Kenesaw Mountain Landis

Kenesaw Mountain Landis

This article was written by Dan Busby


Kenesaw Mountain Landis

Some said that baseball owners found Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis on the federal bench, but Leo Durocher got it right when he said, “They got him right out of Dickens.”1 Ruth put the fans back in the parks, but Landis made sure what they witnessed was honest. The Sultan and the Czar worked different sides of the street but between them, they saved the game.

As baseball’s first commissioner, Landis was the first and last court of recourse. Though standing only 5-feet-6 and weighing about 130 pounds, Landis was an intimidating presence. Players and owners alike quaked when they were called to his Chicago office.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis was born in Millville, Ohio, on November 20, 1866.2 It was only a little over a year after the close of the Civil War. His father, Dr. Abraham Landis, had served as a surgeon with the Union forces. It was no surprise that Kenesaw loved Civil War history.3

In 1869 Abraham Landis relocated the family to Seven Mile, Ohio, and then moved to northern Indiana in 1875, settling in Logansport.4 In 1882 Kenesaw enrolled in an algebra class, simultaneously reaching the end of his secondary education. The course so frustrated him that the 15-year-old dropped out of high school.5

In 1889 Kenesaw secured admission to the Indiana bar, which was permissible then even without a high-school education and without passing an examination. He “read law with the firm of Custer and Stevenson in Marion, Indiana,”6 where his brother Walter was the editor of the Chronicle newspaper.

Kenesaw soon realized that he needed a degree if he was going to practice law, and he enrolled in Cincinnati’s YMCA Law School. He transferred to Chicago’s Union Law School (now part of Northwestern University) for his senior year, graduating in 1891.7

In the Union Army, Abraham Landis was under the command of Lt. Col. Walter Quinton Gresham during Sherman’s advance through Tennessee and Georgia. Gresham later served in three separate Cabinet posts and was considered a potential presidential candidate. In 1893 Gresham was appointed secretary of state by President Grover Cleveland. He needed a personal secretary and he chose a 26-year-old Chicago attorney with no knowledge of foreign affairs, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. When Gresham died in 1895, the president offered young Landis the post of minister to Venezuela. Missing the legal profession, he declined Cleveland’s offer.8 He returned to Chicago and resumed the practice of law, forming a partnership, Uhl, Jones & Landis, with two former Washington associates, James Uhl, former undersecretary of state, and Frank Jones, a former assistant postmaster general.9

President Cleveland had told Landis he was missing a great opportunity by refusing the diplomatic post. Landis responded, “Maybe you think so, Mr. President, but there’s a girl … who thinks otherwise.”10 Landis, 28 years old, and Winifred Reed, 23 years old, were married on July 25, 1895. They would have three children.

Back in Chicago, Landis became active as a progressive Republican — they were the majority party in Illinois. “In 1902 rumors even floated of a Landis congressional bid.”11 But a real campaign would have to wait until 1904, when Landis managed the campaign of a fellow attorney, Frank Orren Lowden, for governor of Illinois. Landis was in charge of Lowden’s Cook County headquarters.

Even though Lowden lost in his bid for the governor’s nomination, he was appointed to the Republican National Committee, providing him with contacts in Washington. Through these contacts, President Teddy Roosevelt offered Lowden a federal judgeship. He declined the offer and encouraged the president to name Landis to the position. Roosevelt included Landis in a slate of judicial nominees he sent to the Senate, and his nomination was approved in 1905.12

Kenesaw Landis, circa 1907

In 1907 Judge Landis gained national attention as a trust-buster. He delivered a $29,240,000 fine against the Standard Oil Company. Writing in Appleton’s Magazine, John T. McCutcheon said, “[Z]ealous patriots hastened to mention him for President and a ‘Landis’ cigar is only a matter of time.” Although an appellate court overturned his ruling and severely chastised Landis, his reputation as a people’s judge remained intact.13 “The rebuke never caught up with the original glory. To the end of his days, Landis was known as the judge who had slapped a $29 million fine on the Standard Oil Company.”14

What a fabulous personality was Judge Landis. “Vivid in appearance, his shaggy white hair a trademark as inescapable as the snow on the top of Mount Everest, he had everything it takes to catch the public eye and keep it,” a magazine profile said of him.15 Not since Abraham Lincoln had a person in public life possessed features so memorably, so indisputably honest — a picture of rigid dignity. He wore old, oversize clothes, a battered black hat, and a standup collar.

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.16

Several years before he became the commissioner of baseball, Organized Baseball took notice of Landis. In 1915, Organized Baseball and the Federal League were in the second year of their war. 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.17 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.18

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.

