Happy Chandler

This article was written by Terry Bohn

Few 20th-century politicians had a more impressive résumé than Albert Chandler. During the course of his political career he served as Senator, Lieutenant Governor, and two terms as Governor of his home state of Kentucky. It can also be argued that few non-players had a greater impact on baseball. His support of Branch Rickey's signing of Jackie Robinson to a Brooklyn Dodgers contract helped change professional baseball forever. This action, as well as the other accomplishments of his six-year term as the second commissioner of major league baseball, warranted induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Chandler could be described as a man of contradictions. He was known for his smile and jovial nature (he picked up the nickname "Happy" in college and it stuck the rest of his life). He could also be ruthless and vindictive, and never forgave those he perceived as enemies. Chandler grew up in Kentucky during the Jim Crow era, making racial segregation a part of his experience. Later in life, however, his strong moral compass and Christian principles influenced his support of Rickey and Robinson. And even his detractors acknowledged that the major league game was in better shape when he left office than when he began.

Albert Benjamin Chandler was born in Corydon, Kentucky on July 14, 1898. He was the oldest child of Joseph, a farmer, and Callie (Saunders) Chandler. A younger brother, Robert, was born in 1899. Albert's mother was a teenager, maybe as young as 15, when he was born. Unable to cope with raising two young boys, she abandoned the family when he was about three. That, and his brother Robert's accidental death during his teen years, were two of Chandler’s most painful childhood memories.

Chandler was raised by his father and relatives. At a young age, he began to earn extra money from a newspaper route and doing odd jobs in the community. In 1917, he graduated from Corydon High School, where he was captain of the baseball and football teams. His father wanted him to study for the ministry, but instead he enrolled in Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. There, he was captain of the school's baseball and basketball teams, and quarterback of the football squad. During World War I he began officer's training school at college, but hostilities ended before he was called to active duty.

During summers while still in college, Chandler tried his hand at semi-professional baseball, playing for the Lexington Reds, where a teammate was future Hall of Fame outfielder Earle Combs. In 1920, Chandler pitched for a team in Grafton, North Dakota.1 He apparently had some talent – he had a 7-1 record and the ball field in town was later named in his honor in 1946. Later that summer he had an unsuccessful tryout with the Saskatoon club of the Class B Western Canada League.

Happy returned to Transylvania College and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1921. He then entered Harvard Law School, but after one year, he returned home and enrolled in the University of Kentucky College of Law. He received his law degree in 1924 and was admitted to the Kentucky bar the following year. On November 12, 1925, he married Mildred Watkins, a local teacher. The couple would have four children: Marcella, Mildred (Mimi), Albert Jr., and Joseph Daniel.

Chandler built a successful law practice in Versailles, Kentucky, but soon became interested in politics. In 1928 he became chairman of the Woodford County Democratic Committee; The following year, he was elected to represent the 22nd district in the Kentucky State Senate. Chandler first held statewide office when he was elected Kentucky's lieutenant governor in 1931 under Democratic Governor Ruby Laffoon. The two disagreed often, primarily over establishing a state sales tax, and Laffoon later stripped Chandler of some of his responsibilities.

Chandler soon set his sights on the governor's office, but feared Laffoon would select another candidate to succeed him by calling for a nominating convention instead of a primary election. This precipitated an early demonstration of Chandler's famed political skills. Under the Kentucky Constitution, the lieutenant governor became acting governor whenever the governor left the state. When Governor Laffoon went to Washington to meet with President Roosevelt, Chandler called the legislature into session and lobbied for quick passage of a bill requiring the primary election. Before Laffoon returned to the state, the bill passed and was signed into law by Acting Governor Chandler. Thereafter, Chandler won the gubernatorial primary and was elected to his first term as governor of Kentucky in 1935.

During his term as governor, Chandler oversaw the repeal of the sales tax, replacing lost revenues with new excise taxes and the state's first income tax. He also oversaw a major reorganization of state government, realizing significant savings for the state. These savings were then used to pay off the state debt and improve the state’s educational and transportation systems. By this time Chandler had begun to think about the presidency. As a stepping stone, he stood for a United States Senate seat in 1938, but lost. But when Senator M.M. Logan died in office in 1939, Chandler resigned as governor, and had his successor appoint him to the vacant Senate seat.

As a senator, Chandler generally supported the Roosevelt administration, but disagreed with certain aspects of New Deal legislation and some of the President's policies concerning European and Pacific war operations. Despite opposition from many in the black community, Chandler won reelection to a second Senate term in 1942. Ever ambitious, Chandler thought he had enough support to be Roosevelt's running mate in 1944, but when he failed to receive support at the Democratic National Convention. Senator Harry Truman of Missouri was chosen for the vice-presidential spot on the ticket instead.

