Does Baseball Deserve This Black Eye? Landis and Baseball Before Jackie Robinson

This article was written by Norman Macht

This article was published in Summer 2009 Baseball Research Journal

At SABR’s 2006 convention one speaker analyzed the commissioners of baseball and rated Judge Landis the best of all. In the question-and-answer session that followed, a member of the audience challenged the speaker: “How can you stand here in the year 2006 and praise Landis, who was so instrumental in keeping blacks out of Major League Baseball?”

Had I been the presenter, I would have replied, “How do you know that Landis was so instrumental in barring blacks?”

How do we know anything that we think we know? By what means do we know it? By taking somebody else’s word for it? By reading it in two or three or six places and concluding that it must be true? Or by researching and analyzing the pieces objectively and independently?

What we think we know about the past is laced with uncertainty. There’s very little we can be sure about. We must be open to challenging what we think we know when we come across contrary evidence, or across something that doesn’t quite fit. That’s not easy. Once we form an opinion or reach a conclusion, it’s natural to stop searching and therefore stop thinking. The mind stays closed and refuses to accept other findings that might discredit that opinion.

In medicine this is called confirmation bias: confirming what you expect to find in your research by selectively accepting this or ignoring that and clinging to a single explanation arrived at earlier without considering other possibilities.

Then I would have reminded the judge’s critic that, yes, it’s precisely because we are standing here in 2006, and Landis and baseball’s club owners were operating in a different time and a different society. A historian who judges a man in the context of today’s time and standards and not the standards and conditions of the time in which the subject lived commits a scholarly sin. The attempt to understand people in their context and on their terms requires that we temporarily suspend judgment.

Understanding the America of the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s obliges us to make the effort of not judging it by the standards and values of today. Their values were their values, not necessarily ours. As Gibbon wrote of the Roman general Belisarius, “His vices were the vices of his time; his virtues were his own.” This forces us to remove the halo of thinking our values are eternal. They are not, and that can be troubling to us.

There is a vast, unbridgeable distance between what we like to believe we always were as a society and what we really were. Most of us never knew that pre-World War II society, never lived there. I ask you to join me now in trying to cross that bridge, leaving behind the baggage of your values and biases and what you think you know about other people in other times.


America was a racist society in the first half of the twentieth century. A society is not a soulless abstraction. It is people; in this case, the white majority of America— our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.

They grew up in a time when populists like William Jennings Bryan and William Allen White openly opposed any form of integration. Newspapers and popular music regularly used terms like coons and darkies. The president of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson, addressed a group of alumni on February 8, 1903. Referring to Teddy Roosevelt’s nomination of a black man to be customs collector in Charleston, South Carolina, Wilson drew laughs when he joked, “The groundhog has returned to its burrow because it feared that Roosevelt would put a coon in to replace him.”

Americans went to movies where blacks, except for musicians and dancers, were cast as maids and mammies like Hattie McDaniel, fluttery caricatures like Butterfly McQueen, or slow-witted Stepin Fetchits. Joe Louis was admired by whites because he knew his place and was a credit to his race. When I was young, those phrases were in common use.

Even later, two Brooklyn Dodgers heroes, Southern-born Red Barber and Pee Wee Reese, admitted that everything in their upbringing had imbued in them the belief that the black man was inferior. Reese told author and historian Jules Tygiel, “You hear this all your life, you believe it.”1

The Ku Klux Klan was as strong in the Midwest as in the South, dominating city halls and chambers of commerce in the 1920s. Klan dinners and dances were covered as social news on the front pages of small-town newspapers. In 1925 they almost elected one of their own as mayor of Detroit. There were Klan members in major-league clubhouses.

In 1926, New York sportswriter Joe Vila wrote:

Stories are in circulation that certain major league managers are having trouble with their players who are hostile to members of the Ku Klux Klan. A few years ago one of the Western teams was said to have been disrupted by serious clashes on religion.

According to the gossips, several managers, opposed to the Klan, have been getting rid of members who are members of the hooded order, regardless of their skill as batters and fielders. If such conditions exist they should be investigated by the bosses of Organized Baseball.2

In the 1930s many blacks went north in search of a better life. Northern whites who deplored Southern customs when the problem was far away were less generous in their support when the victims arrived at their doorsteps.

From Maryland to California there were lynchings every year until the 1950s. Respectable citizens who did not take part stood by and condoned them. In 1933 the governor of California went so far as to declare a lynching in his state “a fine lesson for the whole nation.”

