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Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis

By Lawrence Richards, May 24, 2016

Everything about Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis embodied the designation “Squire,” the nickname his siblings bestowed upon him as a boy. Even then he was pompous, starchy, and austere. The future commissioner of baseball had a foreboding countenance, not unlike the look and demeanor of the prototype “Hollywood hanging Judge.” He had epic eye-bags and a perpetual scowl. Journalist John Reed wrote, “He looked like Andrew Jackson . . . three years dead.”

The 1919 World Series scandal threatened to undermine the very essence of the game. The National Pastime was perceived as The National Disgrace. The game staggered beneath indictments charging racketeering, gambling, and conspiracy. The club owners were petrified, justifiably so, their cash cows would run dry. They scrambled to find a savior, someone outside their tightly knit fraternity. They picked a slight 5-foot, 8-inch, 130-pound judge from Chicago. He was granted unprecedented powers. He restored the public trust; he also changed baseball forever. The owners? They got more than they bargained for; a lot more.    

Kenesaw Mountain Landis was born in 1866, the son of a Union soldier. His father, Abraham, was badly wounded in the battle of Kennesaw Mountain near Atlanta, Georgia. His father was both a country doctor and a corn and wheat farmer, and the Squire would look back on his rural boyhood in northern Indiana, where he helped plow the fields with “the sweetest mules in the world,” as “the happiest days of my life.”

Landis never finished high school but got a law degree in 1891 (not the usual academic trajectory these days) and set up his law practice in Chicago. His legal skills, work ethic, as well as his ability for self-promotion, all contributed to his rapid rise within the court system. In 1905, Landis was appointed United States District Judge for Northern Chicago by President Theodore Roosevelt, and it didn’t take him long to make his presence felt. Landis quickly became the jurist most feared by pre-Capone mobsters. 

In 1907, a scant two years later, Landis gained national prominence when he took on seemingly impregnable Standard Oil and forced John D. Rockefeller Sr. to testify. Landis found the world’s largest oil company guilty of antitrust violations and levied a fine of $29 million (over $668 million in today’s money), the largest in history at that time; later reduced. An admitted jingoist, Landis rendered the stiffest of verdicts to anyone who opposed America’s involvement in World War I; he considered protestors, union officials, and socialists all traitors. Yet, during this period, there was serious talk of impeachment due to his overly lenient sentencing of those he deemed destitute and ill-equipped to have proper legal representation. At times, Landis appeared to interpret the law through his personal biases—his private definition of right and wrong. Yet, none of his decisions were overturned.

In 1915 Landis presided over a case that would change his life. The Federal League, acting apart from the American and National Leagues, claimed it was a legitimate “third major league” and sued “organized baseball.” The FL injunction landed on Landis’s desk. This time Landis decided not to act quickly and decisively per his usual modus operandi, but allowed time, negotiation, and diplomacy to prevail; he neither granted nor denied the injunction—withholding his decision until satisfactory terms were reached by all parties. The Federal League was disbanded.

Shortly after the 1919 World Series ended, eight White Sox players were indicted by a grand jury for consorting with gambler Arnold Rothstein and throwing the series. Those White Sox, most notably “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, were now referred to as the Black Sox. All of baseball was severely tarnished. American League President Ban Johnson and National League President John Heydler knew that only an administrator who was an outsider could restore public respect to the National Pastime. Said Heydler, “We want a man as chairman who will rule with an iron hand. Baseball has lacked a hand like that for years. It needs it now worse than ever. Therefore, it is our object to appoint a big man to lead.” And so Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis became baseball’s first commissioner in 1920.

On November 12, 1920, federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis accepted the appointment as baseball’s first commissioner—an office he would hold for 24 years.

Landis assumed the post with this stipulation to the owners: “You have told the world my powers would be absolute. I wouldn’t take this job for all the gold in the world unless I knew my hands were free.” By then, the Black Sox trial had ended and Shoeless Joe and his seven teammates had been acquitted of any wrongdoing, despite the fact that they had made full confessions, which they later recanted. Commissioner Landis did not embrace the acquittals and made the following pronouncement:

Regardless of the verdict of juries, 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 and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.

And the Black Sox never played again. Even Buck Weaver, who hadn’t participated in the fix but had failed to report it, was banned from the game for life. There was a new sheriff in town; baseball would never be the same.

Pre-Landis, if a player had broached throwing a game, the odds were great it would be kept private. But after Landis made an example of Weaver, the odds were greater it would be reported. Over the next several years Landis suspended another 18 men for life due to gambling or other behaviors he felt tarnished the image of baseball. Among the disgraced was William D. Cox, owner of the Philadelphia Phillies. “Get outta’ town and don’t come back!” Landis growled.