During World War II, professional baseball was depleted when hundreds of players were called into the armed services. Many advocated for shutting baseball down during the war, but Chandler was an outspoken proponent of continuing baseball. Major league team owners took notice. When baseball's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, died in November 1944, those owners decided his replacement needed to be someone with the political skills and contacts needed to further baseball's interest in Washington. Chandler agreed to be a candidate, partly because the commissioner’s $50,000 annual salary was much more than he was earning as a senator.

Several other candidates were considered, with National League President Ford Frick the early frontrunner. But influential team owners Warren Giles (Cincinnati) and Phil Wrigley (Chicago Cubs) were opposed to Frick. Meanwhile, New York Yankees co-owner Larry MacPhail began to advocate for Chandler. With MacPhail's backing, and support from New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham, Chandler's name rose to the top of the list. When the owners met in Cleveland on April 24, 1945, an informal poll showed that Chandler likely had the support of two-thirds of the 16 major-league team owners needed for election. A second ballot showed he had the necessary majority, and the third vote taken made the choice of Chandler unanimous.

Because the war was still in progress, Chandler retained his Senate seat until November 1, 1945. He then resigned to commence his term as baseball commissioner. Despite the support he had had during his election, many team owners were upset with Chandler because he had delayed assuming office. He angered the two league presidents by advocating increased pay for umpires during the 1945 World Series. In addition, the press, particularly in the East, disdained him as a "windbag politician,” too undignified for the commissioner’s post. Chandler further alienated the press by moving the commissioner's office from Chicago to Cincinnati.

On October 23, 1945, or just a week before Chandler took office as commissioner, Brooklyn Dodgers part-owner Branch Rickey announced that he had signed Negro Leagues star Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers farm team in the International League. After Robinson had played a season in Montreal, Rickey's intention was to bring him up to the Dodgers in 1947 and thereby surmount baseball's color line by making Robinson the first black player in the major leagues since the 1880s.2 For this plan to succeed, Rickey knew he needed Commissioner Chandler's support, and was assured he would have it.

By 1946, the Dodgers had signed several other black players, including Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, to minor-league teams. That summer a special committee met in Chicago and submitted a report to the owners and league presidents. The report detailed every subject under discussion – except the "Race Question." Omitted from the report were arguments made in favor of continuing major league segregation. Those in favor of keeping the color line in place advanced two arguments. (1) The signing of more black players would lead to the end of the Negro Leagues, and some major-league owners were dependent on rent paid by Negro League teams for the use of their ballparks. (2) Black players on major-league rosters would mean more black fans, which in turn would arguably lessen the value of major-league franchises by making the game less attractive to white patrons.3

Chandler said little publicly, but his support for the signing of Robinson became evident through his actions. As commissioner, he had the authority to void Robinson's contract, but he did not. When Robinson and the Royals traveled to Louisville, Kentucky for the Little World Series in 1946, Chandler warned the Colonels ahead of time that any racial protest would not be tolerated.4 Following extreme jeering of Robinson, much of it of a racial nature, by members of the Philadelphia Phillies and their manager Ben Chapman during a game early in 1947, Chandler threatened Chapman and Phillies players with disciplinary action if any further incidents occurred. And when members of the St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike in protest of the presence of Robinson, Chandler backed up NL President Frick's threats to suspend any members of the Cardinals who followed through with the strike.

Rickey and Robinson deserve most of the credit, but Robinson acknowledged Chandler's role in the integration of baseball. In a 1956 letter to Chandler, Robinson said, "I will never forget your part in the so called Rickey experiment."5 At least one other former player also appreciated Chandler's contribution to baseball’s integration. Don Newcombe, who joined Robinson on the Dodgers in 1949, later said, "Some of the things he did for Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and [me] when he was commissioner of baseball – those are the kinds of things we never forget." Newcombe added that Chandler had cared for black players in baseball "when it wasn't fashionable."6

The integration of Robinson was the most significant event of Chandler's term, but there were other serious issues he had to deal with. In early 1946, Mexican millionaire Jorge Pasquel and his brothers sought to elevate their nation’s baseball league to major-league status. They offered big-league players large salaries and bonuses to jump their contracts and play in Mexico. Chandler responded by imposing a five-year ban from baseball on any players who accepted Pasquel's offers. Still, 18 major leaguers played in Mexico, but the game's biggest stars (like Stan Musial and Ted Williams) all turned down lucrative offers to play in the Mexican League.

Shortly thereafter, Robert Murphy, a former negotiator with the National Labor Relations Board, attempted to organize Pittsburgh Pirates players for the purpose of collective bargaining. Murphy opposed the reserve clause in player contracts and sought more rights for the players, including the right of salary arbitration. Commissioner Chandler worked successfully with Pirates management to avoid any player strike, but had contingency plans to field a team of replacements if the Pirates players had struck.

