kuhn, and opened to door to free agency was named Curt Flood. In October 1969, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Flood to Philadelphia and the All-Star centerfielder just said no. Flood contacted Kuhn directly, writing, “Dear Mr. Kuhn after 12 years in the major leagues I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system that produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and a human being. I believe that I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all the major league clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.”
It sounds polite but at the time this was political TNT. Kuhn didn’t take Flood seriously at all replying:
“Dear Curt: I certainly agree with you that you, as a human being, are not a piece of property to be bought and sold. That is I think obvious. However, I cannot see its application to the situation at hand.”
The great columnist Red Smith wrote in response to their exchange,
“Thus the commissioner restates baseball’s labor policy any time there is unrest in the slave cabins. ‘Run along, sonny, you bother me.'”
The union took up Flood’s cause. Although he lost, and sacrificed his career, Flood’s stand opened to door to the era of free agency.
As Players’ Union leader Marvin Miller said,
“To me Flood epitomized the modern player who began t think in terms of union, to ask questions like, ‘Why should we be treated like property?’ ‘Why am I a $40,000 a year slave?’ Basic questions that had gone unasked.” I
If Kuhn had his way those questions would continue to have gone unasked. He once said, “I believe in the Rip Van Winkle Theory: that a man from 1910 must be able to wake up after being asleep for 70 years, walk into a ballpark and understand baseball perfectly.”
Clearly the “Rip Van Winkle Theory” didn’t apply to the game itself since he instituted the wretched designated hitter rule in the American League. It didn’t apply to respecting the legends of the sport, since Kuhn banished Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from attending any baseball functions for the crime of shaking some hands at an Atlantic City casino. It didn’t apply to respecting the most hallowed records in the sport, since he chose not to show up in 1974 the night Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. That last decision was Kuhn’s most infamous. It was well known that Aaron had received thousands of racist death threats stating that he “wasn’t worthy” of holding the great Babe Ruth’s record. Kuhn’s presence would have made a noteworthy statement. Instead his absence made another.
Where Kuhn’s “Rip Van Winkle Theory” applied was his desire for players to have the labor rights of indentured servants. It also applied to his belief that players should be seen and not heard. When Jim Bouton wrote “Ball Four”, his beautiful love-letter to the game of baseball that dared present pro athletes as actual people, Kuhn fumed, “This is a horrible piece of writing! You’ve done the game a grave disservice. Saying players kissed on the Seattle team bus-incredible! Or that some of our greatest stars were drunk on the field. What can you be thinking of?” Kuhn was no traditionalist. Bob Costas is a traditionalist. He was a reactionary.
The best thing to say about Bowie Kuhn is that he often upset hardline owners like Padres boss and McDonalds CEO Ray Kroc and Cardinals baron–and anti-union zealot–Augie Busch by giving in to Marvin Miller and losing strikes in 1972 and 1981. Not all of this was due to Miller’s brilliance and the stirring solidarity of players. A secondary reason was Kuhn’s concern that labor battles would turn away the fans. This infuriated the Buschs, Krocs and Steinbrenners so much that Kuhn was often shut out of negotiations. A’s owner Charlie Finley, another reactionary, called Kuhn “the village idiot.” But Kuhn understood the basic truth: fans come to see the players, not some oozing fat cat slouching in the owner’s box. It was an insight for which we can all be grateful.
All said, I will not take this day to mourn Bowie Kuhn, dead at 80 with wealth and family by his side. We should all be so lucky. I will take the time instead to remember Curt Flood who passed away in 1997. He died at the all too young age of 59, with none of the money and recognition due for his courageous stand. Remembering Flood on the day of Kuhn’s death? That’s justice.
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of the forthcoming books: “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org