Landis was as wily as he was self-righteous and was careful to monitor and cultivate his public image. He kept track of polls and trends in public opinion and carefully courted the press. Early in his career there had even been talk about his running for president of the United States. He was careful in his handling of controversial issues and used his Anabaptist heritage and Mennonite philosophy to reinforce his verdicts. “Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy; it is his training field for life work,” Landis said. “Destroy his faith in its square-ness and honesty and you have destroyed something more; you have planted suspicion of all things in his heart.”

Landis went on to clash with the face and soul of baseball—Babe Ruth. The rule couldn’t have been clearer: “Both teams that contest in the World Series are required to disband immediately after its close and members are forbidden to participate as individuals or as a team in exhibition games during the year in which that world championship was decided.” Ruth was convinced his celebrity gave him immunity from “mere rules.” After the ’21 Series, he was going barnstorming with Yankee outfielder Bob Meusel. Referring to Landis, Ruth told reporters, “The old man can jump in the lake!” Although Landis couldn’t have been sure he’d have media and public support, he wasn’t about to back off; his DNA simply wouldn’t allow it. He shot back, “Who does that big ape think he is?”

National icon or not, Landis was not about to be cowed by Babe Ruth. Someone had to blink first, and it wasn’t going to be Landis. Landis fined Ruth and Meusel their full 1921 World Series share and suspended them from the first 40 games of the 1922 season. In his ruling he posed the question: “Which is bigger—baseball, or any individual in baseball?” The Yankee front office issued a terse press release, “[That] Ruth had been ill-advised.” L. C. Davis, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch summed things up more poetically.

I thought I was bigger than the game
And the Judge would tremble at my name
But now I have the wide world informed
No barns by me in future will be stormed

Before Landis, minor leagues functioned autonomously from the Majors. Ballplayers were moved up at the sole discretion of the owners, which severely limited player opportunities. Clubs would hide prospects, and many contracts were clandestine. Branch Rickey was an innovator and manipulator par excellence in working the system. He clashed with Landis repeatedly, calling him a “dictator”; in return, Landis called Rickey “a phony,” abusing his self-designated label “preacher.” The judge demanded that all minor leagues participate in a Major League draft and that all clubs disclose transactions. The minor league–Major League relationship was redefined. So it was written; so it was done.

As evident in this August 5, 1937, letter from Judge Landis letter to Elmer Daily, president of the minor league Middle Atlantic League, the commissioner was serious about ensuring the integrity of the game.

A classic Landis. In the fourth game of the 1933 World Series between the Giants and the Senators, Landis—per usual—sat hunched forward, staring, nearly immobile, with hands folded over the box-seat railing. Umpire Charley Moran threw out star Senator left fielder Heinie Manush for arguing too vigorously. Before Game 5, Landis assembled the crew and lectured them that fans came to see favorites. Therefore, only one man has the power to remove a player from a World Series game. Hint: it’s not the umpire. 

Among the judge’s eccentricities was a particular lack of fondness for night games. Landis was of the opinion that the game should be played under natural conditions, befitting his vision as a purist. And how he loved ceremonies. One of his proudest moments—June 1939, the Hall of Fame dedication.

Landis’s views on race relations are not quite clear. In the 1930s, he carried a gun fearing reprisals from the KKK whom he consistently denounced. While he was held in high esteem by the Chicago black community, he never responded to an appeal from black leaders to promote an open-door policy for African-American Major League players. He imposed restrictions on Major League teams versus Negro League teams, reasoning that he didn’t want a “big league” team to be embarrassed by losing. He banned interracial play during the season at big league ballparks, stating, “They were outdrawing regular games” and “[I] feared riots.” Landis’s positions may have stemmed from practicality, having nothing to do with discrimination. “I will stand with God and time,” the commissioner ambiguously said. “They alone are the Negro’s friends.”  

On November 17, 1944, Landis was re-elected commissioner for another seven years. He was admitted to Chicago’s St. Luke’s Hospital shortly thereafter for severe respiratory problems complicated by a heart attack. The Squire, almost 78, passed away the early morning of November 25. He was survived by his wife, Winifred, son, Reed, and daughter, Suzanne.

In December, a special committee convened and unanimously voted him into the Hall of Fame. The next time you participate in a baseball trivia conversation, you might try this one: What is the official title of the MVP Award? As of 1944, “The Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award.” As the great Yankee announcer Mel Allen would say, “How about that!” 

J. G. Taylor Spink, publisher of The Sporting News wrote: “[Landis] may have been arbitrary, self-willed and even unfair, but he ‘called ’em as he saw ’em’ and he turned over to his successor and the future a game that was cleansed. And for that, I, as a lifelong lover of baseball, am eternally grateful.” We should all be.




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