Landis did not make a decision on the Federal League case during 1915. In December, with the World War coming closer to the U.S. shores and influential Brookfed owner Robert B. Ward having died, the Federal League reached a peace treaty with Organized Baseball on December 23, 1915. The Federal League withdrew the antitrust lawsuit pending before Judge Landis in Chicago on February 3, 1916.19 After dismissing the suit, Landis indicated that he had no intention of ruling in favor of the Federal League. He declared, “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.”20 This gave Landis the reputation of saving baseball in 1915.

From 1903 to 1920, a three-person committee, the National Commission, oversaw baseball. The members of the commission were August Herrmann (chairman), 1903 to 1920; Ban Johnson (AL), 1903 to 1920; Harry Pulliam (NL), 1903 to 1909; John Heydler (NL), 1909 and 1918 to 1920; Thomas Lynch (NL), 1910 to 1913; and John K. Tener (NL), 1913 to 1918. Ban Johnson was the real czar of baseball, but Garry Herrmann, the Cincinnati Reds owner, was the nominal head of the National Commission.  

Beginning in early 1919 and continuing through early 1920, months before Landis was named commissioner, Organized Baseball struggled with who should serve on the National Commission. Should Garry Herrmann, Ban Johnson, and John Heydler be replaced, or did baseball need a single commissioner? “The tumult surrounding the National Commission, both owners and sportswriters warned, prevented an examination of what they considered the game’s most troublesome ailment: gambling.”21

Despite the commonly held belief that the Black Sox Scandal triggered the breakup of the National Commission, Herrmann was out as the head of the commission early in January 1920, but Landis had been mentioned as the dictator baseball needed as early as September 1919.22 “Early in 1920, he announced that he was not a candidate for the chairmanship of the National Commission; if this was a calculated decision to await a more propitious moment, it was astute.”23

The 13½ months before Landis was named commissioner, October 1, 1919 (the first game of the World Series), to November 12, 1920 (when Landis was elected commissioner), was one of the stormiest periods ever recorded in the history of major-league baseball. And during most of this time, there was no actual head of Organized Baseball. Controversies were settled by the two league heads, Heydler and Johnson.

The popularity of baseball had soared in 1919 after a shortened 1918 season due to World War I. The Series was scheduled as a best-of-nine affair, the first of a three-year experiment. “Landis was a spectator during the 1919 Series, just an ordinary fan. But he would soon emerge as the most influential and powerful force in baseball at precisely the time that the game needed decisive leadership and an image of integrity.”24

“Fixing” baseball games was associated with baseball as early as early as 1865.25 A ballgame “afforded a pleasant, even exciting afternoon in the sunlight, an event to which a gentleman could take his lady — and bet.”26 Baseball historian Lee Allen said: “The situation was especially bad in Brooklyn where the Atlantic club fostered so much betting that one section of the grounds was known as the Gold Board, with activity that rivaled that of the stock exchange.”27

Baseball pioneers Henry Chadwick and Ban Johnson tried to move the game beyond corruption, but these efforts were futile. Fred Lieb writes that just before the 1903 World Series “bettors with fistfuls of folding money camped in the lobby of the Vendome Hotel in Boston prior to the first game played on the Pilgrims’ old Huntington Avenue Grounds, on October 1.”28 Gambling scandals were common during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

So it was in an era when professional gamblers were increasingly making inroads into baseball that the 1919 World Series was played. The Chicago White Sox were heavily favored to win the Series but lost, five games to three, to the Cincinnati Reds. Rumors of a gambling fix quickly arose. Charles Comiskey, American League President Ban Johnson, and other baseball officials spent the 1919-20 offseason investigating the matter. Gene Carney wrote, “It looks very much like the investigating Comiskey did … was carried on to ensure that any hard evidence found would remain hidden from public view.”29

On September 28, 1920, the Cleveland Indians led the American League with the White Sox one game behind them. The White Sox needed to win all three of their remaining games and then hope for Cleveland to stumble, as the Indians had more games left to play than the White Sox. On this same day, Eddie Cicotte confessed to a grand jury his participation in the scheme. Despite the season being on the line, Comiskey indefinitely suspended Cicotte, Jackson, Williams, Felsch, Risberg, Weaver, and McMullen that day. “Comiskey received a kind-hearted gesture from Jacob C. Ruppert and T. L’H. Huston of New York, who offered him any of their Yankees players, including Babe Ruth, to allow him to finish the season with quality replacements.”30 “Comiskey appreciated the offer, but believed the rules of the league prevented him from taking them up on it and used his own backup players.”31 There was talk of calling off the Brooklyn-Cleveland World Series of 1920, but the Series went on.

