Better Know a Commissioner: Kenesaw Mountain Landis

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Before Rob Manfred, before Bud Selig, there were lots of other aggravating, power-hungry men leading up Major League Baseball. This series exists to discuss the history of every commissioner MLB has had, with particular focus, where applicable, on their interactions and relationship with labor, the players. 

Kenesaw Mountain Landis was known as the man who saved professional baseball even before he became MLB’s first commissioner. What’s curious about this is that he didn’t actually do anything to save it: he didn’t even give an actual decision on the antitrust suit he was presiding over, and yet, he got the credit, anyway.

Landis was the judge in the Federal League’s antitrust suit against Organized Baseball, way back in 1915:

On January 5, 1915, the Federal League, fighting for recognition as a third major league, filed “for relief from National and American League domination” to the court where Kenesaw Landis presided, alleging that Organized Baseball had violated the Clayton Anti-Trust Act.Landis was known for being impartial with respect to the baseball franchises located in Chicago. When he attended a Cubs, White Sox, or Chifeds game in 1914, he paid for his ticket.

Spring training of 1915 came and went without a decision in the case. The hometown Chicago Whales won the Federal League championship, and the mayor of Chicago demanded that the team be included in the World Series, but the three members of the National Commission turned a deaf ear to the appeal. The Red Sox and Phillies played in the 1915 World Series.

The Federal League filed in early January of 1915, and Landis was in no rush to make a decision before the season began. Or during the season, even. He went on doing nothing about it during the entirety of the suit, actually, as it was withdrawn in December of 1915, after the Federal League and Organized Baseball reached an agreement right before Christmas. It was only then that Landis spoke up, saying he would have ruled against the suit. “The court’s expert knowledge of baseball obtained by more than thirty years of observance of the game as a spectator convinced me that if an order had been entered it would have been, if not destructive, at least injurious to the game of baseball.”

Now, I’m no judge nor a lawyer, but Landis’ lack of a decision/clear preference for Organized Baseball in this is a little off. It feels a bit like he pushed it all off in the hopes it would solve itself, since the Federal League would need legal confirmation that they had been wronged in order to continue to exist as a legitimate third major league, or that he couldn’t legally justify the decision he wanted to make, so he made no decision at all and declared his allegiance to the status quo once he was no longer needed. He did save baseball, in that sense, but in the sense he was in the corner of the two-league power that already existed, and not interested in any potential shake ups or competition to it.

It is of course hard to get a read on some of what Landis believed, though: as his SABR bio reminds, “Unpredictable on the bench, Landis could blow hot and cold, even within 24 hours. He was sympathetic with the underdog and the little person. He was very hard on radical labor.” You would think the Federal League would be the underdog for him to support, but the league also benefited players who wanted to be paid more in line with their value: the Federal League briefly fomented unionization efforts and a jump in player salaries, at least until vaudeville went and got that movement killed.

Could fear that competition end up making Organized Baseball struggle financially to try and keep up influence Landis’ non-decision, which was also clearly a pro-status quo stance? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. And consider, too, that the “radical labor” his bio is referencing there regards a different bias issue in his career, as it includes socialist Victor Berger and other members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whom Landis had convicted of a violation of the Espionage Act for their anti-interventionist views during World War I. This resulted in Berger v. United States going in front of the Supreme Court following Landis’ decision, and Berger came away the victor, with Landis and his decision being discredited and dismissed through some of his own public views: anti-German ones. Landis, by this time, was already preparing to become the first commissioner of MLB, so it’s not like being called out as a biased, anti-German judge impacted his career opportunities. It’s just worth noting, considering.

Landis would end up as MLB commissioner as the American and National Leagues struggled with gambling running rampant in the sport. Gambling, of course, was an issue in part because the players were underpaid, run into the ground, and cast aside once someone even cheaper came along — something the more competitive salaries of a more competitive American baseball landscape could have fixed — so having Landis come in to help quash an issue he was at least partially responsible for the persistence of is a little bit funny. The Black Sox Scandal needed dealing with, though, and Landis, who was not around for it, leveraged the opportunity to become the all-powerful force Organized Baseball had been missing. For the next couple of decades, Landis was the unquestioned authority of the game.

No serious attempts to unionize would come from the players during the entirety of Landis’ reign as commissioner. Landis died in office after the 1944 season, and before the 1946 campaign, Robert Murphy launched the first serious unionization effort in decades. Was it coincidence that this was the case, that all of a year separated the end of Landis’ iron-fisted rule over MLB and the next attempt at unionizing? Or were the players aware they would never get anywhere with this explosive, anti-radical-labor terror of a man running things, so no one bothered to the degree Murphy did until after Landis was gone? I’d lean toward the latter, but this is admittedly just guessing based on what we know of Landis. When it comes to his continued support of segregation, though, well, that’s a bit less cloudy for me, and plenty of others.

Landis’ name has been removed from MLB’s Most Valuable Player trophy by the Baseball Writers Association of America, and with good reason. About 10 months ago, a campaign began to rename the award and change the trophy, and the reasoning behind it was Landis’ racism. Two former Black MVPs, Barry Larkin and Terry Pendleton, spoke out against having Landis’ name on the trophy, and the BBWAA went from there. It was the right thing to do, even if Landis’ actual racism and hand in keeping MLB segregated remain debated to this day.

As I wrote at the time, it was easy to construct a defense of Landis, since there is no official documentation of him saying that Black players should not be allowed to play in MLB, and the league as a whole was racist as hell. My own case against this defense holds up, I think:

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.

Landis did a good job of cleaning up gambling in MLB and restoring the reputation of the league, and while there was a price to that — MLB’s owners certainly missed the freedoms they had before Landis came in and only agreed to the job if he were made god-king of Organized Baseball — they all appreciated what he did enough that they remained terrified of even upsetting him or his legacy even after death. What hasn’t been discussed nearly enough, though, is his potential impact on organized labor in MLB, as well as his actively keeping MLB segregated for over two decades. Gambling could have been less of a problem by 1919, or at least on its way to being more, we’ll say, organically solved, if the Federal League had just received the antitrust support it filed for half-a-decade before. Segregation could have been over in a heartbeat if Landis had actively spoken against it: remember, we’re talking about a guy who was elected to the Hall of Fame two weeks after he died, whose name was larger on the MVP trophy than that of the recipient. Everyone was terrified of this explosive little man, and did whatever he demanded.

The commissioner of MLB, now, clearly works for the owners. In Landis’ time, though, they worked for him, even though they paid his salary and chose him for the role in the first place. Any changes he wanted to make to MLB would have been made, and yet, Black players weren’t part of the league during his 20-plus years in charge. The MVP trophy doesn’t have his name on it anymore, but that doesn’t undo the damage he inflicted with yet another bout of convenient silence on an issue laid out before him.

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