Commissioner has quite an un-American ring to it, a medieval or even Bolshevik flavor—one thinks immediately of off-with-his-head—but ever since 1921, when Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was ordained commissioner (of baseball), the title and the men who assume it have become another fine orthodoxy of our American games. For a long time the leader of the National Basketball Association was designated "president," but since the term commissioner had become so utterly ingrained in the national consciousness, the title had to be formally changed in order to conform with the public misunderstanding.
The National Hockey League remains a semantic holdout in these affairs, but the man who is technically the NHL's "president and treasurer" is recognized by everyone else as its commissioner (as he will be here). Commissioners rule sports. Not just baseball and the National Football League and the NBA and the NHL, but college conferences, Roller Derbies and Little Leagues. For years men with nothing better to do wrote the headline: DOES BOXING NEED A COMMISSIONER? Nowadays, any shaky new professional league feels obliged to appoint a commissioner.
Actually commissioners are limited in what they can accomplish and are even more circumscribed by misconceptions of their roles. The wizened ghost of Judge Landis looms o'er all and diminishes, by heroic comparison, any achievement. Whether or not the Judge was as wise and as bold and as fearsome as his legend assures us, commissioners these days are raised up against that impossible standard.
There are parallels between the sports commissioners and the church. Just as archbishops tend to be more comfortable with the clergy than the laity, commissioners tend to be more at ease with team owners than with the sporting laity—the players and fans. And not surprisingly. Bowie Kuhn once was a league counsel, Pete Rozelle a team general manager, Walter Kennedy a former PR man and Clarence Campbell, of all things, a referee. They were elevated to their current positions by the owners and, quite naturally, come home to roost among them on most issues.
And not to be cynical, but archbishop and commissioner are not your high-turnover positions. Although it has been 53 years since the vocation cum sainthood was created for Judge Landis, only 13 men have served as commissioners of the four major leagues. The time when well-known generals and politicians could be selected to preside amiably over a national pastime is gone.
In the future relative unknowns like Kuhn will be chosen to head up a sport, to give it the peak years of their professional lives as they try to untie Gordian knots in public for large amounts of money and abuse.
Probably never again will we have commissioners as time-tested, if not exactly as venerable, as the current four. Kuhn, five years in office, is way junior among these survivors; Kennedy has lasted 11 years, Rozelle 14, Campbell 28. Now quickly, before the colors fade, before Kennedy and Campbell are replaced by passing functionaries, it is worth meeting them and learning how they perceive their jobs and, after a fashion, themselves. It will never again be this way with commissioners.
The offices of the National Hockey League, alone among the big four, are located outside Manhattan. They are in Montreal in Suite 920 of the Sun Life Building, a cold marble edifice on Dominion Square, where the NHL has made its headquarters since 1933. Clarence Campbell came there in 1946, returning from the war, a 41-year-old bachelor, and took over the six-team league.
The NHL offices are lively and cluttered in a way none of the commissioners' quarters in New York are. They are rather like a clubhouse. The reception room has a round white rug inlaid with the orange-and-black league shield, and on the wall behind the receptionist are shields of all the teams, arranged by division. The reading material for visitors consists almost entirely of copies of Hockey News, plus the odd SPORTS ILLUSTRATED or Sport that featured a hockey cover.
"I think it would be a total repudiation of the game if they shifted the office to New York," Campbell says. He is a lean six feet, the only one of the commissioners with a rugged aspect. He does not mind his Christian name. "When I got it, the Prince of Wales had it too," he says. (How do we account for the fact that our four sports commissioners are named Clarence, Alvin, Walter and Bowie?) Clarence wears pleated blue suit pants, a plain white shirt and a blue-black regimental stripe tie with a pearl tie tack. His clear blue eyes have the appearance of binoculars, accented as they are by dark eyebrows under white swept-back hair. He has his glasses off and is twirling them as he talks in an even voice:
"If I hadn't gotten out of college when times were so bad, I'm sure I never would have gotten here. The rest of my class had the benefit of three years of prosperity before the Depression. I didn't because you see I took this scholarship and...."
Would this scholarship be a Rhodes?
"Yes, it would. I came back from Oxford at 24 with four degrees, but the best job I could get was $75 a month. But I got a job refereeing in Alberta at $5 a game. Pretty good. Yes sir, pretty good for a fellow making $75 a month. You see, I wasn't ever much good at hockey, but I was good enough to play European hockey. I was the captain at Oxford two years, and when we got knocked out in this tournament in Switzerland, they needed someone to referee and invited me to. It was purely on an ad hoc basis, no rewards. But they gave me an enormous bundle of roses—for Chris-sake, there must have been 50. For doing a fine job—so they said, anyway.
