It's difficult to discuss Bowie Kuhn's autobiography, Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner (Times Books, $19.95) in a dispassionate manner. On the one hand, the book is a fascinating account of the way baseball is run. On the other, it's an appalling ego trip by a decent enough man who oozes smugness and self-righteousness.
I can't recall another baseball confession that provides such intimate insights into the wheeling and dealing that takes place behind the scenes in big-league baseball. Kuhn tells all, and the title of his book means what it says. Old Bowie, so often the target of critical beanballs when he was commissioner of baseball from 1969 to 1984, is out there now firing the high, hard one, and few escape his knockdown pitches. About the only people he approves of unequivocally are close associates who agreed with him on all issues. Even his friend Howard Cosell, whom he otherwise praises, is gently chided for not always hewing to the commissioner's line. The late Red Smith, one of Kuhn's most persistent antagonists, is scolded in a patronizing critique of his columns.
Kuhn goes into specific, if not always totally reliable, detail on such matters as his feud with Charlie Finley of the Oakland A's; the player strikes that marred his administration; the rancorous differences between himself and Marvin Miller, the executive director of the players' union; the bitter battle he fought to keep Edward J. DeBartolo from buying the White Sox from Bill Veeck; his disapproval of Veeck as an owner; his efforts (not always appreciated, he complains) to have early black players admitted to the Hall of Fame; his showdowns with George Steinbrenner of the Yankees and Ted Turner of the Braves and their subsequent punishments; his disenchantment with some of the old-line thinkers who ran the National League (complete with a description of Horace Stoneham of the Giants in his cups at a baseball meeting); his banishment of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from baseball after they became associated with gambling casinos; the amazing deals and near deals involving the establishment of new franchises and the transfers (or would-be transfers) of old ones; and at the end, the sorry story of his dismissal (well, his failure to be reelected) as commissioner.
It's all there in 454 pages of petulant prose. And there's the rub. While the book should be required reading for anyone interested in major league baseball, Kuhn himself is unappetizing. His book is really one long complaint about the things he could have accomplished if only the people he had to deal with hadn't been so uncooperative. If only they'd listened to me, he keeps saying, if only they'd done what I told them to do. He coyly admits that he made some minor mistakes, but on major issues he believes he was never wrong.
He recounts his vigorous opposition to moving the Washington Senators to Texas. Earlier he had recalled his behavior as a lawyer for the National League, before he became commissioner, when he was a powerful factor in forcing the switch of the Milwaukee Braves to Atlanta. Despite the apparent contradiction, in both instances he thinks he did his job properly. He often mentions his devotion to the game on the field, but it seems that it's not so much the game itself as its financial success that appeals to him. The word "marketing" appears in his story far more frequently than terms like "second base" and "batting average."
Still, like Kuhn or not, agree with him or not, Hardball is a revelation—and an education.