Sports Collectors Digest: Bowie Kuhn

By Marty Appel

The passing of former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn on March 15 leads me to devote this column to my work with him when I was honored to collaborate on his 1987 memoir, “Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner.”

I was the one who came up with the title “Hardball,” but as it wasn’t really his style of leadership, he came up with the second part, feeling it better explained his entry into hardball politics.

We worked long and hard on the book. We taped exactly 100 hours, much of which never made print, the book being quite long as it was, at 453 pages. Our first drafts were much longer – he felt the story of his demise and the backroom politics associated with it were so intriguing that they occupied half of the original text. The editor at Times Books, Jonathan Segal, felt differently, and that drama wound up as netting about 20% of the text.

This was my last book before computers entered our lives, and I typed the complete manuscript nearly four times on an IBM Selectric (I loved those). How much easier it would have been to exchange edits via email!

I had worked for the Commissioner in 1979-80 in the media relations department of his office; he liked me and selected me to work with him on the project, which began almost the very week he turned over the reigns of the office to Peter Ueberroth. It took us far too long to complete our task, due mostly to the meticulous research Kuhn required for nearly every paragraph of the book. Segal was losing patience more than once, for by 1987, Kuhn was risking being ‘old news.”

But we delivered a very important book. The profiles of the personalities and the background on the events of the time – he was Commissioner from 1969-1984 – are skillfully told by Kuhn. This was no “ghost-written” effort, he was very much hands on and his longhand writing on yellow legal pads were extensive. I kept him on course, asked the questions that needed to be asked, organized it, and fact checked. Occasionally he let my paragraphs stand on their own, but he was very much “hands on” in the writing process.

We learn of Gussie Busch, George Steinbrenner, Ted Turner, Charlie Finley, Bill Veeck, Calvin Griffith, Tom Yawkey, Walter O’Malley, Horace Stoneham, and Phil Wrigley, giants all of the game’s past. And of course, the labor battles with Marvin Miller, the innovations like night baseball in the World Series, the DH rule, modern marketing, and expansion all have their chapters.

Our work schedule was to have me interview him for full days on Friday and Saturday over the course of a year. The year expanded to nearly two. He was an attorney at Willkie Farr & Gallagher after he left the commissioner’s office (he really missed having a driver, he confessed), and they gave him Fridays off to work on the book because they felt it would benefit the firm.

We worked in the cluttered basement of his lavish home in Ridgewood, NJ, where the personal papers of his time in office had been shipped in cartons. Among the playthings on the large table that served as a desk was an authentic Bowie knife, named for his ancestor Jim Bowie, the western hero.

I would come prepared with a series of questions to cover the topics of the day, which I would forewarn him about. I asked the toughest questions I could think of, played a stern devil’s advocate. Sometimes I wondered how I had the nerve to ask the things I did, but it was a necessary exercise to write a fair book. (In the book’s acknowledgements, he called me his “drill sergeant, fount of knowledge and faithful critic”). Sometimes his memory was sharp, and other times my assignment was to track participants in particular events to get their memory of it. I got to call some of the legendary names in baseball history on this part of the assignment.

We tried to name everyone who was present at meetings and to quote people correctly. I was extremely proud that after the book was published, there was not a single review that cited any errors of fact. That had been a primary responsibility of mine, and on that, it appeared we succeeded. A lot of reviewers just didn’t like Kuhn, thought him to be a stuffed shirt who jumped at O’Malley’s command and tried too hard to preserve the reserve clause, but no reviewers took issue with the facts as presented.

I also handled the large photo section and its captions, which I took great pride in, deciding what belonged and what didn’t.

Our biggest disagreement came over the inclusion of his handling of Jim Bouton’s book “Ball Four”. He had felt that his reaction to it in 1970 – calling Bouton in to reprimand him – had helped turn the book into a best seller, and represented an error in judgment on his part. I argued that it was a very important moment in his tenure. He compromised by agreeing to a couple of paragraphs. He wasn’t going to sell any more books for Bouton. And after all, this was his book; he could do what he chose.

We would work from 9 in the morning until around 1, when his wife, the wonderful Luisa, would call from the top of the steps, “Bowie! Marty! Lunch!”

And we’d go to the kitchen where she had prepared lovely finger sandwiches and soup. We’d then work all afternoon, and “retire to the library for cocktails” after the day’s work, a practice I came to look forward to and enjoy.

Kuhn was brilliant. He reminded me of the kid who never missed a day of school and never forgot anything he learned. Over the months and months of work, he would quote Shakespeare, remember a Brahms composition, explain geometry or algebra, compare something to the Ming Dynasty and of course, sprout legal decisions up and down. I was overwhelmed by his knowledge, but he never made me feel inadequate with my humble collection of trivia, and sometimes I’d surprise him with a reference to the Teapot Dome scandal or some such historical mention.

He had a wonderful laugh and a great sense of irony, and when we talked about night baseball in October and I said, “But what about the fans at the ballpark?” his answer – two words – still leaves me laughing. To some he may have appeared to be a stuffed shirt, which can happen when you’re 6’5″, have a law degree, wear grey suits and talk in a deep bass, but he loved baseball, fought for its honor and integrity, respected its history, and moved the game into its modern, well-marketed era. He got great pleasure out of taking Satchel Paige’s calls to handle all sorts of favors, gently guiding Happy Chandler’s election to the Hall of Fame, out of hosting the 1969 centennial events, sitting with Jackie Robinson at the ’72 World Series, (days before Robinson passed away), going to Vietnam with Joe DiMaggio to visit troops, eating pizza with Bud Selig on the eve of the Brewers’ first World Series appearance, letting the fans vote for the All-Star teams, getting Negro League players into the Hall of fame, and sitting on the Dodgers bench in Vero Beach during a spring training game.

And he loved his first job in baseball, serving as the scoreboard boy in old Griffith Stadium, and then at the end of the game, “collecting all the unsold hot dogs so the Griffith family could take them home for dinner.”

Writing the book with him will always be one of the most important things I ever did in my career, and I was aware and appreciative of the honor of being selected to do it. I really liked the guy, and he really liked the game. Some may historically come to question his decisions, but he was motivated by the “best interests of baseball,” (which he often quoted), and by a basic sense of doing things right.

We kept in good email and phone touch over the years. My favorite email exchange came when I sent him the bulletin that Ted Williams body was to be frozen. He responded: “Good grief!”

He belongs in the Hall of Fame for his 16 seasons as commissioner and all the growth the game experienced under his watch. Today, Selig has 29 owners who bought into the economic system we now have in baseball. In Kuhn’s time, he had to deal with owners who went kicking and screaming into free agency. It was quite a challenge.