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A look at the 10 MLB Commissioners and how the role has changed over time, part 3

Now we get into the era of labor stoppages and bad decisions.

Bowie Kuhn
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Previous Commissioners had full rule over baseball, including players, dating from the K.M. Landis era.

That changed with the rise of the MLB Players Association, and the players group ran into an immovable force in Bowie Kuhn. Imagine, if you will, Rob Manfred, only a guy who wanted confrontation and made no secret of it. That was Kuhn.

Bowie Kuhn, 1968-84

Kuhn, an attorney, worked for a New York law firm that represented the National League and was thus considered a logical choice to replace William Eckert, who was forced out with three years remaining on his contract. Others considered at the time were Yankees president Mike Burke and Giants VP Charles “Chub” Feeney. Feeney instead was named president of the National League two years later.

Kuhn’s tenure was marked by great change in baseball. The first two labor stoppages, strikes in 1972 and 1981, were during his tenure. Kuhn was known as a pro-ownership Commissioner at a time when that role had been previously thought to be someone who acted solely in the best interests of baseball. But Kuhn wasn’t above doing something to stop an owner he thought wasn’t doing that, particularly Charlie Finley of the A’s. Per Wikipedia:

In 1976, when Finley attempted to sell several players to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees for $3.5 million, Kuhn blocked the deals on the grounds that they would be bad for the game. Some believe that Kuhn’s actions were simply a revenge tactic, aimed at Finley, after Finley attempted to force an owners vote to remove Kuhn as commissioner in 1975.

Kuhn’s years were also marked by the beginning of free agency, which began when Curt Flood refused to report after being traded by the Cardinals to the Phillies after the 1969 season. Flood famously wrote a letter to Kuhn saying he was not a “piece of property to be bought and sold.” This wound up before the Supreme Court in a case known as Flood v. Kuhn. Flood lost when the court chose to uphold its 1922 Federal Baseball decision and leave the reserve clause intact, but this helped lead to players Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith challenging the clause again a couple of years later. By then, players had the right to arbitration and, famously, arbitrator Peter Seitz struck down the reserve clause, creating free agency for the first time.

Kuhn also wound up suspending a number of players due to drug use and gambling during his 16 years as commissioner.

He also made a decision that wrecked the 1981 season. About a third of the season was lost to the players’ strike. Kuhn decided that when play resumed in August, that would be considered the “second half” of the season and that teams that were in first place when the strike began would be considered “first half champions” and the two would meet in a “division series” before the League Championship Series. As a result, the two teams with the overall best record in each NL division — the Cardinals and Reds — sat home for the expanded postseason because they didn’t win either half. What Kuhn should have done was have the second-half winner meet the overall winner. If that turned out to be the same team, then you go to the “first-half winner.”

Eventually, even owners tired of Kuhn’s imperial-style presence and forced him out in 1984. His 16-year tenure is the third-longest of any Commissioner. Kuhn died in 2007 and was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame in 2008.

Peter Ueberroth, 1984-89

Ueberroth had been chairman of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and MLB owners saw the success of the ‘84 Olympics and thought he’d make a good Commissioner.

He took office at the beginning of the postseason in 1984, just when MLB umpires threatened to strike. In fact, umpires did sit out the first two games of the NLCS between the Cubs and Padres, and you can see the replacement umpires’ names here and here. (Personal aside: Joe Pomponi, listed as one of the base umpires for those games, was my middle-school gym teacher.)

Another potential strike, by players in 1985, was limited to one day and no games were missed (details here).

Ueberroth also helped negotiate the first $1 billion MLB television contract with CBS.

His downfall came via the collusion scandal. Per Wikipedia:

Ueberroth, with the assistance of the owners, also facilitated collusion, an illegal violation of the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players, during the 1985, 1986 and 1987 off-seasons. Players entering free-agency were prevented from both signing equitable contracts and joining the teams of their choice during this period, a strategy that union leader Marvin Miller later held was “tantamount to fixing, not just games, but entire pennant races, including all post-season series”. The MLBPA filed collusion charges, arguing that Ueberroth and team owners had violated the collective bargaining agreement in the 1985, 1986, and 1987 seasons. The MLBPA won each case, resulting in “second look” free agents, and over $280 million in owner fines.

This led to Ueberroth’s departure before the 1989 regular season began. You can see here how the office of the Commissioner a) lost power over time and b) became much more owner-centric, during the Ueberroth era.

Ueberroth was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2010 — the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame. No, I am not making that up. He’s yet to be inducted in Cooperstown.

Tomorrow: Bart Giamatti and the Pete Rose scandal.