"When I finally got into refereeing in the NHL, it was great because I was still practicing law, and this was a real door opener. Being a referee has been enormously valuable to me here. As a referee, you condition yourself to accept criticism. You learn to live in an atmosphere of hostility. As a commissioner, you're almost like an official. From the start everything is against you, and you better understand that. The owners are enormously jealous of your power. I'm always fighting one or the other of them, but that's O.K. so long as you're not fighting the same guy constantly.
"My time in the Army affected me, too. If you want to run a really effective operation, you can't have more than three echelons of staff. We have 13 people, and everybody must learn his boss' job. Mrs. Turriff, my secretary, Mrs. Hilda Turriff, she could run this league for two years and nobody would know I was gone. She's been here 19 years and never missed half a day. I married my first secretary after nine years. I learned to appreciate her values as well as her shortcomings.
"I went into the war as a private at 34 years old. After it was over, I stayed in to help with the war trials. Now please, don't say I was at N√ºrnberg. There were other trials. I was never near that damn place. It was while I was still over there that I first started to hear from Red Dutton, who was running the league then, about being his assistant. Well, we finally worked it out and I came in the Tuesday morning after Labor Day. Yes, '46.
"When Red got to the office, we hardly had time to shake hands before we had to go to the Windsor Hotel for a league meeting. As we were walking out of here across Dominion Square, Red turned and said, 'By the way, when we get over there, I'm going to resign and recommend you for president of the league.' That was the first I heard of it, or anybody did for that matter. So they voted on it and raised my salary from $7,500 to $10,000, and put me in charge.
"Since I was over 40 and it seemed about the last chance I'd have to start something new, I asked for two years' income guaranteed, which would enable me to have the time to rehabilitate myself at something else if they let me go. I'm pretty adaptable. I'm pragmatic. There's nothing romantic about me."
Campbell's office is much the smallest among his peers. It is a simple, unpretentious place, as might be expected of a commissioner who never even had his own living quarters until he married Phyllis King in '55; he just roomed with a family up in Mount Royal. His office walls are splattered with pictures of odd shapes and subjects. Campbell has two desks joined in an L, and each is covered with litter. On his No. 1 desk he has a stack of reading material almost two feet high.
"Since 1967," he says, "I've also kept an office in my apartment, which is about a mile from here; nearly all the day-to-day business is done on the telephone anyway. Our paper is primarily confirmatory, so I can do a lot at home. I'm not much of a holiday guy. My idea of a vacation is just to get anywhere away from the telephone. The last three years have practically knocked me out. The litigation. Why, litigation takes up 75% of my time. Seventy-five percent! Seldom do any of us get out of here before 11. But this job is my hobby. A lot of people think I'm a queer for working the way I do, but the greatest single factor in my life has always been the work ethic. I never remember being inactive.
"There is no way anyone can train for this job. The next commissioner must be a lawyer, or he must have permanent counsel in the office. You're like a judge, setting precedents. It is essential to make clear rulings. It is an enormous advantage to have been trained as a lawyer. I never had any doubt, either, that I wanted to be a lawyer. I had no formal teaching from grade nine through 12—just help from the principal. This was in Saskatchewan. But I had an excellent childhood, excellent. If you live in a small town, as I did, you are the center of everything if you can do things well.
"Yes, everyone wants to hear about the Maurice Richard suspension [in 1955]. This was after he had the fight in Boston, but it is important to remember that I had warned him after an almost identical incident in Toronto three weeks prior. I warned him I would suspend him if it ever happened again. He had been making a profit out of every fine I laid on him. If I fined him $250, he'd get $2,500 [in donations]. You could not tolerate this frustration of league authority. And the violence in the league then had reached an alarming stage.
"The blood had to stop. I'd drive to games with the owners, and they were petrified at what might happen on the ice, but they were frightened that I would monkey with a good product.
"Now, there was a precedent for not carrying a suspension into the playoffs, for starting it up again the next regular season. I thought that was a helluva poor decision, and I haven't changed my mind to this day. It had to be all or nothing. You've got to remember that this coincided with an enormous sociological upheaval. It was just the beginning of the French movement, and the only man in Quebec better known than Richard was the Prime Minister.
