The commissioners we deserved

In 2007, Bill James spoke at MIT. One thing that he said was that people should study how leagues are run in addition to how games are played. This is a humble attempt at that. It will likely create more questions than it answers. I consider it a work in progress and more of a conversation starter than the Final Word.

I’m not Nate Silver. There are plenty of folks better than me at gathering data and using them to make forecasts. What I am good at is biographical research and I’ve written several short biographies for SABR. I’ve covered players and managers. One of my future victims will be an executive. I’ve been studying Bowie Kuhn for almost a year. After reading stories about him ad nauseam in books, magazines and news articles, I want to put together some original content about him. My short piece “Hardball Diplomacy” in these pages was one example. But this is more ambitious. I’m trying to see where he ranks among baseball executives.

Folks, especially followers of Bill James and other baseball iconoclasts, tend to compare Kuhn to Marvin Miller, which is fine. But he also needs to be compared to other baseball execs, football execs and even entertainment biz types like studio heads and their trade association head. I am not a fan of one-dimensional ranking systems. So I was intrigued when I heard about The Leaders We Deserved.

This is a recent book that ranks the American presidents in six categories; character, competence, vision, economic policy, foreign and military policy, and expansion and protection of liberty. The author, Al Felzenberg, is something of a Ted Williams Republican, but he doesn’t care if you come up with the same conclusions as him. His intent was to open up the presidential ranking game to the intelligent layman as well as the Arthur Schlesingers of the world.

I decided to use a similar analysis of sports executives. The first three categories aren’t job-specific, so they apply here as well. I supplement them by asking three questions:

1. Did they help their game and league grow?
2. How did they handle player relations?
3. Were their policies fan-friendly?

Some, like the late Jerome Holtzman would consider only the first question pertinent for commissioners. Others would view commissioners akin to self-regulatory agencies like FINRA (the former NASD). Remember, originally Judge Landis was a commission of one. For brevity’s sake, what follows is a quick look at the highlights and lowlights of Kuhn and his contemporary league heads. They were competing with Kuhn and baseball for fans and dollars and I don’t see much discussion of them in the baseball discussions that I read.

Pete Rozelle

Alvin “Pete” Rozelle was a single parent for a few years. His first wife had a drinking problem and after they divorced, he had custody of their daughter. This was rare for a man in those days. He’s often seen as the Platonic ideal of the modern sports commissioner and not without reason. He was very competent; an able consensus builder. The first national TV contract he signed was seen as a master stroke. He got the teams to share the TV revenues. It was an idea that he got from Branch Rickey via AFL founder Lamar Hunt. (And it can be traced further to Bill Veeck, but Rozelle had to cajole Congress and the Kennedy White House to approve it.)

This wasn’t in the best short-term interest for the New York Giants and Chicago Bears, but it did help the competitive ecology of the game. Football was seen as the now sport, but I have a theory about that. The flight to the Left Coast by the Dodgers and baseball Giants coincided with an uptick in the fortunes of the football Giants. New York, especially Madison Avenue, noticed Giants like Frank Gifford. Even old Charlie Connerly was a Marlboro Man for a while. These were the tastemakers of the era.

In any event, by the time Super Bowl X was played, Super Bowl Sunday was a de facto national holiday. It was around this time that football opened up its passing rules. The Competition Committee added an extra official to protect pass receivers and offensive linemen were allowed to protect the quarterback more effectively.

But there was a Dark Side to Camelot.

Rozelle’s high water mark was somewhere in the mid-’70s. League Think, as the owners’ cohesiveness was sometimes called, was a product of the old guard of ownership. Old time sportsmen like Art Rooney, George Halas and Wellington Mara shared urban ethnic Catholic values. As new owners came from the old AFL, through expansion, or otherwise, owner solidarity weakened. For example, it took years for the league to agree on overtime for regular season games. Why is it sudden death overtime? It wouldn’t surprise me that the reason is because when it was first proposed the Bears still played at Wrigley Field and there were no lights there. They wanted to finish the game before sunset. And the language in the proposal was never changed.

