Bowie K. Kuhn was elected baseball's fifth Commissioner by a unanimous vote of the 24 club owners on February 4, 1969. His 15 year tenure as Commissioner is second in longevity to Kenesaw Mountain Landis' 23 years.
Kuhn was born in Takoma Park, MD, a suburb of Washington, DC, on October 28, 1926, and passed away on March 15, 2007. He grew up in the nation's capital, graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School, and then attended Franklin and Marshall College in the Naval V-12 Officer Training Program before going to Princeton University in 1945. He was graduated from Princeton with honors in 1947 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. He received his law degree in 1950 from the University of Virginia where he served on the editorial board of the law review.
Following his graduation from law school, Kuhn became a member of the New York law firm Wilkie, Farr and Gallagher, chosen because it represented the National League. He spent the next 19 years working in baseball's legal affairs and was counsel to the NL in the lawsuit brought against it by the City of Milwaukee when the Braves moved to Atlanta. He also served as counsel for negotiations between the Major League Players Association and the club owners.
When General William Eckert left the Commissionership, the team owners decided that baseball's next Commissioner should be familiar with baseball - the business, the game and the people. The race came down to two candidates, Mike Burke, president of the New York Yankees and National League President Chub Feeney. The ballots were split along league lines. During the impasse, Kuhn was mentioned as a possible candidate and the response was overwhelming in his favor. He was elected by unanimous vote on the first ballot.
In less than one month, Kuhn had helped solve the biggest issue facing baseball by negotiating a new three-year contract between the owners and the Players Association. The settlement came after more than 40 negotiating sessions and prevented what could have been baseball's first strike.
Kuhn presided over a tumultuous time in baseball. Among the notable events was the Curt Flood reserve case of 1970. Flood was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Phillies, but refused to report to his new team. Instead, the outfielder initiated legal action against baseball, challenging the legality of the reserve clause and the right of clubs to trade players at will. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower courts decisions in favor of baseball, ruling that federal antitrust laws did not apply to the game.
In 1975, players were granted the right to free agency for the first time. In the Messersmith-McNally case, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that players were free to negotiate with any club after the option year of their contracts expired. After several bargaining sessions, the players and owners agreed to the current modification that grants players the right to free agency after six years in the majors.
In 1976, Kuhn was also involved in a lawsuit with Oakland Athletics' owner Charles O. Finley, who wanted to sell three of his players for $3.5 million. Kuhn blocked the move claiming it was "not in the best interests of baseball," and Finley sued. Kuhn prevailed in court, a decision that reaffirmed the powers of the Commissioner.
Under Kuhn, the major leagues endured a 57-day players' strike in 1981. Also during his tenure Major League Baseball grew from 20 to 26 teams and attendance increased from 23 million fans in 1968 to 45.5 million in 1983.
Kuhn left office on September 30, 1984.