Former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn presided over one of the most turbulent eras in the sport's history.
He became known as a “commissioner's commissioner” for exercising the power of his office during his 1969-1984 tenure. Kuhn, a descendant of pioneer Jim Bowie, also takes a hard line when it comes to matters of faith.
Kuhn spoke to Register correspondent Patrick Novecosky about growing up Catholic, baseball and one of his current projects — the Ave Maria List.
You grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. Was your family Catholic?
My mother was a very serious Catholic, and her heritage went back to the Catholic founding of Maryland. Her English family was among those who fled England to get away from the persecution of the Stuarts at the time. They left in 1634. That whole strain of Catholics who came from England, Scotland and Wales — those are my origins on my mother's side.
Was faith an important aspect of your life as a youngster?
My mother and I always said the “goodnight prayers” together. We went to church regularly on Sunday, received Communion and went to confession. It struck me that both of my grandmothers always said the rosary. The same is true of my mother. She prayed the rosary with great regularity. It was impressive to me and had a big impact on me spiritually.
When I went to Sunday school for the first time, a wonderful black-hooded nun asked me what my name was and I told her my name was Bowie, and she discharged me from the class forthwith. She didn't believe me and, if indeed that were my name, she was confident there was something strange about having a Catholic kid named Bowie. She literally threw me out of the class. I didn't know I had any other name.
There I was, a 5-year-old kid, but there I was trudging home wondering what my name was. When I reported all of this to my mother, she came as close to hitting the roof as she ever did. So, I had to come back with my enraged mother to explain that I had been christened George Bowie Kent Kuhn. From there on, sister permitted me back into the classroom and called me “George,” to which I paid no attention.
What led to your love of baseball?
When I was a little kid, my mother took me to a Washington Senators baseball game. I grew to love it. When I was older, there was a slightly older teen-ager in my neighborhood who ran the score-board for the Senators. I got talking to him about it and it sounded pretty good to me. So, when he went to college, I went down to Griffith Stadium and said, “I'd like to be the new scoreboard boy.” I got the job. So, for about three years, I was the scoreboard boy for the Washington Senators.
I got there an hour before the game and batting practice would be on. I sat at the base of the score-board in right-center field and there was Joe DiMaggio shagging balls right in front of me. Occasionally, a ball got past him and I'd pick it up and throw it to him. This was big stuff. Or maybe Lou Gehrig was running around the outfield getting some exercise, and I'd say, “Hi Lou!” and stuff like that. It was a wonderful job. I had it until I went into the Navy in 1944.
What influenced you to study law?
Going back hundreds of years, there have been lawyers and judges and politicians and so forth on my mother's side of the family. So my family was rich with lawyers including my great-uncle, George, who was a judge. I had great affection for him and was very impressed by him. He was probably the example, more than any other, which pushed me toward law. But it wasn't one of those things about which there was much debate as I was growing up. I was always going to be a lawyer.
As a teen-ager, I would go down to the Supreme Court of the United States and sit and watch the arguments. It was impressive. I was going to become a lawyer, so it seemed logical to me to go there and see what it was all about. When I was a 10-year-old kid, there was a lot of talk about the court because [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had become very unhappy with the decisions of the court turning down his various programs enacted into law such as the AAA [Agricultural Adjustment Act] and NRA [National Recovery Administration], which were designed to overcome the Depression. Many of them were found to be in violation of the Constitution.
You presided over a very tumultuous time in baseball history. What do people remember you for?
I would say for exercising the power of the commissioner's office. To make things work, the commissioner had to sometimes use the power in ways that sometimes overrode the rules. In my opinion, the game needed strong leadership. It did best when there was strong leadership. When the commissioner doesn't address issues, the game is weakened.
Why did you get involved with Ave Maria List?
There was no political action committee in the United States that was purely Catholic. Catholics hadn't been active on the national scene very effectively. So, the idea was to galvanize Catholics politically because Emily's List needed some counterpoint.
What are the Ave Maria List's goals?
To act on the teaching of the Holy Father that lay people have to become politically active. The list is also working to pinpoint financial support for pro-life candidates in key races. In the last election [in 2002], we put our efforts into three Senate races and we had a considerable impact. [Two candidates the list supported, Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., won.]
The Senate is so important to the judicial situation in the United States. You're seeing virtuous Catholic and Christian people being turned down by the Senate [for judicial positions.] The more pro-life senators we have, the more likely we are to see confirmation of virtuous judges to overcome the pro-death culture of the left. We're seeing this as a way to change that by getting more pro-life people in the Senate. We don't care if they're Democrats or Republicans. Unfortunately, trying to find a good pro-life Democrat running for Senate is a rarity. We'd love to find one.
We've been encouraged in the formation of this organization by the president and by the RNC [Republican National Committee]. So, we've had a pretty good start.
You're involved in so many Catholic organizations. What do you do to relax?
On Saturdays, I read the newspaper to the folks at St. Catherine Laboure Manor in Jacksonville, Fla., where I live. I raise the issues presented by the newspaper and we debate them. It's a wonderful thing. Some of these people, who are 80 or 90 years old, sit around quietly all day. Then we start debating the current events and things get pretty lively. And it's wonderful therapy.
We had a retired Latin teacher who died when she was 94. Fanny was famous for attacking me for supporting school choice. She and I used to fight vigorously over this issue. Everybody knew Fanny was a fighter. But, whenever I would see her, on any given day, she would say, “Te amo” — “I love you.”
Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.