On October 29, 1920, “[T]he Chicago grand jury voted indictments against eight of the leading players of the White Sox, and several gamblers, for conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.”32

Kenesaw Landis, circa 1915

It was now clear that baseball needed to restore confidence in the game and prevent the recurrence of a gambling scandal. But the battle of team owners over how to reorganize the major leagues, restructure the National Commission, or develop a position of a commissioner was fierce. Under one plan, a new 12-club major league was proposed. Also, three American League teams (Chicago, Boston, and New York) threatened to jump to the National League. In the final analysis, the two leagues remained intact and the concept of a commissioner of baseball won the day.33

There were other candidates for commissioner. They included former Milwaukee and Boston stockholder Henry Killilea; two New York City attorneys, Big Bill Edwards and John Conway Toole; New York state Senator James J. Walker (the father of Sunday baseball in New York); Chicago Tribune sports editor Harvey Woodruff; former President William Howard Taft; General John J. Pershing; US Senator Hiram Johnson (R-California); General Leonard Wood, a presidential contender; and former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo.34

On November 12, 1920, baseball owners unanimously elected Landis as the first commissioner of baseball. When the owners traveled to Chicago to meet with Landis, he “laid down terms that were hard. The owners of ball clubs must yield all their rights — even the right to think.”35 The baseball magnates were stricken with panic that the public would desert them (or their turnstiles) and were willing to agree to anything and everything. They offered Landis a seven-year contract with a salary of $50,000, which was much more than the top players made.36

When Landis signed his agreement with the 16 major-league clubs and formally took charge of baseball, he insisted that his salary of $7,500 on the federal bench be deducted from what Organized Baseball would pay him. Landis was less altruistic than it appeared because he required a $7,500 annual expense account, on which he would pay no income tax.37

Will Rogers, the quaint Oklahoma philosopher, summarized it this way: “Baseball needed a touch of class and distinction. So, somebody said: ‘Get that old boy who sits behind first base all the time. He’s out there every day anyhow.’ So, they offered him a season’s pass and he jumped at it.”38

Writer H.K. Middleton, depicted the diminutive Landis: “A huge shock of gray hair, allowed to grow to tragedian lengths. Features finely chiseled, upon which rest almost continuously a threateningly serious express. A high standing collar with a tiny black string tie. An astonishingly heavy cane with a great number of rubber bands wound around the head.”39

When Landis was officially installed on January 12, 1921, he sent a wake-up call to the indicted players: “If the [the Black Sox players] are found not guilty by a jury or judge, they will not necessarily be allowed to return to Organized Baseball.”40 The next day Landis called major team owners to his office, telling them to suppress gambling in their ballparks.41

In his first decision as commissioner, on February 22, 1921, Landis ruled against Branch Rickey, then vice president and manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Both the Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns claimed a young first baseman, Phil Todt.42

Early in 1921, Landis drew a bead on the New York Giants. Manager John McGraw and team owner Charles Stoneham had purchased Havana’s Oriental Park racetrack and the Cuban American Jockey Club. Landis ordered McGraw and Stoneham to sell their Havana holdings. (They bowed to the demands of Landis.)43 Soon thereafter, Landis again challenged Stoneham, who had entertained New York gambling kingpin Arnold Rothstein in his box at the Polo Grounds. Stoneham promised that it would not happen again.44

The October 29, 1920, Black Sox indictments were dismissed on March 17, 192145 for strategic and technical reasons, and then the players and gamblers were re-indicted on March 26.46 “With the 1921 baseball season on the horizon, the prosecution sought an indefinite postponement of the proceedings.”47 Landis decided to place the seven indicted players on the ineligible list pending the disposition of the case.48

Even though the White Sox players were cleared in court of the second indictments on August 2, 1921, Landis ignored the jury’s not-guilty verdict and the next morning, on August 3,49 he banned the eight White Sox players for life and irrevocably altered their lives. He declared, “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 a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”50

As the commissioner, Landis had the power to fine ballplayers any sum he wished, suspend them for as long as he wished, “even cast them forever into the painful oblivion of having to work for a living. There was no appeal from any of his actions. He was the court of last resort.”51

Baseball survived the 1919 gambling scandal. While gambling did not cease with the 1919 World Series, the penalties levied on players betting on a game or consorting with gamblers was now crystal-clear. In spite of the Black Sox Scandal, baseball attendance remained strong through the 1920-30 decade. Contributing factors included Landis’s decisive action in banishing the Black Sox, the growing popularity of Babe Ruth, and simply the fans’ love of the game.