A number of teams relocated to the suburbs. The Cowboys moved from Dallas to Irving. The Patriots had a new stadium built in Foxboro. The Detroit Lions played in Pontiac. The New York Giants crossed state lines into New Jersey. Carroll Rosenbloom swapped the Colts for the Rams with Robert Irsay in a tax deal. Irsay gutted the franchise (with the help of GM Joe Thomas).

Rosenbloom started some dominoes falling when he moved the Rams to Anaheim. The L.A. Coliseum sought a new tenant and found a willing one in AL Davis of the Oakland Raiders. The league did not approve of the move but Davis did it anyway and the NFL didn’t have a leg to stand on. Unlike baseball, the football owners weren’t exempt from anti-trust laws. “Franchise Free Agency” followed. Irsay moved the Colts to Indianapolis under cover of night. The Cardinals would later move to Arizona.

Meanwhile, the NFL players didn’t have this freedom. The NFL didn’t have a reserve clause, but the Rozelle Rule allowed a team that lost a free agent to another team to receive players or draft picks of equal value. This stymied free agency. There were training camp work stoppages in 1970 and 1974 as well as in-season strikes in 1982 and 1987, but the NFLPA lacked solidarity. Labor peace wasn’t achieved until 1993, well after Rozelle resigned. Former lineman and current author Michael Oriard considers player relations to be Rozelle’s Achilles Heel.

One role that commissioners assume is that of guardian of the game’s integrity. Early on in his tenure, Rozelle suspended Paul Hornung and Alex Karras one year for betting on games. In 1973, the NFL banned greenies. Rozelle fined eight Sand Diego Chargers for amphetamine use in one of the first public sports drug scandals. Team physician Dr. Arnold Mandell was prescribing them.

The league had a steroid problem as well as a painkiller problem. By 1983, football writer Paul Zimmerman felt that recreational drug use was the league’s biggest problem. Programs were put in place to combat all of these, but many felt that the NFL had a tendency to pay lip service to solving problems. After all, Rozelle got his start in public relations.

Walter Kennedy and Larry O’Brien

Both Kennedy and O’Brien were politicos. Kennedy was the mayor of Stamford, Conn., before leading the NBA. O’Brien, who succeeded him, was an operative for JFK. He later was a victim of the Watergate burglary when he chaired the Democrat National Committee. During the 1969-’70 season, the New York Knicks helped the NBA burst onto the scene. Elliot Gould, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford all were photographed at Madison Square Garden. But the draft made it difficult for teams to sustain success. One great player makes that much of a difference in hoops.

By 1975, the NHL was outdrawing the NBA in 14 of the 20 cities they shared. The basketball league expanded into white collar, service industry, Sunbelt cities quicker than other sports did. Part of the reason was that owners looked to maximize season ticket sales and the people in places like Portland or Phoenix were more likely to buy season tix than folks in the Rustbelt. Sometimes this wasn’t well thought out. Basing the New Orleans Jazz in the cavernous Louisiana Superdome wasn’t wise. Why pay in advance when plenty of walk-up seats will be available? David Halberstam felt that expansion and the rival ABA diluted the talent level of the game, but he felt the same way about football. However, Roone Arledge also felt that the league overextended itself.

Arledge may have been the most powerful man in sports during the ‘70s. As head of ABC Sports, he changed how television covered sports from a low-key, almost reverential, style to one that focused on human interest story lines. A colleague considered him everyman, the casual fan. His network covered the league from the middle of the ‘60s until 1973. Ratings increased, but Madison Avenue preferred college hoops.

For one thing, marquee player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was anathema to advertisers as a Muslim who boycotted the 1968 Olympics. The owners didn’t embrace TV anyway. They wouldn’t give ABC marquee matchups. Walter Kennedy was all set to renew the contract with ABC, but Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke led a revolt and the league signed a deal with CBS.