In 1937, a federal antilynching bill was filibustered by Southern Democrats in the Senate, tying up all Senate business. Editorials all over the country urged that the antilynching bill be abandoned so other business could be done, and it was. The fact is that in prewar America civil rights and equal opportunity were nowhere on this society’s agenda.

From 1933 to 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt never proposed a single civil-rights law, never supported efforts to pass a federal antilynching law, never pushed Congress, which had jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, to end any aspect of segregation there.

In 1941 it took the threat of a march on Washington to force the president to issue an order ending discrimination in employment in defense industries. Yet nobody accuses FDR of being a racist.

As late as 1948 no city was more tightly segregated than Washington, D.C.—churches, hospitals, schools, universities, hotels, restaurants, lunch counters, parks, department stores. Blacks could be served at some lunch counters but they had to stand—and the dishes they used were smashed instead of washed when they were done. Even if they could buy something in a store, you wouldn’t find any blacks working behind the counter. City and federal offices were almost all-white. Anyone could ride the streetcars and buses, but only whites could drive them. The code of ethics of the Washington real-estate board, which included all the leading banks and title companies as well as realtors, included this statement: “No property in a white section should ever be sold, rented, advertised, or offered to colored people.”3 This was the rule, not the exception, throughout the country. The Supreme Court didn’t ban restrictive covenants until 1948.

We’re not talking about Klansmen in sheets and hoods but the business elite of the nation. In a 1939 survey, 53 percent of Americans polled said Jews should be restricted in their lives and occupations. Resort hotels advertised that they were “restricted,” which meant no Jews allowed. For blacks that had long been the reality.

Terrifying deadly riots in Chicago and Washington in 1919 had left deep scars on our ancestors, who were in no mood for any form of integration. In 1933, Ohio State University barred blacks from on-campus housing and restaurants. When the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the university’s right to deny housing to a black coed, the school president, George Rightmire, said, “Knowing the feelings in Ohio, can the administration take the burden of establishing this relationship—colored and white girls living in this more or less family way?”4

This was Ohio—not the deep South.

Knowing the feelings in Ohio, could you blame Cincinnati Reds owner Powell Crosley and Cleveland Indians owner Alva Bradley for not putting “colored and white” boys together in “this more or less family way” in their clubhouses?

The mood of America—including its baseball fans—in May 1940 was illustrated by an editor at the Philadelphia Record deciding, against the advice of the sports department, to begin a campaign urging the city’s two major-league teams to sign Negro players.

One month later in the “Press Box” column in The Sporting News, there appeared this interesting item:

“That Philadelphia A.M. sheet has stopped its agitation to get Negro players in the majors because of the reactions of its white readers.”

On July 16, 1942, a letter from General Eisenhower’s adjutant general went to the Red Cross in London directing that black and white army personnel be segregated as much as possible. It said, “It is believed that to avoid friction between white and Negro soldiers, care should be taken so that men of the two races are not needlessly intermingled in the same dormitory or at the same table in dining halls.”5

That same year the Missouri legislature killed a civil-rights bill that would have given blacks equal access to public parks, theaters, and restaurants.

In 1943 race riots in Detroit forced the postponement of a game at Briggs Stadium. Federal troops were called in and stayed for six months. There were similar riots in Harlem and Los Angeles that summer.

In August 1944 there was a weeklong transit strike in Philadelphia. What was it about? The upgrading of eight Negroes to jobs formerly held exclusively by whites. Ten thousand union members shut down the city, the nation’s third-largest war production center, because they didn’t want blacks taking white drivers’ jobs. Blacks were fit only for menial jobs—janitors and mechanics and the like. Roosevelt sent in 5,000 troops and averted a major riot, but 300 storefronts were smashed in the black North Philadelphia neighborhood.

If you were the 81-year-old Connie Mack, with your life and assets invested in the Athletics, would you have stood up to those strikers and risked your business and personal safety by telling them that blacks were equal to whites and you were going to sign black players who would take white players’ jobs?

I don’t think so.

The same thing was true in Washington, where there was a wartime shortage of motormen and conductors. The transit company advertised for workers—white only—in cities as far as 200 miles away, despite the availability of qualified blacks in the city. Both the union and the CIO claimed that race riots would occur if blacks were hired for those positions.

When the D.C. fire chief proposed that black firemen be transferred to fill the many vacancies at white fire stations, he was attacked in a resolution passed by the AF of L Firemen’s Local. At this same time, the CIO and AF of L were joining black sportswriters in berating Clark Griffith for not integrating MLB.