Babe Ruth hit an astounding 59 home runs in 1921 and considered himself the number-one man in baseball. The Babe loved to spend money and he loved making money. This love was soon tested: “Baseball owners had no hesitation in scheduling exhibit games during the regular seasons. Their players received no extra cash for these game on days when they could have gotten some well-deserved rest.”52 But baseball rules banned players of the two contending World Series teams from participating in any exhibition games after the series.”53

Before the 1921 season ended, Ruth signed an agreement to play in a series of barnstorming games from October 16 through November 1. Landis stopped by the Yankees clubhouse on the last day of the season to congratulate them on winning the pennant. Ruth asked him, “Judge, what’s all this talk about our being forbidden to barnstorm after the Series?” Landis repeated the rule and said it would be strictly enforced. “Well,” Ruth responded, “I’m notifying you that I am going to violate the rule and I don’t care what you do about it.” Landis knew he must respond to such a direct challenge.54

Landis doled out penalties to the barnstorming participants on October 16, 1921. He initially withheld the World Series share of three Yankees, Ruth, Meusel, and Bill Piercy, and suspended them until May 20, 1922. (He did allow the players to participate in the 1922 spring-training games.) Landis later paid the disciplined players their World Series shares. (In August 1922 baseball changed its barnstorming rules to allow Series participants to barnstorm through the end of October — later extended through November 10 — based on petitioning Landis for approval.)

For 1919, 1920, and 1921, the World Series featured a best-of-nine-game format. The major leagues reverted to the seven-game format, which has been used to this day, on December 20, 1921, when Commissioner Landis cast a tiebreaking vote at the major-league winter meetings.

On February 18, 1922, Landis announced that he had tendered his resignation as a member of the federal judiciary, effective on March 1. “Some legislators and reporters [had] questioned Landis’s decision to retain his federal judgeship.”55 Representative Benjamin Welty of Ohio pressed for the impeachment of Landis. Landis announced: “There are not enough hours in the day for all my activities, therefore I have forwarded my resignation, effective March 1.”56 After the resignation, his baseball salary was increased to $50,000 annually, the amount originally agreed upon.

The 1922 World Series drew Landis into a very public controversy. In Game Two, after 10 innings, there was a 3-3 tie. Umpire George Hildebrand called the contest on account of darkness at 4:46 P.M. with perhaps 45 minutes of daylight remaining. A fellow umpire had suggested that it might not be able to complete another full inning before it was dark. Hildebrand consulted with the ever-present Landis and he approved. The crowd noticed the conversation with Landis and blamed him for stopping the game, believing the call was made to add a game to the World Series and make more money for team owners.57 Landis was “roundly booed — many flipped him ‘the bird’ –as he left the park.”58 The next day, he turned over the game’s gate receipts of $120,554 to charity.

Kenesaw Landis, circa 1926

In 1925, F.C. Lane, the editor of Baseball Magazine, reviewed Landis’s first four years as commissioner. He emphasized that confidence in baseball had been restored, Landis had faithfully fought gambling, and baseball had prospered. He noted that it was unclear how much of the credit for the prosperity was to the credit of Landis and how much it related to the recovery after World War I and the high popularity of Babe Ruth and other sluggers. In some respects, Lane was critical of Landis: “The Judge has a cold, self-centered merciless strength of purpose entirely lacking in loyalty, gratitude or the more human elements. … The Judge has a truly colossal egotism and a personal vanity quite as astonishing. We understand that these characteristics are the usual accompaniment of genius. Napoleon had them. But unfortunately, they are not the proof of genius. Many very small men have inflated notions of their own importance in the general scheme of things.”59

In the autumn of the 1922 season, Jimmy O’Connell was attracting attention in the Pacific Coast League with the San Francisco Seals. The Giants outbid the Yankees for O’Connell by sending a blank check to Charles Graham, owner of the Seals. Graham filled in the check with the amount of $75,000 — it was the highest price ever paid for a minor-league player. O’Connell played for the Giants during parts of the 1923 and 1924 seasons.

John “Heinie” Sand had also come up through the Pacific Coast League before joining the Phillies in 1923 and was an acquaintance of O’Connell. Late in 1923, O’Connell asked Sand what he thought about the pennant race. Sand said he hoped the Phillies would win the final two games against the Giants and the Braves would beat Brooklyn, forcing a tie for the pennant. O’Connell asked Sand if $500 would change his mind. Sand expressed no interest. The Giants won the game and the pennant.