Arledge got back at pro basketball. Wide World of Sports was already running on Saturdays. He ran installments on Sundays along with the Superstars competition and promoted the crap out of both. CBS covered only a handful of teams out of the 22. The network wouldn’t cover the NBA at all until football ended. After Portland beat Philly for the world title in ’77, CBS immediately switched to the Kemper Open. CBS Sports head Frank Smith was a golf fan.

In 1979, General Motors pulled its advertising from the NBA on CBS. (People forget, but GM used to be a big company.) Subaru stepped in, but paid a fraction of what GM did for spots. The league had an image problem of overpaid druggie players dogging it until the last two minutes of the game. Some of this was no doubt racial. And it was an unfair criticism, as Abdul-Jabbar said in “Airplane!.” “Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.”

Things change with the emergence of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, but it took a while. In 1980, the Finals were shown on tape delay running against Johnny Carson. By 1982, there was talk of contraction and the All-Star Game had thousands of tickets that almost went unsold. Enter David Stern.

Stern sought corporate partnerships for the NBA. Rozelle was able to forge these, but none of the other commissioners did. Stern was the power behind Larry O’Brien’s throne. (By the way, both Stern and future NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue took the Bowie Kuhn career path to the top of their sports. Both started as outside counsel for the leagues. The difference is that both had more marketing savvy than Kuhn.) O’Brien objected to the slam dunk contest during the All Star Game weekend. He thought that it was a sideshow worthy of the vanquished upstart ABA, but he deferred to Stern.

O’Brien was brought in after Walter Kennedy retired to consummate the ABA-NBA merger. He did succeed at that, but was considered a weak and ineffective commissioner as well as a poor spokesman for the association. His strength was as a behind-the-scenes pol. Walter Kennedy was also considered a weak commissioner. According to David Halberstam, the owners were contemptuous of him.

The NBA Players Association was ably led by a young attorney named Larry Fleischer. The Tommy Heinsohn and Bill Russell era Celtics were the heart of the union. Red Auerbach was somewhat of a skinflint. In 1964, the players threatened to boycott the All-Star Game over a pension dispute. In ’67, they threatened to strike the playoffs. Kennedy got the owners to negotiate with Fleischer.

The rival ABA started up around then and it raised the specter of a salary war. Rick Barry played out his option and jumped to the junior circuit. The NBA tried to merge with its competitor in 1970, but the union blocked it. The NBA had a rule similar to the Rozelle Rule with regard to free agent compensation. Compensation was dropped in 1980. Due to cocaine scandals, Bob Lanier and the NBPA agreed to a drug test policy in 1982. At the same time, the union agreed to a salary cap in exchange for 53 percent of the league’s revenues. Unlike baseball and football, there was peace on the basketball labor front during the Kuhn Era.

Clarence Campbell and John Zeigler

I know less about hockey, so bear with me. Campbell and Zeigler were NHL presidents, but their duties were similar to the other commissioners. Campbell was convicted of bribery. Player union head Alan Eagleson did more to promote the game than Campbell by promoting the Canada Cup. The rival upstart World Hockey Association was more responsible for introducing non-Canadians to the player pool.

Despite lack of U.S. TV coverage, the NHL outdrew the NBA in cities that the two leagues shared. The NHL was mossbacked compared to other leagues. Syndicate ownership existed in that league in the 20th century. Hockey didn’t have a collective bargaining agreement until 1975. French Canadians had a history of not being union-friendly. Eagleson had all sorts of conflicts of interest. He was also a player agent and tight with the owners because he kept salaries down. He later went to jail for defrauding some of his clients.

Now let’s move on to Kuhn.

Bowie Kuhn

Bowie Kuhn had a thing for a young wife and mother who traveled in the same social circles as he did when he summered in the Hamptons as a young professional. When her husband was killed in a car crash, Kuhn took care of her. The two eventually married. When Joe Reichler was his assistant and was caught selling memorabilia that belonged to the Hall of Fame, Kuhn stood by him.

After he was voted out of office, Kuhn started a law firm with Harvey Myerson. Myerson defrauded clients. While Kuhn was a rather conservative Catholic, he worked with AIDS patients in New York City back when it was considered a gay man’s disease. And he didn’t resort to collusion like Peter Ueberroth.

