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Fun fact about Bowie Kuhn, the former Major League Baseball commissioner: He was named for Bowie, the Maryland city where the past nine Roll Call Congressional Baseball Games were played.
But Kuhn is not lamenting the game’s departure from Bowie to RFK Stadium. He’s a native Washingtonian and delighted to see baseball — and the Roll Call game — back in the nation’s capital.
“I loved the Congressional game,” Kuhn said in a recent telephone interview from his home outside Jacksonville, Fla.
Kuhn, in fact, umpired the first inning at the annual Democrats-vs.-Republicans grudge match in 1969, his first year as commissioner. He attended many of the games and especially enjoyed the parties afterward.
“They all stood around, had a few drinks and boasted about how well they had done,” Kuhn recalled with a laugh.
Major League Baseball’s return to D.C. after a 34-year absence represents a vindication of sorts for Kuhn. The Washington Senators’ exodus for Texas after the 1971 season was one of the most painful episodes of Kuhn’s 15-year tenure as commissioner.
In his 1987 autobiography, “Hardball” — Chris Matthews was not the first prominent Washingtonian to use the title — Kuhn said his eyes filled with tears when he realized there was nothing he could do to stop the Senators from moving.
“I felt so bad for the fans of Washington, who had been dealt such inept teams for so long,” he wrote. “The fan support was better than baseball deserved. We never gave the fans a fair chance.”
In the book, Kuhn also detailed his efforts to lure other struggling teams and expansion franchises to Washington, all to no avail. But through his work on behalf of D.C. baseball, he developed many friendships with Members of Congress who were sympathetic to the cause.
In the interview, he named former President Gerald Ford, former Rep. Bernie Sisk (D-Calif.), former Rep. Tony Coehlo (D-Calif.), former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and current Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) among his closest Congressional friends.
In fact, Kuhn spent more time working Capitol Hill than any of his predecessors or his fellow professional sports league commissioners.
“I did a lot of it when I was the commish,” he said. “I liked that. Maybe I had a little Washington bias.”
Frequently, Kuhn recalled, he could take in a Senators game at RFK and conduct business with federal officials there.
“You’d go out there and see [former President Richard] Nixon sitting there,” he said.
By that time, attending Senators games had become a way of life for Kuhn.
Growing up in the area, first in Takoma Park, Md., then in the Shepherd Park neighborhood in Northwest Washington, Kuhn was a rabid Senators fan, and said some of his earliest memories are of the team’s 1933 World Series championship. As a teenager in the 1940s, he got a job operating the manual scoreboard in center field of the old Griffith Stadium near Howard University for $1 a game — a gig he inherited from a neighbor.
Asked if he could see the action through the hole in the outfield wall, Kuhn replied, “Oh, did you have a view. It was a great job. Best job a kid could ever have.”
Fast forward 60 years and there was Kuhn, at age 78, feeling a little like a kid again at the Washington Nationals’ home opener in April.
“It felt wonderful,” Kuhn said. “The thing that got me was not that it was a sold-out ballpark. You sort of anticipated that. But it was the feel. The place was jumping. ... People realize what they’ve been missing since 1971.”
Kuhn hasn’t attended another Nats game but said he tries to watch the team whenever it’s on ESPN, WTBS or another national TV network.
“I’m pretty much up to date on the Nationals,” he said.
And while he decided to become a Boston Red Sox fan after leaving the commissioner’s office in 1984 — a decision that he said has required “work” but brought “great joy” — Kuhn is now unabashedly a Nats fan as well.
“Now I’ve got two teams, one in each league,” he said. “That works.”
But Kuhn said he will be terribly conflicted if the teams compete against each other — in much the same way that he can’t watch football games between the Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars on TV.
“I think if they ever both get to the World Series,” he mused, “I’ll take a trip to Russia.”