"But, no, I wasn't scared. It never occurred to me not to go to the game the night after I suspended him. I took the lady who is now my wife and her sister and another girl. There was a mob assembled out front of The Forum, but we walked the gauntlet. You see, they were taken as much by surprise by me as I was by them. It reminded me of once, years before, when I refereed a game in Trail, B.C. We were coming out of the Fruit Show Building in the Italian end, and the fans were mad at some of my decisions and waiting for me. Another official, Pat McIntyre, said, 'I'll take your bag and you take the scabbards off your skates.' And I did. Carried one in each hand. It was pretty much the same feeling this time going into The Forum.
"But inside I didn't feel so secure. They were throwing things. Vegetables—ripe vegetables. Some bottles smashed in front of me, and then I knew I was in trouble. I suggested the girls go, and they did, except my wife—the lady who was to become my wife. The crescendo of hostility rose, and then between periods this fellow conned the ushers and came up to me. I wasn't sure about him so when he offered his hand, I grabbed it firmly, which surprised him, and when he swung at me it didn't even knock off my hat, although it did shake it a little. And then I pushed him away with my foot. I had the advantage of a better angle.
"It's funny but until I made that decision I was never really acknowledged as the head of the NHL. Still, I've never aspired to be Landis or anything of that sort. I've taken the attitude that I was an executive director of the enterprise.
"There've been so many fortuitous developments in my career, and the fact that I never had any children—well, they would have delimited so many of the other satisfying experiences I have had. Before there was so damn much work here, I was president of my club, head of a hospital. I was pretty good at curling. And I had an eight handicap in golf for five years. Now I do see the Expos fairly regularly, and I still get to read some. I like historical books. I only watch TV once in a while; I haven't seen a movie in five or six years. And I've had all these operations. The hole in my stomach was cured right away when we found out what was responsible—aspirin. I would get tired and use aspirin as a juice pill, and it burned the hole. Two years ago I had a gallbladder and a bladder operation, and, as residual of that, bronchitis. I'm 175 now, but I've been as high as 210. I have to keep a protein diet, but I'm not fussy. I never leave anything on my plate. For drinking, I'm a vodka man.
"For sleeping, I'm always in the raw. I used to have to own some pajamas because we traveled by train in the league then and you had to have something to wear on the trains, but since we stopped going on trains, hell, I don't even know if I have any pajamas left."
The National Football League occupies two floors at a Park Avenue address. Commissioner Alvin (Pete) Rozelle's NFL Properties is on the 12th floor, while on the 13th—so numbered—Rozelle shares space with his NFL Films. The reception area is stark and forbidding, with nothing remotely suggesting sports. It looks more like a high-interest loan office. The receptionist is sequestered behind a three-foot wall, which is topped by another three or four feet of glass (presumably bulletproof), and her major duty is to electronically unlock the doors to the NFL and NFL Films for approved visitors.
There is no reading material in the stockade, just a lone long sofa and a potted palm, and constant dialogue on the same theme as the elevators disgorge passengers at this vault-office: "Wait. I have to buzz you in." "Will you buzz me?" "Can you buzz me in there?" "No, I can't buzz you in Films. I can only buzz you in my door or on the other side." And so on.
Not even Commissioner Rozelle can enter without being recognized and buzzed. He then passes through another reception area, this one roomier and friendlier, but lying fallow since no one can reach it. Rozelle's own office is simply huge, much the largest among the commissioners, but utterly unremarkable. "I haven't done a lot with it," he admits, although he has been here since 1968. There are a desk, a couple of personal photographs, just the right amount of tasteful, comfortable furniture, one small table statue of a football player and nothing else. The walls are stained dark, the rug light. There is not a single picture on the walls, no ornamentation at all. There is nothing in this place where Pete Rozelle spends much of his life to reveal anything about him—who he is or what he does.
"When I became commissioner in 1960," he says, "the offices were located in Philadelphia. They weren't even in Philadelphia, but in a suburb—Bala-Cynwyd. We had four full-time employees and an elderly Kelly Girl. I didn't know what the hell I was doing—I was only 33—but I thought we better move to New York. One of the older employees told me that wouldn't be very wise, since if I stayed in Bala-Cynwyd I wouldn't get bothered like I would in New York, but I figured it was better to be bothered.