Sand told his manager, Art Fletcher, of the $500 offer from O’Connell. Fletcher reported it to John Heydler, National League president, who in turn called Landis. Landis immediately met with Sand and then with O’Connell, who admitted he made the offer. However, O’Connell said Cozy Dolan, a coach, had put him up to it and Dolan said the entire Giants team would chip in to make up the $500.

Landis immediately banned O’Connell and Dolan from Organized Baseball. Ban Johnson, intent on curbing Landis’s power, was incensed that Landis had failed to notify him of the events surrounding the matter. Both Dolan and O’Connell would periodically appeal to Landis to return to baseball, but their pleas went unheard.

Baseball players were developing a healthy fear of Landis, but it did not stop the whispers of pre-Landis scandals. The next scandal Landis would face involved two of the all-time baseball greats who were in the twilight of their careers. Ty Cobb, age 39, was the player-manager of the Detroit Tigers and Tris Speaker, 38, was the player-manager of the Cleveland Indians. There was also a subplot involving Ban Johnson, Landis’s rival. The players survived the episode, but Johnson did not.

In 1926 the Tigers finished in sixth place and there were signs that Cobb might have finished his 22-year career with Detroit. Owner Frank Navin indicated that Cobb would not be retained for the 1927 season as player or manager. Cobb “handed in his resignation on November 4, briefly stating that he was ‘bone tired.’”60 He also said that Navin did not understand how to build a winning team.

In Cleveland, Tris Speaker, a fan favorite, had just led the Indians to a second-place finish, only three games behind the Yankees. Speaker suddenly resigned on November 29 to enter the trucking business.

Then, just before Christmas, Landis shared some stunning information. He confirmed “as true the rumor that Cobb and Speaker had been permitted by him to resign in the face of accusations made against them of fixing and betting on a game played between Detroit and Cleveland”61 years earlier.

After a game played on September 24, 1919, Cobb and Speaker met under the stands at Navin Field with Indians right-hander Smoky Joe Wood and Detroit pitcher Hubert “Dutch” Leonard. According to Leonard, Cobb bet $2,000, Speaker $1,500, and Wood and Leonard $1,000 each on the Tigers to win the next day’s game. It was not illegal for players to bet on games at that time.62

Cobb had written a letter to Leonard, providing some evidence of a gambling conspiracy. Wood had also written a letter to Leonard, confirming the conspiracy. Leonard’s relationship with Cobb and Speaker soured and he kept the two letters to possibly use against them.63

In June 1926 Leonard gave the two letters to Ban Johnson and was paid $20,000 for them. Johnson called a secret session of the American League board of directors and on September 9, the board decided it was best to quietly ease Cobb and Speaker out of the league.64 They assumed that when they informed Landis of the matter, he would rubber-stamp their action. They were wrong.

Landis opened his own investigation. On December 20 Landis released Leonard’s correspondence and transcripts of the players’ testimony. This touched off a lurid sport scandal. Landis then conducted an inquiry session on January 5, 1927, with 40 witnesses. On January 27 Landis exonerated Cobb and Speaker, finding them not guilty of fixing a ballgame. The matter was a major embarrassment to Ban Johnson because he had prejudged Cobb. Johnson was forced by the AL owners to take a leave of absence and later to resign as American League president.

While the Cobb-Speaker issue was swirling, another crisis appeared on Landis’s desk. Chick Gandil, former Black Sox first baseman, made new accusations against his former teammates. Swede Risberg, former Black Sox infielder, was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying: “I can give baseball’s bosses information that will implicate 20 big leaguers who never before have been mentioned in connection with crookedness. …”65 Landis called Risberg’s bluff, asking him to produce the facts. While Landis publicly treated the 1917 story as new information, rumors of a 1917 fix had floated around baseball for years.

After privately interrogating Risberg on January 1, 1927, Landis opened hearings a few days later. On January 12 Landis released his verdict, exonerating every player Risberg had accused.66

To protect the dignity of the game, on January 27, 1930, Landis forbade Cub outfield Hack Wilson and White Sox first baseman Art “The Great” Shires from pursuing careers in professional boxing.67

Rogers Hornsby was perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter the game has ever seen. “He, however, was also the greatest right-handed horse player baseball had ever seen — not a trait to endear him to Landis.”68 Now with the Chicago Cubs in 1932, Hornsby was borrowing huge sums from his teammates to cover his gambling debts. While Landis did not issue an official finding, he released 36 pages of transcripts from his review.69

