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Baseball owners still at odds over ouster of Bowie Kuhn

If you can judge an administrator's worth by the caliber of his enemies, Bowie Kuhn must be one of the best baseball commissioners ever. Certainly anyone whose main opposition over the years has come from the likes of Charlie Finley, George Steinbrenner, and Ted Turner has to be doing something right!

Indeed, Kuhn's record is one of significant accomplishment during a period of rapid and dramatic change. Furthermore, he has presided over the game through more than a decade of unprecedented economic growth.

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Why, then, was he in effect ousted by the owners last week? There were various reasons, but mainly it comes down to major league baseball's archaic political structure, under which an effective minority is able in a case like this to work its will on the majority.

Kuhn was supported by nearly 70 percent of the owners, including most of those with established baseball names and stable, well-run organizations. The dissident minority consisted primarily of ''new breed'' owners - egocentric, image-conscious types who have never given any evidence that they understand or care about the game, whose only idea of how to build a successful organization is to spend more than their fellow millionaires in the free-agent market, and whose main interest in life seems to be seeing their pictures in the newspapers.

The overall voting was 18-8 in favor of renewing the commissioner's contract, which expires next August. That's a landslide in an ordinary election, but it wasn't sufficient here. Under baseball rules Kuhn needed a separate three-fourths vote in each league, and although he got it easily with an 11-3 margin in the American, he was blocked in the National via a tally of only 7-5 in his favor.

The anti-Kuhn cabal in the American League consisted of Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees, Eddie Chiles of Texas, and George Argyros of Seattle (Finley, of course, is no longer in baseball). The ''Gang of Five'' in the National League who successfully thwarted his re-election were Turner of Atlanta, John McMullen of Houston, Nelson Doubleday of the New York Mets, and the management representatives of the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds - the only establishment-type ownerships in the opposition camp.

The majority supporting Kuhn, including such respected figures as Peter O'Malley of Los Angeles, Edward Bennett Williams of Baltimore, and Bill Giles of Philadelphia, can point to many accomplishments during the commissioner's two seven-year terms. Total attendance, for instance, has risen from 23 million to more than 40 million, with a correspondingly big increase in TV revenue.

In fulfilling his responsibility to watch over the best interests of the game , Kuhn has several times used the power of his office to prevent rich teams from tipping the competitive scales too far by buying up talent - as when he blocked Oakland's attempted sale of three star players to the Yankees and Red Sox for some $3.5 million a few years ago.

He has also shown a willingness to act decisively and independently of the owners in support of his principles - as in his suspensions at different times of Steinbrenner and Turner, or his court battles with Finley in earlier years and with Turner more recently.

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Few of the dissidents have ever fully explained their counter-arguments, preferring vague generalities such as Doubleday's comment that ''millions are slipping through our fingers because Kuhn doesn't know how to run the business side of baseball.''

Part of the opposition is known to center around Kuhn's support for eventual revenue-sharing - an idea which some teams in big market areas (New York) or in lucrative cable TV situations (Atlanta) resist.

A few critics seem to think he is somehow to blame for the escalation in player salaries, though this is difficult to understand since it was a court decision which created free agency and it is the owners' own negotiating committee that has done all the bargaining.

Then there are those who apparently believe he should have been able to do even better in the area of TV contracts, a la Pete Rozelle and the National Football League - but this, too, is questionable. Regular season baseball doesn't come close to pro football in the ratings, and Blackstone himself isn't going to pull more money out of the networks' hats than the sponsors put in there.

For the most part, in fact, the pro-Kuhn majority feels - as one spokesman put it - that the coup revolved around individual whims and special interests and was engineered by people ''who haven't the slightest concern with the best interests of the game.''

Of course the office of commissioner (and by extension the man in it) is a natural focal point for controversy.

It began in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal involving fixed World Series games, when the owners decided a strong commissioner was needed to restore the game's good name, chose Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis for the job, and gave him virtual carte blanche in terms of authority. After his death in 1944, however, the owners made it clear both by their choices and by the way they dealt with the office that they no longer wanted anyone with such absolute power.

Landis's immediate successor, Happy Chandler, was ousted after one term in a coup similar to the current one. The next two commissioners were relatively inconspicuous, then Kuhn, a Wall Street lawyer who had been active in baseball legislation for many years, was named to the job in 1969.

By this time the image of the office had declined to the point where anyone who held it was immediately viewed as a probable tool of the owners. This went for Kuhn when he took over - and in his early years the media had a field day at his expense. The 6 ft. 5 in. commissioner is an unmistakable presence - and an easy subject for caricature. And of course he sometimes made it easy for the critics, as in his famous ''thermal underwear'' caper during the 1976 World Series when he showed up sans topcoat one freezing night in an apparent effort to demonstrate that it wasn't really all that cold.

Things like this have sometimes tended to obscure Kuhn's overall record of achievement, though ironically the message seems to have begun to seep through now just when his tenure appears to be over.

The current controversy is actually part of a larger question now before the owners concerning restructuring of the game's hierarchy - a move almost everyone agrees is overdue. One aspect of this would be creation of a chief operating officer for business affairs (already tagged by the press with the acronym COOBA). Kuhn, in fact, might have saved his job had he agreed to share authority with such an officer, but he insisted that in any new setup the commissioner still be the top man.

Whatever is decided on that point, another key question now is that of finding a new commissioner.

Various names have been tossed around, but there doesn't seem to be any consensus. And ironically, the search is to be conducted by the Executive Council - an 11-member body which in addition to Kuhn himself includes American League President Lee McPhail and National League President Charles Feeney (both strong supporters of the commissioner), and eight owners, almost all of whom are also in the Kuhn camp.

This has led to some speculation that the candidate chosen by the council to succeed Bowie Kuhn could be none other than Bowie Kuhn himself. That would be a strange twist, necessitating among other things a crack in the armor of that NL ''Gang of Five'' to have any chance of success. But in the byzantine workings of baseball politics, it certainly isn't beyond the realm of possibility.

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