"Now we have 40 full-time employees in this section, plus the people in our liaison office, Films and Properties. In the beginning I used to go to all 12 training camps, but now I don't even get to all 26 cities in a year. And that's good. You can waste too much time traveling. I travel more in the season, showing the flag. Curiously, that's the most placid time of the year. Our people are too busy to get into trouble then. You think back, almost all the controversial things have happened out of season. Well, yes, playing games that Sunday after President Kennedy died, that was in season. But I don't think of that as controversy, just distasteful.
"I'll tell you a story about that. Some people think I'm Italian—that you pronounce the e, Ro-zel-li—just the way some people feel they should address me as Peter, although that's not my name. I was christened Alvin, but I had an uncle who was nice enough to start calling me Pete. Anyway, Ben Scotti, who used to play for the Redskins and Eagles, told me recently that he had punched a teammate out on the Kennedy Sunday who had said something like "that goddamn Dago" because he thought I was Italian. Scotti took exception to the remark because he is Italian. He was not exactly defending me.
"Actually, Rozelle is French Huguenot. We got out and came to New Orleans and then went up the Mississippi and finally migrated to Southern California around the turn of the century. When I got the Ram PR job after I got out of the University of San Francisco, I thought that would be it for me. I had wanted to be a writer before that and I had been a high school stringer for the [Los Angeles] Times. I remember thinking the greatest job in the world was one held by a guy named John de la Vega. He covered high school and junior college sports for the Times. That was the job I had really wanted, John de la Vega's.
"It's funny how timing works. I was always in the right place. I left the Ram job to go into a PR firm, and that matured me. I never would have gotten the Ram general manager's job if I had stayed on with them as a publicity man, and then, of course, I wouldn't have gotten this job. I only got this because I was so young I hadn't had time to alienate anybody.
"Seven clubs wanted Marshall Leahy of San Francisco, but there was another bloc dead set against him because he wanted to move the office to the West Coast. Well, the owners started to feel the pressure. They were down there in Florida for 10 days and couldn't reach a decision. The newspapers were on them. So Tim Mara and Paul Brown came to me. It happened quickly and was a total shock to me. I hardly knew some of the owners before this except to talk to on the phone, and I'd been quiet the 10 days. So they decided let's pick somebody, and that will give us time to look around if he doesn't work out.
"My being so young helped. People were more willing to give me a chance. And Bert Bell had such stature that nobody was expecting much from me. So people were tolerant. Different possibilities have come up for me since then, but there's nothing else I want to do. I made up my mind before I signed a 10-year contract last February."
So this is your life's work?
"I never thought of it quite that way before, but yes." Rozelle is now 48, but age has been kind to him. He has filled out some to 185 (at 6'2") and, although he certainly could not be called a handsome man, his face has rounded out and he no longer has a long, homely, austere visage. He is the only one of the four commissioners to talk really well, to know how to use inflection, and he also has much the best taste and frame for clothes: snappy blazer, striped shirt, bright tie with kidney designs, shoes by Gucci, matching belt for his tan doubleknit slacks.
His early professional success was marred by an unhappy marriage, now concluded, and he remarried last December (to Jack Kent Cooke's former daughter-in-law), a union that has taken him from the city to a Westchester County, suburb and brought four children into an apartment life he used to share with his one teen-age daughter.
He lights another of the four dozen Vantage cigarettes he smokes a day, and says, "The main frustrations are caused by internal problems. What gets publicized is the litigation, Congressional debate, a World Football League, when in fact most of your real problems are among the league clubs. That's why I feel so strongly about each of our teams having a 51% owner. I came from a situation with the Rams that didn't have that, and that's what's given me so much grief here. You may not get the greatest owner in the world, but if you have just one man to deal with you eliminate a lot of problems for yourself.
"The main job with owners is counseling them, educating them. We get 85 daily papers in this office plus magazines. We've got kids from high school as clippers and we're going into microfilm. This was important in getting the owners to accept this season's rules changes. We could show them clips revealing a general agitation for change.
"You just can't control things. I wouldn't want to see Judge Landis discredited, but that was a period of reform and he was able to act arbitrarily. Bowie would have no shot at that kind of behavior. None of us would. Litigation has become a way of life for me. It's an unpleasant way of life, but I'm inured to it now. We've had up to 20 antitrust suits thrown at us at one time; at present we're down to 12 or 13. We get 'em all the time. I was very uptight when the AFL sued us for $10 million in 1962. It seemed like such a large amount of money. Now I just ask my attorneys when I have to give my next deposition.
