Judge Landis Named Commissioner to Fix Baseball’s Ills
Major League Baseball was in trouble in 1920, and the 16 team owners knew it. Although they were accustomed to acting with impunity, the owners realized the public was losing faith in the integrity of their sport—something had to be done, and quickly. Even as the 1919 World Series was being played, rumors circulated that the series was fixed. Those rumors were confirmed on Sept. 28, 1920, when two famous players from the losing Chicago White Sox team, pitcher Eddie Cicotte and outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, admitted gamblers had bribed some of the players to throw the series to the inferior Cincinnati Reds. That afternoon, a grand jury handed down indictments against eight of the Chicago White Sox players; the “Black Sox” scandal was now public knowledge, and would forever be a blight on the sport’s reputation.
The enormity of the problem convinced the owners to take drastic action. They gave up their unchallenged rule and created the office of Commissioner of Baseball, giving that office complete control over the affairs of their sport. On Nov. 12, 1920, the owners hired the perfect man to fill that office and regain the public’s trust: Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a steely, iron-willed federal judge nationally famous for the tough cases he took on, his honesty, wit and sarcasm, and his unimpeachable character.
Actually, the owners’ original idea was to create a baseball commission comprised of three commissioners. However, Landis insisted he would only take the job if he were the sole commissioner with absolute, unquestioned power to act in the “best interests of baseball.” The cowed owners agreed, and baseball has been ruled by a commissioner ever since.
Judge Landis’s unusual name was a misspelling: his father was wounded and lost a leg during a battle at Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia during the Civil War. The judge earned his reputation with such famous actions as fining the Standard Oil Company more than $29 million for accepting rebates from railroads, sentencing 93 members of the Industrial Workers of the World to prison for hindering the draft, and throwing Congressman Victor L. Berger in jail for obstructing war preparations.
As commissioner, it did not take Landis long to exert his authority. Even though all of the indicted White Sox players were acquitted, Landis announced the day after the trial that he was banning all eight players from the game for life, famously declaring: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
Having set the tone of his administration, Commissioner Landis ruled baseball with a firm hand until his death on Nov. 25, 1944. He did much to restore the public’s trust in the game, and steered baseball to unprecedented popularity and success. There is a disturbing mark against him, however: he refused to allow the sport to be integrated while he was in control. Less than a year after Landis died, baseball signed the first African American player in the modern era: Jackie Robinson.
The following newspaper article announcing the hiring of Judge Landis as baseball’s first commissioner was published by the Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana) on Nov. 13, 1920:
Major Baseball Leagues Accept Fundamentals of Lasker Plan and Appoint Judge Landis Supreme Dictator
Peace Is Declared and Chiefs Happy over the Outcome
Both Sides Concede Points and Details Will Be Announced within Short Time
Proposed Civilian Tribunal Is Done Away with Since Federal Judge Named to Guide Destinies. Reorganization Is Perfected and the Great Sport Will Proceed Unhindered by Quibbles and Wrangles.
Chicago, Nov. 12—(By the Associated Press)—Peace settled over professional baseball today when the opposing factions in the reorganization of the game reached an agreement on every point at issue and thus ended a war which for five days apparently had disrupted both major leagues.
Three hours of argument and verbal battles found the magnates emerging from their council chamber calling each other by first names and laughingly referring to the threats each side had made a few days ago.
Landis Is Boss
The end of the fight came when the 16 club owners voted unanimously to make Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Chicago, “chairman of baseball” and a committee of one to act as a final court of appeal in all matters of dispute between the two major leagues and any minor leagues which may join the majors in reorganizing the game. Judge Landis accepted.
Each side made concessions before an agreement was reached but the meeting unanimously went on record as favoring “the principles of ethical control of baseball” included in the Lasker plan, which was fostered by the eight National and the Chicago, New York and Boston American League clubs, and which started the fight. This plan originally was bitterly opposed by President Byron Bancroft Johnson of the American League and the Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit clubs, which sided with him.
In other matters, however, the 11 clubs favoring the Lasker plan conceded points to the five opposing it. Instead of a civilian tribunal as the governing body of baseball, Judge Landis will remain the final judge, although the club owners may decide later to appoint two civilian associates to act with Judge Landis.
If the one-man commission is retained the president of the National League shall be a special pleader for clubs under him, and the president of the American League shall represent the clubs under him. All matters will be taken up at a joint meeting of the two leagues, where the votes will be cast by clubs. If there is a division, a vote then will be taken by leagues, each organization having one vote. If they cannot agree, the two presidents then will appear before Judge Landis and his decision will be final.
