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It certainly wouldn’t solve racism, but Major League Baseball needs to get Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ name off of their Most Valuable Player trophies. Just ask a number of former MVPs, both Black and white, as the Associated Press’ Ben Walker recently did:
Fact is, few fans realize Landis’ name is plastered all over the Most Valuable Player trophies. Most people just call it the MVP.
But there it is, prominently displayed on every American League and NL MVP plaque since 1944 — Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award, in shiny, gold letters literally twice as big as those of the winner.
With a sizable imprint of Landis’ face, too.
To some MVPs, it’s time for that 75-year run to end.
Maybe you aren’t familiar with Landis and his history. The short explanation is that MLB should not be able to celebrate both Landis, the first-ever commissioner of the game, and Jackie Robinson, who was the first Black man to play in what would become MLB since the previous century, because they… let’s say, as baseball historian John Thorn did, were diametrically opposed.
The longer explanation is that Landis was a racist who actively opposed integrating Major League Baseball during his time as the game’s commissioner. He’s better known — because it’s where he got his start and is a less embarrassing stain on MLB and its history — for cleaning up gambling within the sport and bringing down a harsh judgment on the 1919 White Sox players implicated in fixing the World Series. What he should be known for, though, is his actively maintaining an environment where Jackie Robinson even had to be the one to begin desegregating baseball, instead of just yet another Black player in the league.
It’s easy to find excuses for Landis, or to point out how he was just one of many racists at the time, so it’s unfair to pin the status quo entirely on him. This is from his Society of American Baseball Research biography, even:
The question of what responsibility Landis should share for baseball’s Jim Crow status has been debated across the years. Undoubtedly, he should bear some responsibility for baseball’s segregation. But he was certainly not alone in the attitudes and actions of the baseball establishment. It was a confluence of people and attitudes.
“When Landis was gone and baseball was integrated, Landis served as a convenient scapegoat for the actions and attitudes of most of baseball,” wrote one historian.83 After Landis died, nobody rushed to sign black players with his supposed ban gone. “Club owners didn’t fall all over themselves outbidding each other for the biggest Negro League stars. A whole year passed before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a Montreal contract,” noted another historian.84
Years after Jackie Robinson broke the major-league color barrier in 1947, no one can contend that from his grave Landis prevented the Philadelphia Athletics from featuring Bob Trice until 1953, the Chicago Cubs from featuring Ernie Banks until 1953, the Pittsburgh Pirates from featuring Curt Roberts until 1954, the St. Louis Cardinals from featuring Tom Alston until 1954, the Cincinnati Reds from featuring Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon until the same day in 1954, the Washington Senators from featuring Carlos Paula until 1954, the New York Yankees from featuring Elston Howard until 1955, the Philadelphia Phillies from featuring John Kennedy until 1957, the Detroit Tigers from featuring Ozzie Virgil Sr. until 1958, and the Boston Red Sox from featuring Pumpsie Green until 1959. That responsibility squarely rested with each of the respective team owners.
All of that about the when for teams finally signing a Black player is true. What the SABR bio misses, though, in its divvying up of the responsibility for MLB’s own Jim Crow-esque state, is that Landis was the power in MLB throughout his time as commissioner: he famously only wanted the job if he had the discretion to do whatever he wanted to do, and there were owners who regretted handing him that kind of power once he began to implement it. On record, Landis said that teams were free to sign Black players, but none of the teams did while he was commissioner or alive. That’s likely because he was just saying this was the case when that wasn’t true at all.
The best-case scenario for Landis is that he didn’t bar anyone from signing Black players, but in turn did not do anything to encourage the signing of Black players, either: the difference between “not a racist” and being anti-racist. The worst-case (and far likelier) scenario is that Landis privately banned the signing of Black players, and publicly acted otherwise. What’s so difficult to believe about the latter, especially when you consider things like teams hosting “tryouts” for obviously talented Black players, future Hall of Famers, even, and then not signing them? Did you know Tom Yawkey’s Red Sox held tryouts for Robinson, as well as Willie Mays? Did you also know Tom Yawkey was — and still is, by some — insulated from his own horrid racism in part because it’s hard to come by official documentation of it, since all of the racism was more publicly performed by his front office employees? Who all just happened to be very racist, too? Weird how that works.
Regardless of whether Landis simply maintained a racist, anti-Black environment, or if he actively encouraged its continuation, the result is the same: the game could not be integrated until after his death and removal from the position in 1944. (Though, MLB’s owners attempted to symbolically keep him as commissioner even after he was dead, and he was elected to the Hall of Fame just two weeks after he died. Everyone who knew him was even terrified of upsetting his ghost.)
It’s 75 years later. The Baseball Writers Association of America, who put his name on the thing in the first place, has the power to change the trophy: they just have to do it. Get Landis’ name off of there. And send all the MVPs with one of those things a new faceplate while you’re at it, so the Barry Larkins and Terry Pendletons of the world don’t need to see that racist’s name every time they look at the reminder of their own accomplishments in the game.
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