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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. The rest of the series can be found through this link.
You will never catch me saying that any commissioner of Major League Baseball is “good” without some major caveats, like “good for the owners” or “good for profits” or “good at being a monster,” but Happy Chandler certainly gets pretty close. What else can you say about a guy who served one term because he made fans and players happy, which in turn made the owners dislike him? Getting fired by the owners for not being enough like the last iron-fisted (and racist) demon of a commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, is something you can be proud to put on your résumé, really.
The thing you know Happy Chandler for, if you know of him for anything besides just his name, is that he was the commissioner of MLB at the time the league was finally integrated. Writing it that way is a little too passive, but that was intentional, because I wanted to give this next bit the emphasis it deserves: MLB would no longer be segregated in large part thanks to Happy Chandler, who ignored the wishes of 15 of MLB’s 16 owners to back the Brooklyn Dodgers and their general manager, Branch Rickey, and their plan to bring Jackie Robinson to the bigs.
In January of 1947, MLB’s owners met in secret to vote on whether or not they should begin to integrate the league. The result of the vote was 15 against and just one vote for, and this came just months after Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey led a different committee meeting to discuss why it was so key to keep MLB segregated. You know, the supposedly not at all racist Tom Yawkey. Here’s Baseball Reference’s Bullpen on that get together:
At the Owners’ Meeting, a committee formed to study integration, which includes Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, delivers its secretive report defending the covert color barrier which exists in professional baseball. The absurd reasons given why blacks shouldn’t be allowed to play in the big leagues include an absence of skills due to inferior training and lack of fundamentals as well as the need to respect existing Negro League contracts, but another lesser known motivation may have been profit, as revealed later in the report: “The Negro leagues rent their parks in many cities from clubs in Organized Baseball (and) Club owners in the major leagues are reluctant to give up revenues amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars every year” and the fear white fans would be driven away if black players attracted more minorities to the ballpark.
Commissioner Chandler felt differently about the need to integrate, as there was what was right and there was profit, and he chose what was right, as detailed in his memoir:
“I’ve already done a lot of thinking about this whole racial situation in our country. As a member of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, I got to know a lot about our casualties during the war. Plenty of Negro boys were willing to go out and fight and die for this country. Is it right when they came back to tell them they can’t play the national pastime? You know, Branch [Rickey], I’m going to have to meet my Maker some day. And if He asks me why I didn’t let this boy play, and I say it’s because he’s black, that might not be a satisfactory answer.
If the Lord made some people black, and some white, and some red or yellow, he must have had a pretty good reason. It isn’t my job to decide which colors can play big league baseball. It is my job to see that the game is fairly played and that everybody has an equal chance. I think if I do that, I can face my Maker with a clear conscience.”
Chandler thought of what he’d have to say to God if he had kept segregation going instead of helping to end it when he had the chance, and couldn’t come up with anything better than the feeling of having a clear conscience. MLB’s owners weren’t just racist and concerned with upholding the kind of structural racism in baseball that had been in place for more than half-a-century at that point, but were also worried that they’d make less money with Black baseball players in their own league than they would just charging them rent to play in their own. So, yeah, of course Chandler’s contract wasn’t extended when he asked for it to be extended. Of course he only had the one term as commissioner, even though Landis, the first commissioner, had just been in office for well over two decades and only exited it because death took him from his seat of power. The owners hated this guy.
It wasn’t just the first steps towards ending segregation that had them disliking Chandler, of course. The players generally enjoyed Chandler, too, and that was just a step too far. I’m not going to go as far as to say that Chandler was pro-labor or anything — he did, after all, prepare replacement players for a potential strike by the Pirates — but he did willingly assist the players to a degree that was basically unheard of in MLB’s history.
You might recall that Robert Murphy attempted to form a union in MLB back in 1946: Chandler was commissioner at the time. The Pirates were Murphy’s test case for attempting a strike to gain some leverage and extract concessions, as Pittsburgh was such a pro-union town. While that didn’t work, concessions were eventually given, as Chandler and even the owners could tell which way the wind was blowing, and how useful some concessions would be for keeping the players’ desire to organize in check. So, a pension fund was instituted, using revenue from the sale of World Series’ radio broadcasts, as well as a spring training per diem, known as “Murphy money,” to honor the man who scared them into providing it.
Murphy himself knew the score, saying the players “have been offered an apple, but they could have had an orchard,” but still, the pension ended up having some long-term ramifications, too, as it became a central point of organizing the proto-version of the Major League Baseball Players Association, as well as the focal point of the first successful strike in the game. It just took some time to grow that orchard from the initial apple. That wasn’t Chandler’s intent, but hey, it still worked out that way in the end.
Chandler’s time as commissioner would end despite his popularity: as his SABR bio put it, he might have been popular with fans and players, but they weren’t the ones paying his salary, nor did he work for them:
At the December 1949 winter meetings, Chandler asked the owners to extend his contract beyond its 1952 expiration date. In raising the matter, Chandler treated his reappointment like a political campaign, making speeches and public appearances all over the county. He had overwhelming support among fans, and most of the players were with him as well. Ted Williams said, “I know the players are strong for Chandler. Chandler has always been good to me.”8 But Chandler had failed to realize that the players and fans did not have a say in the matter. His fate would be decided exclusively by 16 voters, the major league team owners.
In order to put the reappointment question off, the owners passed a rule that the re-election of a commissioner could not be considered more than 18 months or less than 12 months before the commissioner’s term expired.
You know you’ve struck a nerve when a brand new rule is introduced that basically says, “quit asking us about your job status.” It would take until 1982 and a Veteran’s Committee vote for him to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, despite his role in helping to end segregation in MLB. Well, OK, his role in helping to end segregation is a large part of why it took until 1982 for him to receive that honor, one you know current commissioner Rob Manfred is just going to waltz right into even though the only people who like him are the owners who employ him. At least Chandler was still alive at the time of his election: he’d live well beyond that time, until 1991, to the age of 92.
Chandler, for his part, seemed to love baseball but hate that it was treated like such a business, which is good on him and for him, but you can see where it got him in the game. His career prospects didn’t fall apart with his dismissal from MLB or anything, though: Chandler became governor of Kentucky, and in 1954 called on the National Guard to enforce integration of a public school following Brown v. Board of Education. MLB’s owners probably would have been a little easier to deal with if Chandler had the National Guard at his disposal seven years before, too, but so it goes.