“An empty car drove up and Bowie Kuhn got out.” – Red Smith
“This strike would never have happened if Bowie Kuhn was still alive.” – Red Smith, 1981
“Red Smith was the best.” – me
I only recently watched “Let Them Wear Towels,” part of ESPN’s “Nine for IX” series, about female sportswriters’ fight to gain equal access to locker rooms in the 1970s and 80s. I missed the original airing of the program because ESPN made the curious choice of airing it directly opposite the All-Star Game, which I was covering.
It’s a pretty good documentary and if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend it. Even if, like me, you already know the broad outline of events, the details and personalities bring it to life. It’s occasionally surprising in those details: I would not have guessed, for instance, that Billy Martin was supportive of equal access for women way back in the late 70s. Other facts are less surprising. For instance, I had forgotten that then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was opposed to letting women into the locker room. But of course he was. Because Bowie Kuhn was wrong about everything.
Everything? Well, there are exceptions. So far as I know Kuhn inhaled oxygen and then exhaled carbon dioxide, which is a correct thing to do. Contemporary sources indicate that he likely used cellular respiration to produce energy from his food. And he dressed pretty well. Other than that, though, yeah, pretty much everything.
We’ve just come off a long Hall of Fame debate in which, among other issues, Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame debate was fiercely contested. Now, personally I believe that Jack Morris did not pitch well enough to meet the Hall of Fame’s standards. However, the fact that Bowie Kuhn is in the Hall of Fame should really put all these other debates in perspective. Jack Morris was very talented, and not many people can do what he did. Anyone can sit around being wrong, though, which is what Kuhn did as Commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1969-1984.
Let’s examine just a few of the most prominent things about which Bowie Kuhn was wrong.
- Curt Flood. Flood, you’ll recall, sought an end to baseball’s oppressive reserve clause, and while he didn’t get it, this case did lay the groundwork for an eventual overturning of that relic. Kuhn, of course, was against that, and also wrong.
- Messersmith-McNally. The case that actually did get rid of the reserve clause and usher in free agency. Kuhn argued that there should not be an independent arbitrator, but that instead he himself should make a ruling on behalf of the owners. This did not happen. Luckily, in addition to being wrong about that, he was totally wrong about the impact free agency would have on baseball.
- Women in the locker room. Kuhn declared that admitting them would “’undermine the basic dignity of the game.” This is pretty funny even if you are operating under the misapprehension that baseball ever had a ton of dignity to work with in the first place. A judge ruled that Kuhn was, yes, wrong.
- Banning Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from baseball. Although both men were retired and gambling on baseball was not involved, Kuhn decided that their promotional work for casinos meant they should be barred from the game. Was he right about this? No. The ban was overturned by his successor, Peter Ueberroth.
- ”Ball Four.” Jim Bouton’s book is one of the best ever written about baseball, and a great book period, so of course Bowie Kuhn denounced it as “detrimental to baseball.” It ended up being roughly as detrimental to baseball as free agency or women in the locker room, which is to say, not at all. Kuhn also tried to get Bouton to sign a document saying the book was fictional. He failed at that as well, which is good, because once again, he was wrong.
Baseball is lucky that Kuhn was largely incompetent — had he gotten his way on any of this he could have done a lot of damage. But fortunately, where labor relations were concerned, Marvin Miller was around to best him at every turn. (Miller, of course, is infamously not in Cooperstown. “That’s like putting Wile E. Coyote in the Hall of Fame instead of the Road Runner,” Bouton once said.)
That’s why I’m not sure he is the absolute least deserving person in the Hall of Fame; that distinction probably belongs to Tom Yawkey and his virulent racism. Still, he’s definitely in the discussion and his presence makes undeserving Hall players like Freddie Lindstrom or Travis Jackson look like Hank goddamn Aaron. (Speaking of which, by the way, Kuhn decided to skip Hank Aaron’s record-breaking home run game).
If all that wasn’t enough, when his time as commissioner was over, Kuhn went on to be an advisor and board member for Domino’s Pizza, which is terrible, wrong pizza.
There is a bright side. Kuhn inadvertently proved that the game of baseball is so resilient that it can not only survive, but even thrive under the direction of a man with terrible judgment on virtually every pertinent issue. Keep that in mind when someone worries about baseball’s future; if Bowie Kuhn couldn’t hurt it, not much can.
Emma Span is a Senior Editor at Sports on Earth and the author of “90% of the Game Is Half Mental: And Other Tales From the Edge of Baseball Fandom." Follow her on Twitter @emmaspan.
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