"Being a lawyer is not requisite for this job. The first thing is to have a feel for sports, because sports is a unique business. The worst thing is the loss of privacy, but you just can't appreciate that until you're in a position where you're losing it. My daughter was funny about that. She was a clever little kid and she used to tease me about Joe Foss. She'd say, 'I don't think Joe Foss would have said that. I don't think Joe Foss would do that to me, Daddy.'
"Now the kids are after me to stop smoking. I may make another try after the player negotiations. But Carrie, my wife, says that I'll always have something to try it after. The last time I went three weeks, but I broke down on a cross-country flight when I was sitting alone having a drink. That's when you miss a cigarette the most, with a drink. I drink Scotch.
"I like variety in foods. Big steaks frighten me. For lunch, for instance, I like creamed chipped beef on toast. Really. I read the papers and newsmagazines, but my time to read is limited. I try to get to a few bestsellers. I don't see that many movies or much TV either. I do see an occasional game, baseball or something, and I've always liked track and field.
"I split my vacation, a week in the winter, then maybe one before the training camps. I love to sneak off to the Bahamas for some fishing—bonefish, marlin. I'm playing tennis again, too. I was on the team in high school and tried to take it up again, but that was just before the merger and I had to give up. Implementing that merger was the most difficult thing I've had to do. But I started up with tennis again recently and I met my wife playing it out on the Coast.
"Sometimes I do sleep in the nude but, you know, with all these new kids around the house I'm usually at least in my bottoms. Mostly in my pajama bottoms, I would say."
The offices of the National Basketball Association are cheek by jowl with Madison Square Garden, which more or less gave birth to the league. The NBA reception area is neo-jazzy, with six swivel chairs affixed in a circle on a wine-red doughnut rug, under the glare of a huge multiple-exposure action photograph. Visitors who wish to browse while waiting are able to thumb through bound copies of Basketball Weekly.
Down the hall is Commissioner Walter Kennedy's office. In size, only Rozelle's is larger; in terms of attractiveness, Kennedy's is much the most stylish. Good taste abounds—although a Man-of-the-Year plaque, a gushy Red Smith column and a panegyric by Senator Abraham Ribicoff from the Congressional Record form a little nest on one wall. Otherwise, each item blends in comfortable, friendly dignity.
"In the summer of '63, just before I took over," Commissioner Kennedy says, "I visited Haskell Cohen in the NBA office in the Empire State Building. I thought he had a pretty rotten office considering he was the publicity director for the league. I saw a portrait of an elderly gentleman and asked Haskell who that was. He said it was Maurice Podoloff's father. Maurice was still the commissioner, of course. I said, "Haskell, why in the world is Podoloff's father's picture in your office?"
"He said, 'Walter, this isn't my office. This is the commissioner's office.' I moved the NBA out of there right away. This is the third place we've been since. We had three people when I came in and have 16 now. The job has changed just as much as the office. This is not the job I took 11 years ago. I may be the last of my breed to achieve the level of commissioner in any sport.
"In fact, in the future, I think commissioners are going to be superseded by the courts of law. In the last four years 25 to 30% of my time has been spent on litigation, while in the beginning, weeks could go by without anything like that coming up.
"I was a man for my time. I came in and wanted to be the architect of the expansion program and wanted to develop a television program, and I've done both, so I'm ready to go. I've worked too hard too long to just turn it off, and I'm still too young to retire, but I'm going to retire from this position. I gave them two years to find my successor because, historically, you know, the NBA owners can't agree the sun is shining.
"If I could tell my successor one thing it would be: don't vacillate. Vacillate and you're dead. He'd better understand, too, that it's a totally thankless job, and maybe with a young man that would be disturbing day-in and day-out. Even a dog who bites and bristles wants some patting, but it's a rare day when I get any expression from an owner saying I did a good job. I accepted this long ago; I know it's not a personal thing. I've been very pleased with the owners" treatment of me. But a guy coming into this from a more normal business will be confused.
"These men, the owners, are not used to having someone tell them no. They've all been successes in other businesses, and they think they're right. I remember one time I hung up the phone, and it dawned on me that I had just said no to Jack Kent Cooke, and maybe it had been years since anyone had said no to Jack Kent Cooke. Oh, he was outraged.
"Your owners are different now. Some of them have an odd attitude, and the minute a single one fails to honor his constitutional pledges, then you're on the brink of disaster. Well, it's happening now, and that's not the kind of professional sports I was raised in, that I respected, the kind that led me into accepting this job. The other problems I can deal with. I'm good at persuasion, I have a listening ear, I negotiate well. But I can't deal with these new attitudes.