At the same time that Robinson was making his debut with Brooklyn, Chandler had to settle a dispute between the New York Yankees and the Dodgers. Before the 1947 season, Yankees president MacPhail signed two Dodgers coaches, Chuck Dressen and John Corriden, while both were still under contract with Brooklyn. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was also reportedly seeking the Yankee manager's job while still working for Brooklyn. In addition, evidence had been uncovered about Durocher's alleged association with gamblers. Chandler responded to all this by suspending Durocher "for conduct detrimental to baseball" for the entire 1948 season. He also suspended Dressen for 30 days, and fined MacPhail and the Brooklyn club $2,500 each.7

The 1948 season was relatively quiet, but in 1949 Mexican League jumpers Danny Gardella, Max Lanier, and Fred Martin filed suit against Organized Baseball. They alleged that the ban imposed by Chandler had denied them a means of pursuing a livelihood. Central to the lawsuit was a challenge to major league baseball’s longtime exemption from federal antitrust laws. A lower federal court denied relief, but Chandler and club owners were anxious to avoid any further scrutiny of the antitrust exemption on appeal. Chandler therefore agreed to relax the ban and reinstate the players two years early. Still, Gardella did not drop the suit, and Chandler and baseball executives eventually agreed to an out-of-court monetary settlement of his claims.

In 1947, Commissioner Chandler sold the radio rights to that year’s World Series for $475,000 and then used the money from the contract to establish the first pension fund for major league baseball players. In 1949, he negotiated a seven-year contract with Gillette and the Mutual Broadcasting System to broadcast the Series. Proceeds from that $370,000 deal went directly into the pension fund. Then in 1950, the same two companies negotiated a six-year, $6 million contract to telecast the Series. Again, Chandler channeled the contract proceeds into the players pension fund.

Although baseball club owners were Chandler's employer, he had often asserted his independence, and by midway through his term, the commissioner had made a number of enemies among the owners. For example, he angered Yankees co-owner Del Webb when he voided a trade between the Yankees and White Sox involving outfielder Dick Wakefield, leaving the Yankees on the hook for Wakefield’s salary. In 1949, Chandler lost the support of Chicago White Sox boss Chuck Comiskey when he fined and later suspended White Sox general manager Leslie O'Connor for illegally signing a high school player. St. Louis Cardinals owner Fred Saigh disagreed with Chandler’s handling of the Mexican League players, while Chandler initiated investigations into Saigh's possible gambling connections, creating another enemy.

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. When the reappointment question came up again the following December at meetings held in St. Petersburg, Florida, Chandler's strongest supporters were Clark Griffith of Washington, Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers, and the Giants' Horace Stoneham. The Cardinals’ Saigh was the most vocal member of the opposition.

The vote was far from decisive. Initially, nine owners voted in favor of Chandler’s reappointment while seven were opposed. The owners changed the requirement from a simple majority to a 75% super-majority after Landis died in 1944. Thus, subsequent ballots were needed. The second vote was an eight-eight tie because Cleveland owner Ellis Ryan switched sides after Frank Lausche, the governor of Ohio, was mentioned as a possible successor to Chandler. Ultimately, Chandler was not re-elected, even though a third and final vote was 9-7 in his favor. After the outcome was decided, Chandler remarked, "It's the first time I ever won a majority but lost an election."9

Commissioner Chandler negotiated an agreement with the owners to remain in office until July 31, 1951, but he was a lame duck. Rather than one specific incident, his failure to secure a second term seems to reflect how he often sided with the interests of the players instead of the owners. For this, he was often called the "players’ commissioner." Chandler was a baseball fan at heart, and bemoaned how the owners treated the game that he loved as a big business, all the while expecting Chandler to go to Washington and argue that baseball was not interstate commerce and therefore entitled to its antitrust exemption.

Following his term as commissioner, Chandler returned to Kentucky to resume his law practice. But he soon began to rebuild his political base in preparation for another run for governor. He won a second term in 1955. Upon taking office, he discovered that he had to raise taxes in order to balance the state's budget, but he nevertheless found enough funds to establish a medical school at the University of Kentucky, later named Chandler Medical Center in his honor. In the wake of the United States Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, Chandler had to call out the National Guard on one occasion to enforce the integration of one of the state's public schools.

When his second term as governor ended, Chandler set his sights on the presidential nomination at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, saying that frontrunner John F. Kennedy was "a nice young fellow ... (but) too young for the nomination." Again, Chandler failed as a candidate for national office, in part because he did not adapt well as political campaigns moved from personal interaction with voters (his strength) to television. Undeterred, he made three more unsuccessful runs for governor in 1963, 1967, and 1971.

