NEW YORK — Last weekend, when Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski and Red Schoendienst were inducted into the Hall of Fame, Bowie Kuhn, the former commissioner of baseball, attended a reception for some Hall of Famers in Cooperstown, N.Y.
There was a discussion of "Field of Dreams," the film fantasy about baseball. One of the longtime Hall of Fame members said that he hadn't cared for the movie. Kuhn asked him why and got a vague answer. Kuhn persisted, and finally the Hall of Famer said:
"Because it makes Shoeless Joe Jackson look like a hero."
Bowie Kent Kuhn hadn't been born when the Chicago White Sox became the Black Sox after eight of them were accused of conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series, a scheme that led to super-hitter Jackson's expulsion from baseball. But as a boy in the 1930s in Washington, D.C., the son of a German immigrant, Kuhn was a baseball fan extremely familiar with Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the federal judge who had become the first commissioner of baseball and had banned the Black Sox.
"Landis made a great impression on me," Kuhn said the other day. "He was very much admired in our household."
In 1969, Kuhn went from being a baseball attorney to baseball commissioner, the same job his idol, Landis, had held. Kuhn's tenure ended in 1987, and now, at 62, he is a partner in a large corporate law firm here.
With baseball's investigation of alleged gambling by Pete Rose prominent in recent months, some thoughts have gone back to Kuhn, the commissioner who:
--Suspended pitcher Denny McLain for gambling.
--Blocked Edward J. DeBartolo's attempted purchase of the White Sox because he owned race tracks.
--Told Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle that they couldn't work in baseball while they were employed by casinos.
Considering the Rose situation, was Kuhn a man ahead of his time? During an interview last week in his office on Manhattan's East Side, Kuhn sidestepped that label.
"The Rose matter just reinforces the need for baseball to always be on guard," Kuhn said. "Baseball would be naive if it thinks that it's not possible to fix games. But no matter what baseball does, I think we will see the time when some games are fixed. It's unavoidable."
Kuhn has seen the 225-page report on the Cincinnati Reds' manager that lawyer John Dowd prepared for commissioner Bart Giamatti.
"They've built a fairly impressive case," Kuhn said. "Now, Pete Rose has denied what's in there. I'd like to hear how he backs up those denials."
Since Kuhn, baseball has quickly had two commissioners--Peter Ueberroth, on the heels of his success as the financial wizard of the 1984 Olympics, and Giamatti, the former president of Yale who was president of the National League before succeeding Ueberroth and inheriting the Rose case.
Last weekend, Cooperstown, with Bench being inducted into the Hall of Fame, was filled by Cincinnati Reds fans, who didn't miss the chance to lobby Giamatti on behalf of Rose. From the street-front balcony of the Green Dragoon, a local pub, hung a neatly lettered, full-sized bed sheet that said:
HEY BART: SOMETHING JUST DOESN'T SEEM RIGHT. A, B OR C?
A--BUMP AN UMP
1 YEAR AND/OR LIFE
PROBATIONS & STANDING OVATIONS
When Giamatti was president of the National League, he suspended Rose for bumping an umpire during an argument.
If Rose is guilty of betting on baseball, including games involving his own team, he may have had a better chance for a lighter penalty had Ueberroth remained as commissioner. It was Ueberroth who rescinded Kuhn's ruling on Mays and Mantle, the Hall of Fame center fielders who had been prevented from working for ball clubs while they were working in public relations for casinos in Atlantic City.
"When Peter took over as commissioner, he and I had several talks," Kuhn said. "I had a hunch he was going in the other direction."
The day Ueberroth announced that Mays and Mantle were welcome back in baseball, he first called Kuhn, to tell his predecessor what was coming.
"Peter said that he expected me to think he was wrong," Kuhn said. "I told him that he was right--I did think he was wrong, and I would say so. He was sending out the wrong message as far as baseball was concerned."
In 1970, a grand jury found that McLain, who won 31 games in 1968, was involved in a bookmaking operation. "There was no baseball betting on McLain's part, but what he was doing was clearly illegal," Kuhn said. "And even worse, he was associating with a criminal element. By suspending him, I was insulating baseball against the ultimate sin--betting on baseball games."
On a shelf in Kuhn's office is a copy of "Strikeout," the book McLain wrote.
The decisions Kuhn made about DeBartolo, George Steinbrenner, Charlie Finley and the Bob Levy family were not as clear cut.
Steinbrenner, already the owner of the New York Yankees, bought a substantial interest in a race track in Tampa, Fla., without telling the commissioner.