Former commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who lorded over baseball during 15 tumultuous years that saw players gain free agency and start the spiral of multimillion-dollar salaries, died Thursday. He was 80.

Kuhn died at St. Luke's Hospitalfollowing a short illness, said his spokesman Bob Wirz.

When Kuhn took over as commissioner from William Eckert on Feb. 4, 1969, baseball just had completed its final season as a tradition-bound 20-team sport with no playoffs, a reserve clause and an average salary of about $19,000.

During his tenure, the sport battled the rise of the NFL and a combative players' union that attacked him with lawsuits, grievances and work stoppages.

By the time Peter Ueberroth succeeded Kuhn on Oct. 1, 1984, the major leagues had 26 teams in four divisions, a designated hitter in the American League, the first night World Series games, color-splashed uniforms, free agency and an average salary of nearly $330,000.

"I want it to be remembered that I was commissioner during a time of tremendous growth in the popularity of the game," he said, "and that it was a time in which no one could question the integrity of the game."