This Day in Baseball History: February 4th, 1971

Can we call Selig, Kuhn Jr.?

On February 4, 1969:

Bowie Kuhn becomes baseball fifth commissioner.

Before becoming commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn earned a law degree from the University of Virginia after earning his undergraduate degree in economics. He went to New York to work for Wilkie Farr & Gallagher because they represented the National League (I’m not sure if they do now or not). As a legal counselor for the National League, he worked several important cases, such as the lawsuit brought by Milwaukee when the Braves decided to move to Atlanta in 1965. Twenty years later, he found himself the benefactor of the owners’, and well baseball’s, contempt for William Eckert.

Some background on the Eckert situation. He was voted unanimously into the office in 1965. The situation was awry from the beginning. Eckert had not seen a baseball game in approximately 10 years, and he was so obscure that journalists called him the “Unknown Soldier”. Eckert was brought into help with baseball’s economic problems (Eckert had a business degree from Harvard and was a major consultant in the aviation industry), but he failed. When JFK and MLK were assassinated, he refused to cancel games, drawing public ire. When he refused to really delve himself into economic issues, he pissed the owners off. As 1968 came around, a strike loomed and the owners had zero confidence in Eckert, and they forced him out with three years left on his contract.

Bowie came into office with much more baseball experience, but that didn’t make his ride as commissioner any easier. First up was Curt Flood. Flood sent Kuhn a letter demanding the reserve clause be eradicated and he named a free-agent. Kuhn refused, and the Supreme Court followed in Flood v. Kuhn. Next came a Spring Training strike in 1972 that he had to weather. Charles O. Finley was the next to tangle with the commissioner by bringing up a vote to remove Kuhn from the position, but he failed. In 1974, Hank Aaron broke the home-run record, but Kuhn refused to attend the game (see, Selig didn’t have to be at Bonds’) and made Aaron play the series in Cincinnati (the Braves wanted Aaron to tie and break the record at home, but Kuhn had other ideas), drawing some public frustration. Kuhn went on to suspend George Steinbrenner for two seasons (later shortened to 15 months) for illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign. A few seasons later, Andy Messersmith won his case to become a free-agent, and Kuhn refused to allow the owners to lock-out the players. Baseball began to become what it has become and is.

Kuhn would weather the storm until the owners ousted him in 1984 as a result of Kuhn’s quarrels with owners.

Kuhn was heavily criticized throughout his reign, but he did bring in more attendance and more money to baseball, taking it into the “Big Business” category (sound familiar?).

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