Hypocrisy thrived in those days too.

In 1937, Griffith had told Baltimore Afro-American sports editor Sam Lacy, “I know the time will come, but the climate isn’t right. We wouldn’t have the support of society.” He was right. And Lacy conceded that baseball’s integration was an unrealistic goal at that time. Incidentally, Griffith Stadium was the only nonsegregated public place of amusement in Washington.

Negro Leagues star Leon Day later said, “They couldn’t have signed any black players in the 1930s even if they wanted to. It would have been suicide for the club owners and murder for the players.”6

This was the society that Kenesaw Mountain Landis, born in 1866, grew up in and lived in. Now that we’ve placed him in his time, let’s look at the charges leveled against him. Landis was a racist because

  • he was solely or primarily responsible for pre- venting blacks from playing in the major leagues;
  • as the czar of baseball, he had the power to force club owners to sign Negro Leaguers.

Let’s first look at the background of the man. There is no documentation of anything racist Landis ever did or said in or out of baseball. In researching his biography of Landis, David Pietrusza looked long and hard to find something. He found nothing. On the contrary, Landis’s family influences point the other way. His grandfather and father were outspoken abolitionists. Two of his brothers were elected to Congress in Indiana over Klan-backed candidates at a time when the Klan was strong and active there, and very few politicians dared to speak out on the issue of prejudice. They remained fierce opponents of the Klan all their lives.

When Landis was criticized by some congressmen for remaining as a federal judge after his appointment as commissioner in 1921, he was praised by black preachers in Chicago for his leniency and fairness toward black youths brought before him. This editorial appeared in a black newspaper:

The Chicago Advocate, speaking for the entire race, wishes to extend to Judge Landis their appreciation for his fair and impartial justice handed out regardless of race or creed We, the Negroes of this portion of the country, are thoroughly satisfied with the decisions of Judge Landis, and have no fault whatever to find with them. All of the Negroes ever convicted by him have been proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.

Landis was 54 years old at that time. If he was a racist, he either had a lot of people fooled or he became one overnight and pretty late in life.

What about this myth that Landis was an all-powerful dictator who could bully or force club owners to sign black players? How do you think that would go over in cities torn by riots and strikes, and in clubhouses torn between pro- and anti-Klansmen? In truth, Landis had no authority to tell any club owners whom to sign or how to spend their money.

If Landis was really so powerful, he would have abolished the one aspect of baseball he truly hated and fought—the farm system. But he couldn’t. In 1948, when a rule restricting control of bonus players was passed, Jim Gallagher, general manager of the Cubs, said the new rule did something that Landis had tried and failed to accomplish.

“For 25 years,” Gallagher said, “Commissioner Lan- dis struggled to loosen the regulations by which major league clubs could control the careers of players for periods as long as nine years. He succeeded in reducing this term of control, which was made by slow advancement in the farm system and subsequent options by major league clubs, to six years.”7

That was as much as this so-called czar could do in 25 years of trying. As for the charge that Landis prevented blacks from playing in the major leagues, there is no evidence that he ever stopped any club owner from signing a black player. None. Ever.

More than once he said there was not and never had been any rule barring blacks. And there wasn’t.

But of course, if you are bent on condemning him, you have to call him a liar. You have no basis for it, but it might make you feel better to believe it because it enables you to identify a villain and close the case— and your mind.

More than once Landis said, “If [anybody] wants to sign one or 25 Negro players, it is all right with me. That is the business of the manager and the club owners. The business of the Commissioner is to interpret the rules and enforce them.”

When he said it on July 17, 1942, the Afro-American ran the headline “Landis Clears Way for Owners to Hire Colored.” Sports editor Art Carter made it clear that it was up to any owner “willing to blaze the trail in breaking down the bar against colored players.”

Larry MacPhail of the Brooklyn Dodgers responded, “Judge Landis was not speaking for baseball when he said there was no barrier; there has been an unwritten law tantamount to an agreement between major league clubs on the subject of the racial issue.”

An agreement between major-league clubs—that’s the key. Landis never stopped anybody. No club owner had ever tried to sign a black player. In the words of feminist Carrie Chapman Carr, “No written law has ever been more binding than unwritten custom supported by popular opinion.” And that’s the way it was. Unlike stores and restaurants and theaters, baseball clubs were interdependent. The owners’ report of 1946 pointed out, “The individual action of any one club . . . could conceivably result in lessening the value of several major league franchises.”