"I remember when the owners gave me unprecedented authority, which, incidentally, is not a lot of bull. I said, 'Gentlemen, I don't want to be God, I just want the authority to run an orderly organization.' Wayne Duddlesten of Houston, who was new at the time, came up afterward and said, 'Walter, you must be God here, or we'll lose the whole thing.' There's no way you can run a league like Landis did. No way. Still, you must have the total authority."
Like the other three commissioners and the owners and many others in the sports business, Walter Kennedy is a failed jock, both jealous and admiring of the few athletes who have succeeded. Unlike the others, however, he had a very good excuse for not succeeding: infantile paralysis. It may seem almost masochistic the way he has chosen to hang around the biggest and strongest all his life. He has always had a limp. Also, alone among the commissioners, he is a short man and not at all physically prepossessing. He speaks in a raspy voice, and when he tries to supply emphasis, it too often sounds like petulance or anxiety instead.
But Kennedy is persevering and, in fact, prospered in another venue that would seem to have been no more apt for him than athletics—politics. Had the NBA offer not come along, he likely would have gone on from the mayor's office in Stamford, Conn. to try for Congress, and if that act had played out, he would have run against Lowell Weicker Jr. for the Senate in 1970. Kennedy dresses conservatively, save for the fact that he wears his belt buckle well to the side of his suit pants. This day he has on a blue button-down shirt, a blue regimental stripe tie. At 61, he is very near bald.
"I only have one kidney, so I've had to learn not to push myself," he says. "I had a kidney removed 25 years ago, but I've lived a normal life. I had good training. My parents, my mother particularly, treated me in a normal way, or maybe it is fairer to say in an abnormal way, because they refused to let me be spoiled because I was handicapped. I had the polio as a baby and I was getting claw-toed. If the operation—and it was a very rare and hazardous operation in those days—if it hadn't been successful, I wouldn't have been able to walk.
"But I never looked upon myself as having a quote, crippled leg, unquote. My right foot is smaller than my left, and my right leg from the knee down is thinner. But this is funny, it was just this morning my wife—and we've been married 34 years and we knew each other back in high school—she said, 'You know, I have to stop and think every now and then to remember which leg you have the problem with. Of course as a kid I was always the last guy picked when we played games. I was the team manager in high school, the scorekeeper and then I got a job writing sports for the Stamford Advocate. And from there I went to Notre Dame. Everybody knew about Notre Dame and the famous Army football game. I was a Catholic too, and all Catholics gravitated toward Notre Dame.
"I was the PR man for the NBA when it first started. Then in 1962 Walter Brown approached me about the commissioner's job but I turned him down because of my commitments to Stamford. I came home that night and told my wife, 'Marion, I've just blown the chance of a lifetime.' The next year they came back to me, and I was free to accept, so I went down to Washington to talk about it with Abe Ribicoff. The whole Connecticut congressional delegation was at his house, and Tom Dodd said, 'Don't leave politics, Walter. That's the trouble. Too many good people in politics leave to take over some damn refrigerator company.' And I said, 'This is no refrigerator company. This is the National Basketball Association, and I think I've been training for this job all my life without ever knowing it.' So I went back to New York and told them I would take the job.
"That January at my first All-Star game in Boston I met with the players' representatives at the Copley Plaza Hotel. Fred Zollner was there representing the owners. The players had been working on a pension plan for several years, but the owners had given them short shrift. But finally I had worked one out, and we signed an agreement that morning to get on with it.
"I was just delighted. Around 5 o'clock I was taking a shower, humming away. What a day! I'd accomplished a great objective. I was so pleased. My wife knocked and said that there were four or five players outside. I came out with a towel around me, dripping wet. I figured they wanted tickets. Instead, they just stood there in the hall and advised me that unless each of the owners appeared in the locker room to sign the agreement, the game was off. I was flabbergasted. I had signed the agreement for the owners. Several of the owners had left town and even had they wanted to return they could not since a blizzard was howling outside.
"When I got to the dressing room, I found a hostile group of athletes. I told them that I knew they had been kicked around by the owners over the pension, but I pleaded with them not to let the sins of the past be heaped on my shoulders. Then they asked me to leave and they voted, and they called me back and told me they were going to strike. Oh, what that meant. We had no national TV at that time, and I had created an independent network for this one game. This was our showcase.
