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Kenesaw Mountain Landis

Kenesaw Mountain Landis

     Judge Landis didn't save baseball: Babe Ruth saved baseball.  Ruth began hitting home runs in 1920, and he gave it appeal, but Landis gave it credibility, and without that, baseball's appeal wouldn't have been enough to get through the scandal-soaked 1920s.


     Baseball's first commissioner couldn't have looked the part any better if he had come straight from central casting.  As a district judge, Landis had earned a reputation for quirky but newsworthy justice.  His record $29,240,000 fining of Standard Oil, the Ryan baby case, and the jailing of 94 Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members and Socialist Congressman Victor Berger for antiwar activities during World War I all placed him squarely in the public eye, even though his decisions were often overturned.


     Flinty, colorful, often arbitrary, and described by many as a headstrong, autocratic czar (Current Biography termed him "the only successful dictator in United States history"), Landis nonetheless projected integrity and honesty, and baseball turned to him when it's reputation was damaged by multiple alleged incidents of improper betting on games. 


     In 1919, the Black Sox scandal hit - a grand jury convened to investigate a late-season Cubs-Phillies game in 1920 uncovered the conspiracy by eight members of the White Sox to throw the 1919 World Series.  (Then-president of the Cubs - William Veeck, Sr. - received a telegram that his pitcher, Claude Hendrix, was going to throw the game.  The grand jury immediately began investigating the World Series.)


     The owners approached Landis, the district judge who had presided over the antitrust case brought by the rival Federal League in 1915 against Major League Baseball.  During that case, Landis had done the baseball establishment a great service. The existing major leagues had faced a stiff challenge from the Federal League both on the field and in the courts as the upstart circuit sought to overturn the reserve clause, which bound major league players to their teams.  Landis sat firmly on the case.  Months passed, and the Judge issued no decision.  It was obvious he didn't want to issue one, because he knew what a flimsy legal structure baseball was built upon.  "Both sides must understand that any blows at this thing called baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution," Landis had warned from the bench.

     Finally, the Federal League threw in the towel, getting the best deal they could from OB.  Landis's inaction had been the key.  "Many persons felt that Landis had saved baseball in 1915," wrote The Sporting News' J. G. Taylor Spink.  "Had he ruled Organized Baseball to be a gigantic trust, the Federal League contention, he could have thrown the whole game into chaos.  There would have been no sanctity of baseball territory.  Had he decided against the legality of the reserve and 10-day clauses, the effect would have been free agencies for all the great players of the time…."


     So in September 1920, when the Series fix became public knowledge, baseball turned to Landis to restore confidence in the badly shaken institution.  On November 12, 1920, every major league owner except the intransigent Phil Ball of the Browns paid a visit to Landis's Chicago court.  They stood in the rear of the room while Landis continued hearing cases.  When he finished, Landis called them into his chambers.  There, they offered him chairmanship of a new three-member "Board of Control" over Major League Baseball.  Landis demanded absolute power and got it.


* * *


     The Black Sox conspirators were led by Chick Gandil, the White Sox first baseman, and included pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, shortstop Swede Risberg, center fielder Hap Felsch, and to a degree third baseman Bucky Weaver and right fielder Joe Jackson.  (The eighth man out was Fred McMullin, who hung out with a lot of the key players in the scandal, and was included in the compact because he had overheard Gandil talking about the agreement struck with gamblers.

     When Cicotte broke the scandal open by confessing, the case went to court - there were no sports bribery statutes in Illinois so they were charged with defrauding White Sox owner's Charles Comiskey's business - but the confessions of the ballplayers mysteriously disappeared from the Cook County courthouse before the trial.  The grand jury was further hampered by the fact that the players invoked their Fifth Amendment right not to testify.  They couldn't convict.


     Long used to having his decisions overturned by higher courts, Landis, now commissioner of baseball, returned the favor and reversed the jury's decision.  "Regardless of the outcome of juries," he said, "no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball."


     Throughout the early 1920s Landis consolidated power at the expense of the proud and dictatorial American League President Ban Johnson, stripping him of real authority.  A few minor scandals plagued his tenure here and there, but the last great one (and the most serious) came in 1926.  It involved the biggest names in baseball, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker.  In 1926 pitcher Dutch Leonard accused the two stars of conspiring to fix the last game of the 1919 season.  Leonard also accused Smoky Joe Wood of placing bets on the contest for Cobb and Speaker.  Landis's verdict exonerating the accused trio has come under heavy criticism from some historians.


     Landis was a staunch opponent of Branch Rickey's minor league farm system and fought it tooth and nail.  Landis liberated numerous minor league players during his tenure.  In one 1938 case, Landis freed 91 Cardinal farmhands, including Pete Reiser and James "Skeeter" Webb. In January 1940 he hit the Detroit system, freeing scores of players and costing the Tigers an estimated $500,000.


     One of Landis's most important personnel decisions came on December 10, 1936, when he awarded young Bob Feller's contract to Cleveland. Another significant decision involved the freeing of Tommy Henrich from the Indians system in April 1937. Henrich was able to sign with the Yankees for a $25,000 bonus.


     Landis's assumption of control over all World Series decisions, his well-publicized disciplining and suspension of Babe Ruth after the 1921 Fall Classic, and his removal of Cardinal outfielder Joe Medwick from the field in the riotous seventh game of the 1934 World Series all created headlines.


     World War II threatened to interrupt Major League Baseball, but Landis indirectly obtained President Franklin Roosevelt's green light to continue the national pastime. Landis's last major move was in 1943 when he banned Phils owner William D. Cox from the game for gambling.


     It was not until Landis died that Major League Baseball club owners finally integrated their teams.  Many have contended that this was no coincidence.  Nonetheless, just before Landis died in November 1944, his contract was extended to January 1953, when he would have been 86 years old.  Such was the hold of Landis on baseball that even as frail as he was, no one dared oppose him.


     Despite his faults, Kenesaw Mountain Landis was passionately devoted to baseball and to preserving its integrity. "Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy," he declared.  "It is his training field for life work.  Destroy his faith in its squareness and honesty and you have destroyed something more; you have planted suspicion of all things in his heart."



"The game needed a touch of class and distinction, and somebody said, 'Get that old guy who sits behind first base all the time. He's out here everyday anyway.'  So they offered him a season pass and he grabbed it." 

— Will Rogers



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