Former MLB commissioner Kuhn dies at 80

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Bowie Kuhn, the bespectacled lawyer who oversaw baseball's transformation from sport to a business of free agents with multimillion-dollar contracts, died Thursday. He was 80.

Kuhn died at St. Luke's Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., following a short bout with pneumonia that led to respiratory failure, spokesman Bob Wirz said. Kuhn had been hospitalized for several weeks.

Kuhn presided for 15 tumultuous years, the second-longest tenure among nine commissioners.

"He led our game through a great deal of change and controversy," current commissioner Bud Selig said. "Yet, Bowie laid the groundwork for the success we enjoy today."

Kuhn battled the rise of the NFL and a combative players' union that besieged him with lawsuits, grievances and work stoppages. Yet, it was also a time of record attendance and revenue and a huge expansion of the sport's television presence.

"He wore the mantle really well. He liked being commissioner," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "He never seemed to compromise on what he felt he needed to do."

Along with his bumpy reign came a string of controversial decisions.

When Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth's career record in 1974, Kuhn was not in the stands. And he banned Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from associating with their former teams because of liaisons with gambling casinos.

By the time Peter Ueberroth succeeded Kuhn on Oct. 1, 1984, the major leagues had 26 teams in four divisions, a designated hitter in the American League, the first night World Series games, color-splashed uniforms, free agency and an average salary of nearly $330,000.

"I want it to be remembered that I was commissioner during a time of tremendous growth in the popularity of the game," Kuhn said, "and that it was a time in which no one could question the integrity of the game."

It was also a time of memorable feuds. Kuhn did battle with ornery owners such as Charlie Finley, Ted Turner, George Steinbrenner and Ray Kroc. Finley once went so far as calling Kuhn "the village idiot."

In addition to owners, Kuhn tangled with former star players like Mays, Mantle and Curt Flood and union head Marvin Miller.

"He deserved to be -- and he deserves to be -- in the Hall of Fame," Ueberroth said.

His downfall came after he presided over a 50-day strike that split the 1981 season in half.

"Bowie was a good guy, and I admired him. Even though we had our disagreements, I never lost my respect for his integrity," Steinbrenner said through spokesman Howard Rubenstein.

A prim and proper lawyer who stood ramrod erect, Kuhn was regarded by some as a stuffed shirt.

"You've got to develop a sense of humor," Kuhn once said in an interview. "You have to be able to stand back and laugh. That's invaluable, or you're apt to go slightly balmy."

Born in Takoma Park, Md., on Oct. 28, 1926, Kuhn grew up in Washington, D.C., as a fan of the original Washington Senators -- yet he allowed the expansion Senators to leave after the 1971 season and become the Texas Rangers. He graduated from Princeton in 1947 and received his law degree in 1950 from Virginia.

After school, he joined the law firm of Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, which represented the National League. In 1966, he represented the Milwaukee Braves in their legal battle with the city over a move to Atlanta and gained the respect of the league's owners.

He eventually lost that respect through repeated confrontations with many of those owners, who kept him from getting involved in negotiations during the 1981 strike.

"He loved being the commissioner more than anything," said Fay Vincent, baseball's commissioner from 1989-92. "I think it's easy to be critical, but I know what it's like. It's a very difficult group to work for. It's important to remember he was making decisions in a very different time, in a difficult environment."

Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner in 1974 for two years -- later shortened to 15 months -- for his guilty plea regarding illegal campaign contributions to President Nixon's re-election campaign. He then suspended Turner, the Braves' owner, in 1976 for tampering with the contract of Gary Matthews.

In 1976, he voided the attempt by Finley's Oakland Athletics to sell Vida Blue, Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers for a combined price of $3.5 million, saying the deals weren't in the best interests of baseball.

He fined Kroc, the San Diego Padres' owner, $100,000 in 1979 for saying he wanted to sign Joe Morgan of the Reds and Graig Nettles of the Yankees.

During Kuhn's years as commissioner, attendance in the major leagues grew from 23 million in 1968 to 44.6 million in 1982. In 1983, baseball signed a $1.2 billion television contract that would earn each team $7 million a year for six seasons, then an astonishing sum.

It was clear by now that baseball was transforming itself from a sport to a business, with revenue rising from $163 million in 1975 to $624 million in 1984.

"You can't be commissioner for 14 years and not change, for better or for worse. I hope I've changed for the better," he said. "I'm more philosophical about our problems. Initially, I used to become more upset. Now, I take problems for granted as being part of the office."

While business boomed on his watch, players wanted their cut.

Flood sued to gain free agency but lost his U.S. Supreme Court case in 1972. In 1975, the union finally ended the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams forever, winning an arbitration case filed on behalf of Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith. Baseball hasn't been the same since.

"He was in a difficult, untenable position in that whole period," said Miller, who remembered Kuhn for his humor. "My own guess is that if he had had his druthers, he would have moved to modify the whole reserve system sometime before the Messersmith case arose."

On the field, Kuhn injected himself into Aaron's chase for Ruth's home-run record by ordering Braves manager Eddie Mathews to play Aaron in 1974's season-opening series at Cincinnati. Aaron entered with 713 homers, one shy of Ruth's mark.

A year later, Finley led a group that attempted to oust Kuhn as his first term ended.

"That was an ambush," Kuhn said. "I was blindsided. I didn't see it coming, and I wasn't prepared."

But with the support of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, Kuhn managed to gain re-election.

By 1982, a year after the strike -- baseball's fifth work stoppage under Kuhn -- owners were ready for change. At a Nov. 1 meeting at a Chicago airport hotel, AL owners voted 11-3 to give Kuhn another term, but the NL vote was 7-5, short of the 75 percent needed.

In 1988, he formed the law firm Myerson & Kuhn with Harvey Myerson, but two years later it filed for bankruptcy. He sold his house in Ridgewood, N.J., and moved to Ponte Vedra Beach, where his home was shielded from bankrupcy proceedings.

He is survived by wife, Luisa Kuhn; son Stephen Kuhn; daughter Alix Bower; and stepsons Paul Degener and George Degener.

A funeral is planned for Tuesday at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, to be followed in the spring by a memorial service in Quiogue, N.Y.