"Now I almost had tears in my eyes. This was a new job, I wanted to do well, I thought I had and now it was going up in flames. Rather than talk anymore—I had probably overtalked—I just told them that my integrity was at stake, and I pleaded with them once more to trust me until I gave them reason to do otherwise. They sent me out and voted again and decided they would play.
"There has never been anything like that since then. Still, I'm sick of living out of suitcases and running after planes. I'm tired of always having to be somewhere at a given time. We'll keep our home in Stamford. Our daughter still lives with us, but even if it's too big for us, we love our home. It's in a neighborhood where we were both brought up. I just don't think we're condominium people.
"I vacation at home. The grandchildren come over, and I love to swim. We have a swimming pool, 40 by 22. And I'll read almost anything. I guess I like mysteries the most, but we belong to the Book of the Month Club, and we'll get 15 to 20 a year. I love to watch television, too. And I'm easily satisfied by whatever's on, to the complete exasperation of my wife.
"I go to a lot of games, to baseball and football. I told you, I'm a great sports fan. I also collect these Hummel figures, those little German figurines. I've got quite a collection. I don't drink much because of the kidney, but I love a daiquiri or two on occasion, and my wife and I have picked out our favorite spots for those.
"I've always been an early-to-bedder—11/11:30. I sleep in pajamas most of the year, but in the summer, when it's hot, then I sleep in the nude."
The offices of what is known as Organized Baseball take up the 16th floor of the Warner Building in Rockefeller Center, a site almost equidistant from NBC, CBS, the Rockettes and St. Patrick's Cathedral. Baseball is supposed to be as American as apple pie and all that, and its reception area appears to have been designed by someone who originally had the contract on the Bicentennial, back when we still had a Bicentennial. The entrance hall is bright white, outlined in red and blue, with green theater seats and a pretty black receptionist. Holiday and FORTUNE, for some reason, are the only reading available.
Huge arty action photographs line the corridors, including the one that leads to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's office. Of all the commissioners' offices, his most bespeaks the sport he heads. There is a cluster of autographed baseballs on his desk, and on the shelves lining the wall opposite are other diamond mementos, including a first issue of baseball stamps, a photograph of President Nixon throwing out a first ball, books and an original Peanuts strip.
As his office suggests, Kuhn is parochial in his sports outlook. The other commissioners seem to think more in terms of sports in general while Kuhn focuses on baseball. Kuhn also does not seem as much at ease as the other men, who have been at the job longer. They have learned to parry and turn small talk into a negotiable currency known as quotes. But Kuhn is still playing the lawyers' game, an entirely different one, in which responses are to the point and no additional information is volunteered.
"No, I haven't been surprised at anything," he says, monkeying with a loose screw in his eyeglasses. "But the problems have been more frequent than in the past. Why? Some of that is the luck of the draw, I guess, but some of it is because I see the commissioner as more of an activist than did my predecessors because baseball has never before faced so much competition.
"I have several things to deal with that the other commissioners don't have. There are the minor leagues—139 teams. They have their own president, but their structure relates to this office. We have the long history of two highly competitive separate leagues, which is great for baseball but tough on the commissioner. Then we have a very strong players' union. Marvin Miller is a very able man. The fact that other sports are beginning to catch up with baseball in this regard is no consolation.
"I'm out of town 50% of the time. On the average I spend a day or two each week in Washington. Oh, I visit the FCC or talk to Congressmen and Senators about things like the threat that legalized gambling poses to team sports. It so happens that our outside law firm is in Washington, but that isn't the reason I'm down there so much. I've brought a general counsel into this office for the first time, and legal problems fall largely to me.
"From my earliest recollection I wanted to be a lawyer. It is very unusual for a young kid to want to be a lawyer, but I did. My father was in the oil business. He was an immigrant, came over from Germany as an infant. The name is pronounced "coon" in German, but I hear all sorts of things. I would have loved to have become a baseball player, but I couldn't hit or field or throw or run.
"The Red Auerbach story? Sure. Oh, I couldn't pitch either. You might want to get that in, too. Auerbach was the basketball coach. This was my second year at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington. He passed me in the hall. I'm 6'5", and so he asked why I wasn't out for the team, and I said that I wasn't a good basketball player. So he said, 'Let me be the judge of that.' So I came out, and after a few days he said, 'You were right,' and cut me."
