Kuhn, O'Malley changed the game

Kuhn, O'Malley changed the game

Bowie Kuhn was about to end his 15 years as Commissioner in 1984 when he invited me to his New York office for what amounted to an "exit" interview.

I can't help but remember those 90 minutes I spent with him. Oh, there had been numerous other sessions over the years, but none had as much impact on me as that one.

I expected Bowie to be bitter. After all, disgruntled owners were forcing him out of office. But instead of talking like a victim, Kuhn kept reminding me about his passion for baseball. Say what you want about Bowie Kuhn, but in the midst of the many storms he endured, he never compromised the game's integrity.

The first time I met Walter O'Malley was in 1958, when the Dodgers were playing in the Los Angeles Coliseum. To say I "met" Mr. O'Malley is an exaggeration. Let's just say I introduced myself to the baseball icon, and he acknowledged my presence.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Across the room were two veteran New York baseball writers. They just glared at O'Malley, muttering something about him being a villain, or public enemy No. 1 -- or something along those lines.

Kuhn and O'Malley will be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame on Sunday, and it amazes me that the storylines of their careers are so similar.

Both made enormous contributions to baseball but were also deeply involved in controversial decisions that cast a shadow over their careers.

Start with Kuhn.

Bud Selig, our current Commissioner, related an anecdote to me after Kuhn died in March 2007 that underscores Kuhn's tenure in baseball's top job.

Selig, then the young owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, was having lunch with Kuhn in New York in 1971. Selig said that Kuhn invited Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner, to join them.

"Bowie was getting ripped by everybody in the room," Selig said. "The NFL was having some of the same problems, but people were patting Rozelle on the back."

Selig was amazed. As he and Kuhn walked back to the office, he asked why Rozelle got a free pass.

Kuhn looked Selig straight in the eye and said, "Baseball is held to a higher standard. Don't ever forget that."

Selig said that Bowie felt the severe criticism was a compliment.

Kuhn was always knee-deep in strife during his tumultuous tenure, yet during those 15 years, attendance grew, from 23 million in 1968 to nearly 45 million in 1982. Revenues rose, from $163 million in 1975 to $624 million in 1984.

Controversy stalked him. He was the Commissioner during the first strike by the young players union, in 1972, and choreographed the first lockout by owners a year later. Five of baseball's eight work stoppages occurred during his tenure, including the disastrous players strike in 1981, which lasted 51 days.

Kuhn was at odds with several owners, including the Yankees' George Steinbrenner, the Padres' Ray Kroc and the A's Charles O. Finley. In fact, it was Finley, a maverick owner, who called Kuhn "the village idiot."

Kuhn's detractors said that he was often self-righteous, pompous and inconsistent in his decisions.

I believe most of his problems centered around the fact that baseball was undergoing historic and rapid changes -- such as the advent of free agency in 1976, which completely altered the game's salary structure. Most owners were not ready to accept much of this, and many took out their bitterness on Kuhn.

But the game was bigger than Bowie Kuhn, and nothing sums up his feelings better than something he said years ago:

"I believe in the Rip Van Winkle Theory -- that a man from 1910 must be able to wake up after being asleep for 70 years, walk into a ballpark and understand baseball perfectly!"

Fifty years ago this month, I was covering a Dodgers game in the Coliseum when I came face-to-face with O'Malley for the first time.

That the New York reporters almost snarled at him was understandable.

A villain?

I guess if you grew up with a passion for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field, the description fits.

But I don't think villains are elected to the Hall of Fame and receive the praise that O'Malley will receive from his son Peter and baseball officials during Sunday's induction ceremonies in Cooperstown.

O'Malley, who died in 1979 at the age of 75, was a visionary, a pioneer.

Yes, he packed up the Dodgers and moved them to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.

And yes, he could see enticing dollar signs by making inroads to the West Coast.

That is the most popular view when you mention O'Malley's name, but it should not be his legacy.

I believe Walter O'Malley deserves much of the credit for helping make baseball the great game it is today.

The Los Angeles franchise is one of the greatest in history. Branch Rickey established the pattern; O'Malley embellished it.

It was O'Malley, unable to get a new stadium in Brooklyn, who talked New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham into joining him on the West Coast, in San Francisco. That created a natural rivalry, with the teams fairly close together. Stoneham was almost ready to take his team from the Polo Grounds to Minneapolis before O'Malley convinced him otherwise.

St. Louis was the most western city in the Major Leagues before the Dodgers and Giants moved to California.

The Dodgers prospered in Hollywood, even at the cavernous Coliseum. Just one year after the move, they won the World Series, beating the Chicago White Sox in six games.

I ran across an old newspaper clipping the other day, with a picture of O'Malley proudly looking over an architect's drawing of the proposed Dodger Stadium.

The gem of a ballpark opened on April 10, 1962, and to this day, even with the 20-something new ballparks that have risen, Dodger Stadium is still one of the finest. For me, it remains near the top of my list.

And it was O'Malley who designed it, privately financed it and oversaw every detail of its operation.

For O'Malley, the only way was the Dodger Way. Dick Williams, a highly successful manager who'll also be inducted on Sunday, grew up in the Dodgers system. He loves to talk about how O'Malley's influence filtered down to the lowest Minor Leaguer.

O'Malley believed in stability. He was not a grass-roots baseball man per se, but he trusted people to do their jobs and called that the strength of any organization.

No one can knock the success of the Dodgers, and because of that success, the man who had much to do with it is going to the Hall of Fame.

And I'm certain if they were alive, Kuhn and O'Malley would be congratulating each other.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.