In a highly entertaining guest column for Old Time Family Baseball, Emma Span points out that Bowie Kuhn -- Hall of Famer Bowie Kuhn -- was basically wrong about everything. Really, this list is long: free agency, women in the locker room, Mantle and Mays, Ball Four ... and yet, somehow baseball survived. In fact, Span writes,
Baseball is lucky that Kuhn was largely incompetent — had he gotten his way on any of this he could have done a lot of damage. But fortunately, where labor relations were concerned, Marvin Miller was around to best him at every turn. (Miller, of course, is infamously not in Cooperstown. "That’s like putting Wile E. Coyote in the Hall of Fame instead of the Road Runner," Bouton once said.)
That’s why I’m not sure he is the absolute least deserving person in the Hall of Fame; that distinction probably belongs to Tom Yawkey and his virulent racism.
There is a bright side. Kuhn inadvertently proved that the game of baseball is so resilient that it can not only survive, but even thrive under the direction of a man with terrible judgment on virtually every pertinent issue. Keep that in mind when someone worries about baseball’s future; if Bowie Kuhn couldn’t hurt it, not much can.
Yes, Yawkey's a questionable choice. On the plus side, he did create the Fenway Park that's served the franchise for so long and so well, and he did own the Red Sox for 43 years. On the minus, his Red Sox weren't particularly successful during Yawkey's reign, and he did his best to resist integration (those two facts are not, by the way, completely unrelated). Yawkey served on the Hall of Fame's board of directors for some years, and was also a financial supporter. It's not unreasonable to suspect his involvement with the Hall played a role in his election.
Then again, Yawkey did own a storied franchise for 44 years. And as Mark Armour points out in his biographical article about Yawkey, he was beloved by most of his players and employees, and Yawkey's great wealth has done a great deal of good since his death. These things are complicated. Yawkey certainly had his flaws, but I'm not at all sure he was some sort of monster. I don't know that I would have voted for him ... but I don't know that I wouldn't have, either.
We were talking about Bowie Kuhn, though. He was wrong about everything, or almost everything. I will say this, though: Kuhn's autobiography is extensive and indexed, and serves as a key document for anyone studying baseball in the turbulent 1970s and early '80s. I'll say this, too: I believe that Kuhn genuinely cared about baseball, which does (or should) count for something. I probably would have supported Kuhn's election to the Hall of Fame, because he played a key historical role for many years, and just about every Commissioner had already been elected.
One thing Emma left off the list ... In 1976, A's owner Charlie Finley decided that he wasn't going to let his stars escape via free agency, and get nothing in return; instead he sold Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox for $2 million, and Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million. Kuhn invoked his "best interests of baseball" prerogative and disallowed both transactions. Was he wrong? I don't know. I think his motives were right. It was actually somewhat heroic, as most of Kuhn's employers -- that is, the men who owned the 24 franchises -- were not on his side.
Again, I'm not saying he was right. I do believe he thought he was doing the best thing for the fans. Bowie Kuhn was a product of his time and his place. He could have been a lot better, but he probably could have been even worse. Yes, Kuhn was really, really, really wrong about a lot of things. But it was the 1970s and he was far, far, far from alone.