Kuhn is not only a big man but of impressive demeanor; he looks like a commissioner. He dresses well, without affectation: dark blue suit and striped shirt, with an old-gold tie and a tie clip. He changed his glasses to the more fashionable metal-rim variety after a fan, a dentist in North Carolina, wrote to Mrs. Kuhn suggesting the new model. The commissioner is blue-eyed, has thinning brown hair brushed back, with white sideburns that fluff out. He must have good ears, since a radio in his office plays music at a subliminal level.
Tall men are used to being more visible; perhaps that made Kuhn's adjustment to becoming a public figure easier. "Being commissioner is a caldron activity," he says, "but I was a trial lawyer, I was used to the public, to a courtroom, to pressure. I knew I was going to get a lot of heat. I'd be a damned fool if I'd taken the job without expecting that. But commissioners hold the most prestigious offices in sport, and we are certainly well remunerated for our services.
"I'd worked with baseball for a long time, too. See that picture, that man back there? His name is Lou Carroll. When I got out of law school in 1950, I was considering going with several firms, but I went with his because it represented the National League. Why? Because I was nuts about baseball, that's why. I got my first baseball assignment after a couple of months and thereafter did a fair amount of baseball work annually. I think you need someone involved in the game for this job. I knew how the sport worked. But more important, I knew the people. You must know the people.
"The people in baseball are more traditional. I don't mean just the owners, I mean the fans, everybody. The operators merely reflect the conservative nature of the fans, their conservative side. You can change rules drastically in football and basketball and hardly get a ripple. In baseball, change a rule and, well, you'll get a lot more than a ripple.
"The powers of the commissioner himself are very little changed from the times of Landis. The change is in the times, in the laws. Two areas are especially different. There is an outside arbitrator now to deal with players' complaints. That is a beneficial change, very healthy. But then, the present-day commissioner has more responsibilities than the Judge in matters outside the teams and the players—with broadcasting, for example.
"The Judge was superb for pre-war days, but his style wouldn't be practical now. And you must take the Judge by parts. He didn't necessarily rule all phases with dictatorial power. In matters of discipline, yes, he was an autocrat. He had no concern with fair play, with due process. But out of the area of discipline, he was in the same boat as the rest of us. There were a lot of things he wanted, like some farm-club legislation, that he had a terribly hard time getting.
"When I was offered the job—yeah, I had been felt out earlier, not officially. Then later we were all meeting in Miami Beach, and they sent a committee to see me and said they were satisfied the votes were there—would I take the job if it were offered? I asked them to give me some time to make up my mind and thought about it for an hour or so. Well, it meant giving up the practice of law, and the fact that it was only a one-year term, not seven, that was also what you would call a negative consideration.
"The job hasn't worn me down any more than if I was a lawyer. I certainly don't think it has changed me. Well, the kids have had to get used to other kids saying, why did your dad do this or that. We've got two still at home, 13 and 14, and two are in college. I have to work my job around them. I don't take a vacation as such. I take the whole family down to Florida each spring during school vacations. And I arrange my travel schedule to be home the maximum. For instance, if I have to go to Houston, I'll go out in the morning, have a meeting in the middle of the day and be back for dinner at home. Even if I have to go to the Coast, I'll go out late the night before and come back on the red-eye special so I can have breakfast with my family.
"Then we have a home on the Long Island beach, and I try to get a lot of weekends out there. I play a little tennis, shoot some golf. Oh, I'm terrible: a hundred or more. Yes, I am a rabid gardener—flowers and vegetables. We have a garden at home and a garden at the seashore, and I'm the gardener. And that's a lovely time to contemplate.
"I drive myself to work, the mornings I come in to the office. We live in New Jersey, and on a typical day I'll get up at six and work a couple hours at my desk at home first.
"I'm not much of a TV buff, but I do watch a lot of baseball on TV, and I'm especially partial to the comic old movies of the '30s—Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers. And I enjoy the opera. You're quite apt to find me at the Met. Yes, I like to read. History and biography are my favorites. I don't drink anything special. Well, all right, if I have a drink before dinner, it'll be a martini; after dinner, a Scotch and soda."
Commissioner Kuhn says that it's nobody's business what his bed fashions are. Neither does history tell us what Judge Landis slept in.
From left to right: Football's Alvin Rozelle, Basketball's Walter Kennedy, Hockey's Clarence Campbell and Baseball's Bowie Kuhn.
Commissioner Campbell wooed and wed his first secretary.
Commissioner Rozelle often is served creamed chipped beef.
Commissioner Kennedy was a politician from the start.
Commissioner Kuhn gets worries off his chest in garden.