In Game Four of the 1933 Giants-Senators World Series, umpire Charlie Moran ejected Senators left fielder Heinie Manush from the game after he and other Senators questioned his call at first base. Before the next game, Landis spoke to the entire umpiring crew. He said the fans had paid top dollar to see the top stars of the game and from then on, no player would be thrown out of a World Series game without his approval. He formalized that decision in December, and the rule remained in effect until his passing.70

Supported by New York World Telegram sportswriter Joe Williams and Greenville, South Carolina, Mayor John M. Mauldin, Shoeless Joe Jackson appealed to Landis early in 1934 to have his lifetime ban dropped. After reviewing the appeal, Landis concluded, “This application must be denied.”71

Kenesaw Landis, circa 1929

Landis was never a fan of the farm teams owned by major-league teams. Branch Rickey had pioneered the modern farm system in the early 1920s, but Landis was committed to try to tear down the system. In April 1930 St. Louis Browns owner Phil Ball attempted to send Fred Bennett to the Milwaukee Brewers, a minor-league team under the Browns’ control. It was the third season Bennett would play for a Browns-controlled team, violating baseball’s rules. After Ball threatened legal action, Landis relented. Then Bennett petitioned Landis for free agency and Landis granted it.

The Browns subsequently sued to restrain Landis from interfering with the assignment of Bennett or any other assignments made by the team. In April 1931 the court voided what Judge Walter C. Lindley called the “secret absolute control” of players by baseball clubs, but the court upheld the farm system.72 In June 1931 Ball appealed the court’s decision and did not withdraw it until December 28, 1931, when American League owners pressured him to do so. In December 1932 the major leagues adopted “a new rule on options that effectively voided” the actions of Landis in the Bennett case.73

Landis continued fighting major-league control of the minor leagues — freeing minor leaguers on a case-by-case basis, either individually or by the carload. In 1938 he freed 73 St. Louis Cardinals farmhands. In 1939 he freed 90 players in the Detroit Tigers farm system.

With Japan’s surprise attack in December 1941, a question arose as to whether professional baseball should continue during the war. At the major-league meetings on December 11, 1941, Landis took the position that baseball would continue, assuming the federal government applied no restrictions. Landis wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 14, 1942: “If you believe we ought to close down for the duration of the war, we are ready to do so immediately. If you feel we ought to continue, we would be delighted to do so. We await your order.”74

Roosevelt had no intention of taking the blame for even the temporary demise of the national pastime. In the famous “Green Light” letter, dated January 15, 1942, Roosevelt wrote, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”75

On May 28, 1942, Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs beat the Dizzy Dean All-Stars, a group of major leaguers, by 3-1 before 29,000 at Wrigley Field. On May 30 the two teams drew 22,000 at Griffith Stadium. The Monarchs won again by 13-3. On June 5 at Pittsburgh, Paige (now on loan to the Homestead Grays), beat Dean’s All-Stars by 8-1 before 22,000, the largest Forbes Field crowd of the season. Landis proceeded to ban a scheduled July 4 contest. “His stated reason: The first two games had outdrawn major-league contests.”76

In January 1943 Landis went to Washington to confer about restricting the travel of baseball teams for spring training. It was agreed that clubs would not train south of the Potomac and Ohio Rivers, and, with the exception of the St. Louis clubs, west of the Mississippi. He did not go to Washington at any other time to present baseball’s problems caused by the war to the federal government.77

In Landis’s last significant case, on November 23, 1943, he banned Philadelphia Phillies owner William Cox for betting on his own team.78 After Jerry Nugent lost control of the Phillies in 1943, Cox headed a 30-man group to purchase the team. During the 1943 season, Cox fired manager Bucky Harris. Harris then reported that Cox was betting on the Phillies. Cox denied the charges, saying that a lumber-company business associate was placing the bets. Finally, Cox admitted betting on the Phillies. Cox was pushed out of baseball by Landis, and within a few days, Robert R.M. “Ruly” Carpenter Jr., a scion of the duPont family, purchased the team.

Landis’s 24-year tenure as commissioner of baseball coincided with vital decisions and historic events in the sport. It was a time when the course of the game was shaped to a large extent by the character of one man — Judge Landis. He had two violent passions — a love of baseball (he played on semipro teams in his youth) and a hatred of gambling. It was reported that Landis vetoed Bing Crosby’s bid to buy the Boston Braves because the actor owned a racing stable. Some said that Landis maintained an elaborate espionage system to make certain that players did not gamble.79

How much did Landis detest gambling? One needs to look no further than his letter to Connie Mack, the president and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. “There is only one thing we can do (and that much we must) with these rats (referring to gamblers operating in the gamblers section of the park, Section 3 in the right-field stands at Shibe Park), and that is to everlastingly keep after them, throwing them out of the park on their heads every time they come inside the park.”80