After Bob Short moved the Senators, Kuhn envisioned baseball’s return to the District of Columbia. His other goals included unification of the AL and NL and interleague play. While the league offices moved to New York and he assumed some of the traditional roles of the league presidents, these ideas didn’t really come to fruition until Bud Selig was the commissioner. Kuhn simply didn’t have the consensus-building skills of a Rozelle or a Selig. In particular, the NL owners were a thorn in his side. One reason the owners asked Spike Eckert to resign early is because they wanted to reorganize the commissioner’s office and unify some functions under him, but the NL steadfastly maintained its autonomy.

Baseball changed its rules to encourage more offense, as the NFL would several years later. But most of these changes were voted in before Kuhn was elected, except the introduction of the DH in the AL. He did bring the postseason to prime time and television revenues increased tremendously over his tenure. But this happened for all sports as Madison Avenue started to use sports as an advertising vehicle for products such as cars, shaving cream, life insurance and beer; especially beer. The Miller Brewing Co. and Anheuser Busch were locked in a ferocious battle over the light beer market. The sports leagues benefited immensely.

Kuhn would sometimes side with a player; especially if his employer was Charlie O. Finley. He intervened when Donn Clendenon was traded from the Expos to the Astros. But generally speaking, he battled with the MLBPA and often lost to Marvin Miller and the players. The owners knew that the day would come when the Reserve Clause would have to be modified, yet they didn’t do anything until they were forced to by arbitrator Peter Seitz.

During the 1981 strike, the darkest hours of his reign, Kuhn was pretty invisible. He may’ve claimed that his hands were tied; that the PRC or the league presidents should deal with the players (Lee MacPhail eventually did.) But Kuhn showed the capacity to act independently when he felt like it. For instance, He punished Fergie Jenkins and other recreational drug users. Some say that this soured the MLBPA on agreeing to test for steroids and other performance enhancers and is partly to blame for the mess that baseball is in right now.

Kuhn’s mantra was “integrity of the game.” That’s why he sought to distance it from gambling. For instance, he ordered some owners to divest their positions in Parvin /Dohrmann; a company that owned a few Las Vegas casinos. He even kept Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays out of baseball because of their PR jobs for casinos. His stance was almost puritanical by today’s standards. Nowadays, Foxwoods advertises heavily on baseball broadcasts in the Northeast and the Connecticut State Lottery sells Yankee and Red Sox themed scratch tickets.

Kuhn nixed Oakland’s fire sale in 1976 because it wasn’t in the best interest of the game. People can point to Connie Mack doing similar sales with Philadelphia A’s. They can also point to Harry Frazee’s player sales that rendered the Red Sox moribund until Tom Yawkey purchased them. Incidentally, the Buffalo Braves dumped Bob McAdoo to the Knicks not much later in a cash deal. NBA commish Larry O’Brien did not intervene.

Finally, Kuhn avoided the commercialization of the game that became widespread in later years. His was a time when the outfield walls weren’t as cluttered by advertising, although the Brut sign at Yankee Stadium shows up in many baseball cards of that era.

Rozelle was the best of this lot; especially for his employers—the NFL owners. The players, fans and cities didn’t fare as well under him. Football is a brutal game and many players suffered debilitating injuries. That’s a subject for another day. But it was Rozelle’s bête noir, Al Davis, who had a lot to do with increasing teams’ bottom lines. He showed them how to play cities off against each other.

I can’t see anything that would put O’Brien and Kennedy over Kuhn. Despite Kuhn’s warts, baseball and football prospered more than the NBA until David Stern arrived. Zeigler remains a cipher to me, but the NHL as a whole seemed shady. Part of this is because I’ve read much more about the business of baseball and football than I have of the other two sports.

Most of you are familiar with at least some literature on the business of baseball. For the other sports, I recommend Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport (Caravan Book) by Michael Oriard, America’s Game by Michael McCambridge, Searching for Bobby Orr by Stephen Brunt and The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam.

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