After he left the commissioner's office, Chandler was essentially ignored by Organized Baseball and his two successors, Commissioners Ford Frick and William Eckert. He was not invited to All-Star games or to any other functions associated with major league baseball. It was not until Bowie Kuhn became commissioner in 1969, and had to deal with Curt Flood's demand for free agency, that people recalled that Chandler had dealt with similar issues regarding baseball's reserve clause 20 years earlier. Flood’s ethnicity also stirred memories of Chandler's role in bringing Jackie Robinson into baseball.

In 1982, the Veteran's Committee inducted Chandler into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He saw his election as something of a vindication for his contributions to baseball and his accomplishments while in office. In his induction speech, Chandler said, "I figured that someday I'd have to meet my maker, and he'd ask me why I didn't let that boy (Robinson) play. I was afraid that if I told him it was because he was black, that wouldn't have been sufficient. I told (Dodgers President Branch) Rickey to bring him on."

In 1988, Kentucky Governor Wallace Wilkinson gave Chandler voting rights on the University of Kentucky's board of trustees (he had previously been an honorary, non-voting member). During a trustees meeting that April, the University’s investments in Africa that April were discussed. The almost-90-year-old Chandler said, "You all know Zimbabwe is all nigger now. There aren't any whites."10 These comments spurred protests, threats of strikes by students, and calls for Wilkinson to replace Chandler on the university board. After first trying to explain away his remarks by saying that racial slurs were commonly used during his childhood, Chandler apologized and always expressed regret about what he said.

Happy Chandler lived quietly with Millie in Versailles until his death from a heart attack on June 15, 1991. He was 92. He was survived by his wife, two sons, two daughters, 12 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. One of his grandsons, Ben Chandler, represented Kentucky's 6th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2004 to 2013. Happy Chandler was buried in the churchyard of Pisgah Presbyterian Church near Versailles.

During his lifetime, Chandler received numerous accolades and awards. But perhaps his most impressive achievement was how he was remembered by the person who knew him best, his wife Millie. Shortly after Happy died, she said, "He had a most satisfactory life and accomplished many, many things, a lot of things the general public doesn't know about. His mind was always on seeing what he could do to make things equal for those who were considered downtrodden."11

 

Sources

Unless otherwise noted, much of the information contained in this biography was taken from detailed profiles about Chandler in the May 3, 1945 and March 21 and March 28, 1946 issues of The Sporting News.

In addition to the sources cited in the notes, the author also consulted:

"Did Happy Chandler Deserve Bows for Letting Jackie Play?” New York Times, June 30, 1991.

Hill, John Paul, "Commissioner A. B. Happy Chandler and the Integration of Major League Baseball: A Reassessment," NINE: a Journal of Baseball History and Culture (Fall 2010), 19 (1): 28-52.

Moffi, Larry, The Conscience of the Game: Baseball's Commissioners From Landis to Selig, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).

Deford, Frank, "Happy Days," Sports Illustrated, July 30, 1987.

Trimble, Vance H., Heroes, Plain Folks, and Skunks: The Life and Times of Happy Chandler (Chicago: Bonus Books, 1989).

Marshall, William, Baseball's Pivotal Era: 1945-1951 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

Zimbalist, Andrew, In the Best Interest of Baseball: The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).

Banner, Stuart, The Baseball Trust: A History of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

At the Plate and on the Mound: Profiles From Baseball's Past, iUniverse, 2001.

Mann, Arthur, Baseball Confidential: Secret History of the War Among Chandler, Durocher, MacPhail, and Rickey (New York: McKay, 1951).

 

Notes

1 A feature in the June 16, 1946 issue of The Sporting News noted that Chandler played in an old-timers game in Grafton while in town for a ceremony dedicating the new ballpark as "Chandler Field.” The article indicated that Chandler had a 12-1 pitching record in 1920. However independent research by the author uncovered the July 30, 1920 issue of the Grafton (North Dakota) News and Times which showed that Chandler had a 7-1 record in season-ending statistics.

2 Jackie Robinson was not the first black major leaguer. In 1884, brothers Moses and Weldy Walker played for Toledo of the American Association, then a major league.

3 The Sporting News, "Chandler Files Reveal Segregation Died Hard," February 25, 1978.

4 Ira Berkow, "Did Happy Chandler Deserve Bows for Letting Jackie Play?" New York Times, June 30, 1991.

5 Larry Powell. At the Plate and on the Mound: Profiles From Baseball's Past Universe (iUniverse Incorporated, August 1, 2001), 70.

8 The Sporting News, March 7, 1951.

9 The Sporting News, August 15, 1951.

10 Ellensburg (Washington) Daily Record, April 8, 1988.

11 Hendersonville (North Carolina) Times-News, June 16, 1991.