Luisa Kuhn came up to me before an event at the beach and wanted to know my opinion on something.
Not the topic of discussion (the national parks) or news of the day (Trump, Trump, Trump) or sports headlines (football, football, football).
She wanted to talk baseball.
“What do you think of the Jumbo Shrimp?” she said.
With that in mind, and spring training underway in Florida, I recently met her for lunch. I told her I wanted to know her thoughts on the name for our minor-league team and more. Because while I love baseball — and that love can be traced back to the 15 years when Bowie Kuhn was commissioner — Luisa Kuhn was married to him for 50 years.
When Bowie Kuhn was put in charge of baseball in 1969, he was the youngest (42) and tallest (6-foot-5) commissioner ever. He presided over a tumultuous period, one that included labor disputes, soaring attendance, World Series night games and many memorable moments and players.
The Kuhns moved to Ponte Vedra Beach in the 1990s. Bowie Kuhn, who went from making a $1 a game as a scoreboard operator at Washington’s Griffith Stadium to becoming baseball’s fifth commissioner, died in Jacksonville on March 15, 2007 – which, I realized as I started to write this, makes Wednesday the 10th anniversary.
While he often was portrayed as a bespectacled Ivy League lawyer, his wife says he was, first and foremost, a baseball fan.
“He was a passionate fan,” Luisa Kuhn said. “He loved baseball. He really did.”
Talk to her and you quickly realize it was a shared loved. She wasn’t just a baseball fan because he became commissioner. She recalls growing up outside Philadelphia, heading to the train station with her cousin and his best friend, riding to 69th Street and buying a cheap ticket to sit high atop the steep seats at Shibe Park and watch the Philadelphia A’s.
“I was maybe 8 years old,” she said. “In those days, parents didn’t worry about kids doing something like that.”
She’s in her 80s now. And after first meeting her, I was trying to describe her to someone. I said the way she carried herself and spoke reminded me of actresses from old films.
It turns out that’s the impression she made on Bowie Kuhn when he first met her in 1955. I found something he wrote decades later for a Catholic publication. He described spending a weekend with some friends in the Long Island village of Quogue, attending a Saturday night dance and talking to a beautiful woman.
“As we sat in the bar, drinking Scotch and soda, we were joined by a startlingly attractive, tall brunette who rather reminded me of Rita Hayworth, her hair being cut very much in the style of that beautiful movie actress,” he wrote.
She was married at the time, with a 2½-year-old son and another child on the way. A month later, her husband was killed in a car accident in Manhattan. She eventually began dating the man she had met at that dance. The following year when they got married, in a touching gesture, her first husband’s family wanted the ceremony in their hometown. They had two more children and 10 grandchildren.
She still follows and loves baseball (rooting for the Washington Nationals), even though “the game has changed so much.”
Her husband had a great quote: “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.”
While much has changed on the field since 1910 — some for the good (see Jackie Robinson) and some for the bad (try explaining to Rip how one league has a designated hitter) — I believe that much remains the same. That’s the beauty of baseball.
I had fun listening to Luisa Kuhn tell stories about the players and managers I grew up with (many of which were prefaced with, “off the record …”) In many ways, she said, what has changed is everything around baseball, the money and television.
“Television wasn’t as important in 1969,” she said. “Baseball is a game made for radio, and to go and see. Football is made for television.”
We commiserated about being baseball fans in football country and lamented some of the changes being made in hopes of speeding up play, including the new rule about intentional walks (the pitcher no longer actually throwing pitches) and the horrendous idea of experimenting in the lower minors with starting every extra inning with a runner on second. (As I told Mrs. Kuhn, the relievers on my team, the Detroit Tigers, have been managing to do this on their own for years.)
But, even as we complained, the conversation turned to last season ending with a Game 7 and Chicago Cubs defeating the Cleveland Indians. I only wish my dad, a lifelong Cubs fan, had been around to see it.
“What the Cubs did for baseball was wonderful,” she said. “I’m a real fan of Kris Bryant and that whole team. Those kids are having the best time. And Cleveland, too. I wouldn’t mind seeing them win this year.”
Opening Day is April 2. It will be followed by, as the promotional material around town says, “Shrimp season.”
Back to a name change that, in the week of the presidential election, managed to become the biggest story in town. Luisa Kuhn had a reaction similar to mine. I liked the Suns name (and even the “baseball’s never been hotter” earworm) but my reaction was more of a shrug than outrage. It’s minor league baseball. It always has been a combination of reverence and irreverence, an endearing mix of good baseball and silly promotions.
So while the wife of a former baseball commissioner might be old-school in many ways, she’s a fan of the new name in Jacksonville.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “I think anything they can do make it more fun, great. … We used to go to a lot of minor league games. In many ways, they’re more fun than going to see major league games.”