This arrangement is a compromise between the plans suggested by the two sides. The 11 clubs wanted the vote to be entirely by clubs, while the Johnson faction held out for a vote by leagues.
Immediate attempts will be made to bring the minor leagues into the plan. A committee of six, three from the National League and three from the American League, will confer with a committee of six from the minor leagues. If the minors come in, they will be given the right to appoint a special pleader to appear before Judge Landis when matters involving them are considered.
Judge Landis’ term is for seven years and then an election will be held by all leagues in the plan to determine who shall be commissioner. He will have power to question any player, club owner or league president, and to take any action he sees fit in all cases. The leagues agreed to sign a contract to abide by the judge’s decisions, regardless of what they may be.
Chicago will be headquarters for the baseball commissioner, and offices will be opened here immediately.
If second and third members are chosen for the commission, it is virtually certain, according to the club owners, that Judge Charles A. McDonald of Chicago will be one of them, although no vote was taken today.
Judge McDonald indirectly brought on the baseball war, for he started the [“Black Sox”] baseball scandal investigation which brought about the proposals for reorganization of control of baseball.
Judge Landis is a national figure for the important cases he has passed upon and his wit and sarcasm—sometimes humorous and sometimes caustic—which he directs at prisoners and counsel from his bench have made him famous.
Baseball always has been one of his hobbies. In the little town of Logansport, Ind., where he was reared, the judge played on amateur and semi-professional teams. His brilliant playing brought him many offers to turn professional, but he always declined, saying he played merely for sport and love of the game.
In 1914 Judge Landis presided in the legal battle which resulted from the greatest baseball war in history—the fight of the Federal League against the National and American Leagues. The judge never rendered a decision in this case, however, for it was settled out of court while he was still forming his official opinion. While studying the case, the judge spent many hours looking into baseball history, the national agreement and other documents giving information concerning baseball. The knowledge acquired during this period made him a legal authority on the administration of the game’s affairs.
Judge Landis attends many major league games here every year, and seldom misses a World’s Series. At the annual fall classic he generally may be found in a box back of third base, his old, black slouch hat pulled down over his eyes, and a long black cape falling from his shoulders. He never talks during the game, but studies every play closely and enjoys analyzing the strategy used by the opposing players. One of his hobbies at the game is to try to guess the next play.
Judge Landis was born in Millville, Ohio, Nov. 20, 1866, and was named for Kennesaw Mountain, near Atlanta, Ga., where his father was wounded in the Civil War. He first became nationally prominent when he fined the Standard Oil Company $29,240,000, after forcing John D. Rockefeller to come here to testify. The decision was reversed by the appellate court, however.
During the World War he presided at the famous I.W.W. trial, sentencing “Big Bill” Haywood, secretary-treasurer of the organization, and 92 other members to prison. Shortly afterward, an explosion in the federal building killed several persons, but the judge was uninjured. He also sentenced Congressman Victor L. Berger to prison for alleged obstruction of the nation’s war preparations.
Judge Landis drew congressional attention shortly after the war. He found that most of the lawyers appearing before him who were wearing wrist watches had not been in the service.
“Have all these wrist watch lawyers file a statement [of] what branch of the service they were in,” he ordered.
Senator Thomas of Colorado, in an address in the Senate, said Judge Landis should be impeached for his order. The judge’s only comment was “Don’t it beat the devil what some senators will do to pass the time away?”
Judge Landis’ verbal attacks from the bench are directed at men in all stations of life. One day he scathingly denounces a corporation, and the next day sympathizes with and helps some unfortunate prisoner brought before him. His favorite expression is “Take this man up to Mabel’s room—the jail,” or “Take him to Room 33 and give him the easy chair.”
Final Court of Appeal
When Judge Landis accepted the “chairmanship of professional baseball,” he became the final court of appeal in all matters of administration which may come up between the National and American Leagues and any minor leagues which voluntarily join in the proposed reorganization of baseball.
Judge Landis was hearing a case in which $15,000 bribery, in connection with an income tax, was charged, when a committee of eight club owners called on him. As the magnates filed into the courtroom hats in hands, the judge sharply banged his gavel down and ordered them to make less noise. When informed of their mission, he had them escorted to his chambers where they were kept in waiting for 45 minutes before the judge would listen to the offer which increased his salary from $7,500 to $50,000.
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