In mid-1942, four years before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a Montreal Royals contract, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was reported to have told a representative of the Daily Worker that he knew of several capable Negro players that he would be willing to sign if Negroes were permitted to play in the major leagues. Durocher was called before Landis when the Dodgers were in Chicago and Durocher denied to him that he had made such a statement. “I told Durocher that he could hire one Negro ball player, or 25 Negro ball players, just the same as whites,” Landis was quoted as saying in the New York Herald Tribune.81 ‘“Negroes are not barred from Organized Baseball by the Commissioner and never have been in the 21 years I have served,’ Landis reminded anyone who might want to believe that racism was already so ingrained into American life that a formal rule prohibiting black ballplayers from competing in Organized Baseball would have been redundant.”82

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.

Landis died of coronary thrombosis on November 25, 1944 at the age of 78. While he was hospitalized, baseball owners, in a symbolic gesture, recommended that he be re-elected commissioner for a seven-year term when his term expired on January 12, 1946.85

Two weeks after his death, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was the fifth Hall of Famer from among nonplaying ranks — the others were Morgan Bulkeley, first head of the National League; Ban Johnson, organizer of the American League; Henry Chadwick, writer; and Alexander Cartwright, the civil engineer who organized the Knickerbockers of New York and set the distance between bases at 90 feet.

His plaque at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown reads: “Baseball’s First Commissioner, Elected, 1920 — Died in Office, 1944. His Integrity and Leadership Established Baseball in the Respect, Esteem and Affection of the American People.”

 

This biography appears in “Whales, Terriers, and Terrapins: The Federal League 1914-15” (SABR, 2020), edited by Steve West and Bill Nowlin.

 

Notes

1 Robert C. Cottrell, Blackball, the Black Sox, and the Babe: Baseball’s Crucial 1920 Season (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2002), 251.

2 David Pietrusza in Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (South Bend, Indiana: Diamond Communications, 1998), 3, suggests that Dr. Landis may have been reflecting on that battle of Kennesaw Mountain when he and his wife, named their new child Kenesaw. The modern spelling of the battle and the location is with two “n’s” — Kennesaw. However, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kenesaw was acceptable with one “n.”

3 During Sherman’s March to the Sea, Dr. Landis set up his military surgical headquarters in the shade of the Kennesaw Mountain in northwestern Georgia on June 17, 1864. A Confederate cannonball ricocheted off a nearby tree and struck the surgeon on the leg. Kenesaw recalled, “A 12-pound cannon ball, apparently spent, was bounding slowly toward the group. Nobody paid any attention to it. But it struck my father’s left leg, just below the knee, and shattered it horribly. A medical man himself, he had to keep his fellow surgeons off with a gun, in order to keep them from amputating it. And when I was 6 years old, eight years after that battle, I remember distinctly how he was still going through special exercises, trying to regain more use of the injured leg.” (Edward G. Brands, “Judge Landis Receives Title to Plot, Near Spot Where Father Was Wounded, “The Sporting News, December 12, 1940, 14.

4 Logansport, population 15,000 at the time, is on the Wabash River at the mouth of the Eel River.

5 Pietrusza, 9.

6 Pietrusza, 11.

7 Pietrusza, 12.

8 Alan Nevins, “Grover Cleveland,” Chicago Evening Post, January 5, 1907: 632.

9 Pietrusza, 29.

10 New York Times, March 26, 1905: 4.

11 Pietrusza, 35.

12 Pietrusza, 37-40.

13 Cottrell, 15.

14 Ed Fitzgerald, “Sport Special from Yesterday,” Sport, June 1950: 53.

15 Fitzgerald: 49.

16 In 1918 Landis sentenced several radical labor leaders, including Victor Berger and other Socialists in the ill-fated Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), to prison for sedition. See Pietrusza, 139, 141-42, 143,144, 145, 146, 148-50, 152.

17 David Pietrusza, Major Leagues: The Formation, Sometimes Absorption and Mostly Inevitable Demise of 18 Professional Organizations, 1871 to Present (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1991), 209-35.

18 Spalding’s Official Base Ball Record for 1921, 61.

19 Robert Peyton Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs: The History of an Outlaw Major League, 1914-15 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009), 288.

20 The Sporting News, February 10, 1916, 1.

21 Cottrell, 126.

22 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 161.

23 David George Surdam and Michael J. Haupert, The Age of Ruth and Landis: The Economics of Baseball during the Roaring Twenties (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 27.