Horace Stoneham might have felt that New Yorkers would accept a black player in 1938 or ’40 or ’42 (in 1954, Milton Gross reported in the New York Post that Stoneham admitted he had tried to sign a black player three years before the signing of Jackie Robinson), but what would happen when the Giants took the field in Philadelphia or Cincinnati or St. Louis? Nobody knew. The club owners were like the businessmen who ran the theaters and restaurants and stores and hotels. Their business depended on the goodwill of their customers, many of whom were just like those white strikers who considered colored people inferior and a threat to take the white man’s job. What would happen if black players drew too many black fans? And if a black player got into a fight on the field or argued with an umpire—who knew what might spark a riot in the bleachers? We can sit here now and smugly say their fears were groundless, and maybe they were, but they were real at the time—make no mistake about that. Remember, most of us weren’t there as witnesses 65 or 70 years ago, when America was a very different place.


Racism had nothing to do with Major League Baseball not signing black players in prewar America—and everything to do with it. But it was not the racism of club owners Connie Mack and Clark Griffith and Spike Briggs and Tom Yawkey and Bill DeWitt and Don Barnes and the Comiskeys and Ruppert and Stoneham and Wrigley and Crosley and Bob Quinn and Bill Benswanger and Branch Rickey—and Landis—but the racism of their customers, our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

Yes, I included Branch Rickey in that list. In his thoroughly documented biography of Rickey, Lee Lowenfish points out that Rickey’s home was St. Louis. He had been there for 30 years. He didn’t want to leave. Had Cardinals owner Sam Breadon not fired him in 1942, he would have stayed in St. Louis and there might have been no signing of Jackie Robinson. Rickey knew that St. Louis was too much of a Southern city to risk integration in the 1930s and early ’40s. Sports- man’s Park had a colored-only seating section for as long as Rickey was there. It was the last major-league park to be desegregated—after he left. Members of Rickey’s family told Lowenfish that he just couldn’t have broken the color line in St. Louis. So you cannot honestly label all the other owners as racists and not include Rickey, whose thinking was essentially the same as theirs—economic, risk-averse, uncertain of the social consequences.

When Branch Rickey moved to Brooklyn, Judge Landis was still commissioner. In early 1943, Rickey revealed to the Dodgers board of directors his plans to scout Negro Leaguers. He didn’t talk about being ready to sign them when and if Landis died or resigned or was fired. That was significant; he knew Landis was not the barrier. Rickey was anticipating the end of the war, when American society might have changed enough to accept the integration of the major leagues—maybe. He couldn’t have been encouraged by the race riots in Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles that summer

Judge Landis died on November 25, 1944. Nobody rushed to sign black players now that his supposed ban was no longer there. 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—after the war ended. Ten years after Landis and his mythical ban were gone, half the major-league clubs still had no black players.

In many baseball histories you read the shame-filled aside that, well, of course, it was the national game except that African Americans were not allowed in. Well, blacks weren’t allowed in any other part of white American life in those days. The fact is that Major League Baseball was not the shame of the nation, reactionary, behind the times. Baseball led the nation, integrating ten months before Harry Truman became the first president to send a civil-rights message to Congress, a year before integration of the armed forces, three years before the first black player was taken in the NBA draft, and way ahead of the nation’s political mood. Washington was still sharply segregated. Throughout Jackie Robinson’s first year with the Dodgers, there was not a single mention in any Washington newspaper of any statement by any congressman—from anywhere—that was critical of the segregation policies still in effect in the capital. Baseball does not deserve this black eye. It deserves recognition for leading—dragging—the rest of America a little closer to the ultimate goal of equality of opportunity.

And you can look it up.


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This article is adapted from a research presentation given at the 2007 SABR annual convention.

  1. Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
  2. Joe Vila, New York Sun, 1926.
  3. Harry Wender, survey, Washington Post, 8 May 1949; Kenesaw M. Landis (commissioner’s nephew) and Tom P. Barrett, Segregation in Washington: A Report, November 1948 [Chicago, 1948].
  4. William Baker, Jesse Owens: An American Life (New York: Free Press, 1986).
  5. Harry Butcher, Three Years with Eisenhower: The Personal Diary of Captain Harry C. Butcher, USNR, Naval Aide to General Eisenhower, 1942 to 1945 (London: Heinemann, [1946]).
  6. Sam Lacy and Leon Day, interviews with author.
  7. Jim Gallagher, The Sporting News, 7 July 1948, 6.