SI Vault
William Leggett
February 17, 1969
Bowie Kuhn, the new commissioner of baseball, has all the expected qualities of leadership. But it comes as a surprise to discover that he knows baseball and that he and his family love the game
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February 17, 1969

The Big Leagues Select A Fan

Bowie Kuhn, the new commissioner of baseball, has all the expected qualities of leadership. But it comes as a surprise to discover that he knows baseball and that he and his family love the game

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You could look at the track record and just about figure out exactly what the fifth commissioner of baseball would be like. He would be a WASP of between 58 and 62, and his dark-blue suits would have a hard finish and just a trace of a stripe. His brain would be held together by sealing wax and string and he would wave an American flag, collect Norman Rockwell paintings and be able, when urged on by intimate friends and just a touch of cooking sherry, to stand by the spinet and sing Trees. As a compromise choice of the 24 major league owners, he would be certain never to fog up any of their goggles.

Bowie Kuhn, a 42-year-old lawyer who last week accepted the job so inexpertly held in recent times by Happy Chandler, Ford Frick and General William Eckert, is the antithesis of everything that people expected to find and, while he was selected for a term of only one year at a salary of $100,000, a betting man would be wise to lay $5 to 50� that Kuhn will eventually hold the job for as long as he wants it. After a judge, a governor, a newspaperman and a retired Air Force general, baseball's owners, bless them, finally turned the game over to a fan.

The books on his den shelves in his home in Ridgewood, N.J. tell something about him. There are The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, The Public Years by Bernard Baruch, Show Biz. by Abel Green and Joe Laurie Jr., The Russian Revolution, Morte d' Urban, the complete writings of Sir Winston Churchill and, appropriately this week, a book titled That Man Is You. He raises roses, likes Puccini and Verdi, but something special stirs inside him when he hears the score from Damn Yankees.

From the moment Kuhn was named to the job, he was pictured in the press just as one might have guessed he would be. "I get a great kick out of it," he says. "I am now the Unknown Lawyer; I'm Harvey the rabbit, whom you can't see but know is there." Questioned about the fact that he has been labeled in some quarters as an owner's man, he smiles. "It's an understandable comment. It's not irrational. I will be measured on my performance. Wait and see and measure me on my performance."

As a member of the New York law firm of Willkie, Farr and Gallagher, Kuhn has represented the National League for 20 years and, as one owner said last week, "Bowie is one of the few guys we all ever really listened to and respected." While in that capacity he certainly was unknown to followers of sport, but he was always recognized in baseball and by some reporters as one of the most sagacious men around. And his knowledge of the complicated details, the paperwork and the playing of the game is boundless.

Numbered among Kuhn's ancestors are two former governors of the state of Maryland and one of the Florida Territory before it achieved statehood. His handsome family is as crazy about baseball as he is and often troops off for games at Yankee and Shea stadiums. The loyalties of the family split to include rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies, the Boston Red Sox, the New York Mets, the Yankees and Kuhn's favorite team, the Washington Senators. While attending Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., he once proved to the basketball coach, Red Auerbach, that despite his height, 6'5", he was no basketball player.

Kuhn, however, was a baseball fan, and although he promises that his past allegiance to the Washington Senators will in no way reflect upon his decisions, he is not sanctimonious about the matter. "There will be a deep place in my heart for the Senators always," he concedes.

As a boy, Kuhn worked with a friend in the scoreboard at Griffith Stadium in Washington. The job paid him $1 a day, and he loved it. "Being able to watch the Senators play and being paid for it was my idea of heaven," he says.

"We'd put up the balls, strikes, outs and the number of the player at bat, and then we'd also post the inning-by-inning scores of the other three games being played in the American League. You could make some drama out of that, particularly when the Yankees were involved. Sometimes you'd put the zero up real quick for the top of an inning and then, if something important happened in the bottom of the inning, you would stall a little bit and push out the number of runs slowly, keeping it pointing up so that only the birds flying overhead could see it. Then you'd drop it down quickly, and you could feel the crowd react.

"There was a gate in right field near the scoreboard and that was the way we got into the park. I'd get there early to watch the players take batting practice. I have always been amazed at the individual skills of big league ballplayers and, well, sometimes a ball would come out by me and I'd get it. The first player who ever gave me a ball was Wally Judnich of the St. Louis Browns. Once in a while one of the Senators would give me one but not too often. The Washington club, you must realize, was a very sound financial organization.

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