24 Gene Carney, Burying the Black Sox (Lincoln: Potomac Press, 2007), 211.

25 Daniel E. Ginsburg, The Fix Is In: A History of Baseball Gambling and Game Fixing Scandals (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1995), 5.

26 Asinof, Eight Men Out, 10.

27 Ginsburg, 17.

28 Frederick G. Lieb, The Story of the World Series (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1949), 26.

29 Carney, 56.

30 Chicago Tribune, September 29, 1929: 2.

31 Tim Hornbaker, Turning the Black Sox White, The Misunderstood Legacy of Charles A. Comiskey (New York: Sports Publishing, 2014), 304.

32 As reported in the Chicago Herald Examiner and Chicago Tribune, October 30, 1920, and elsewhere.

33 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 166.

34 Chicago Evening Post, January 7, 1920.

35 Earl Obenshain, Collyer’s Eye & Baseball World, October 29, 1932: 5.

36 “Club Owners Vote for New League and Baseball War,” New York Times, November 9, 1920: 1.

37 Chicago Herald & Examiner, November 13, 1920.

38 J.G. Taylor Spink, Judge Landis and Twenty-Five Years of Baseball (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1947), 76.

39 “First American Dictator,” American Review of Reviews: 95.

40 As reported in the Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1921.

41 William F. Lamb, Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2013), 85.

42 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 176.

43 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 184-85.

44 Frank Graham, McGraw of the Giants (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952), 131.

45 Mark Allen Baker, The Fighting Times of Abe Attell (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2017), 203.

46 Hornbaker, 306.

47 Bill Lamb, Gene Paulette, SABR BioProject: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/147b2f14.

48 In the Paulette biography, Bill Lamb notes, “Although the banishment of the seven players was only temporary at this juncture, Landis signaled his long-term intentions by publicly observing that ‘baseball is not powerless to protect itself. All of these players … must vindicate themselves before they can be readmitted to baseball,’ as per the Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1921. Chick Gandil was not among those placed on the temporarily ineligible list by Landis. Following a contract dispute with the White Sox, Gandil had been suspended by club owner Charles Comiskey and had not played during the 1920 season. Codefendant Hal Chase, quietly released by the New York Giants in February 1920 and now persona non grata, had not played major-league ball during the 1920 season either.”

49 New York Times, August 4, 1921: 1.

50 New York Evening World, August 3, 1921: 1.

51 New York Evening World, August 3, 1921: 49.

52 Surdam and Haupert, The Age of Ruth and Landis, 209.

53 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 230.

54 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 230.

55 Surdam and Haupert, The Age of Ruth and Landis, 31.

56 Saturday Blade (Toledo), February 25, 1922.

57 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 329-30.

58 Larry Moffi, The Conscience of the Game: Baseball’s Commissioners from Landis to Selig (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 120.

59 F.C. Lane, “Has Judge Landis Made Good,” Baseball Monthly, February 1925, 293-95: 418.

60 Al Stump, Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 1994), 370.

61 Stump, 370.

62 The Sporting News, January 20, 1927: 5.

63 Eugene Murdock, Ban Johnson: Czar of Baseball (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982), 215.

64 Murdock, 215-16.

65 New York Times, December 30, 1926, 16.

66 The Sporting News, January 20, 1917, 5.

67 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 386.

68 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 316.

69 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 318.

70 James M. Kahn, The Umpire Story (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1953), 126-128.

71 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 19, 1934: 22.

72 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 350.

73 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 352.

74 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 432.

75 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 433.

76 Pittsburgh Courier, May 30, 1942: 16, Pittsburgh Courier, June 6, 1942: 16; Mark Ribowsky, Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 207-8; Jim Charlton, The Baseball Chronology: The Complete History of the Most Important Events in the Game of Baseball (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 230.

77 Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 434.

78 Untitled decision regarding William D. Cox, November 23, 1943, KML Papers, National Baseball Library; New York Times, December 5, 1943: Section III, 3.

79 Look, April 28, 1943: 84.

80 Letter from Kenesaw M. Landis to Connie Mack, April 27, 1940.

81 The Sporting News, July 23, 1942.

82 Moffi, 42.

83 Moffi, 42.

84 Norman L. Macht, “Does Baseball Deserve This Black Eye? A Dissent from the Universal Casting of Shame and Blame on Kenesaw Mountain Landis for Baseball’s Failure to Sign Black Players Before 1946,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 38, No. 1, Summer 2009: 30.

85 New York Herald Tribune, November 25, 1945.

Full Name

Kenesaw Mountain Landis

Born

November 20, 1866 at Millville, OH (US)

Died

November 25, 1944 at Chicago, IL (US)

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