Anyone unfortunate enough to attend a seminar or professional meeting is likely familiar with the game “Two Truths and a Lie.” The premise of the game is that in a roomful of more or less strangers, each person will make three statements about himself or herself, and that only two of those statements will be true. The person playing or the group of other invitees then engage in trying to guess which two of the statements are true and which is the lie.
A politician might make an unlikely choice for “Two Truths and a Lie.” But in regard to Jackie Robinson’s relationship with Commissioner Albert “Happy” Chandler, the subject of our hypothetical game is indeed a politician. A US senator, a state governor, and an oft-frustrated presidential hopeful, Chandler spent many more years representing political constituents than serving the game of baseball. His career planted him exactly at the turning of racial eras, in both baseball and American society at large. As such, his subsequent statements and assertions are particularly charged, and determining which are (more or less) true and which are of his own invention gives a unique window into Jackie Robinson’s courageous work in integrating baseball, and to the role of the game’s power brokers in assisting or hindering his work.
But here are three key statements Chandler made again and again in discussing his relationship with Robinson and his role in integrating baseball:
1. Chandler and Branch Rickey attended a meeting of major-league owners at which integration was discussed and voted down 15 to 1.
2. Rickey sought Chandler’s approval and support before deciding to call up Robinson – which Chandler unequivocally granted.
3. Chandler lost his job as the commissioner because of his support of Robinson and integration.
Two were more or less accurate. One was not.
Understanding Chandler’s role in the promotion of Robinson and the integration of baseball does require some backward review. Chandler was the second commissioner of baseball, after Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis died. Landis was widely revered for saving the sport in the wake of the Black Sox gambling scandal, and he ruled the game with an iron fist.1
It was a very poorly kept secret that the color barrier of the era was being protected by Commissioner Landis. Indeed, it was such a badly kept secret that Dodgers manager Leo Durocher talked to journalists about wanting to sign Black players in 1942, but being stopped by the unwritten rule of segregation. Landis immediately called Durocher to his office, privately dressed him down, and then publicly advised that there was not, nor had there ever been any rule against signing Black players, and that owners were free to sign whomever they pleased.2
Bill Veeck often told the story of trying to purchase the Phillies in 1944, with full intention of stocking the team with Black players, only for Landis to lead an effort to rebuff him.3 While that story may or may not have been true, a fair number of disinterested observers indicated that Landis was indeed keeping the color barrier intact in baseball.
Landis died in November 1944, and Chandler was elected as his successor at the owners’ meeting of April 24, 1945. Chandler had been the governor of Kentucky, where Jim Crow laws regulated intermarriage, public education, railroad cars, railroad waiting rooms, streetcars, circuses and shows, and residence in apartment buildings, among other areas. There was not a great deal of optimism in regard to the potential that Chandler would go against baseball’s longstanding policy of segregation.
A group of African-American journalists went to see the newly selected commissioner, who surprised them all by declaiming, “If a Black boy can make it on Okinawa and Guadalcanal, hell, he can make it in baseball.”4 Of course, even a new politician would be slick enough to tell people what they wanted to hear. But Chandler affirmed his statement again, saying, “Once I tell you something, brother, I never change. You can count on me.”5
Chandler’s words would soon be tested.
The way Chandler told the story, in January of 1947 baseball owners met at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. A steering committee report of AL and NL owners had been commissioned in 1946 and that report was distributed and reviewed. The report was anti-integration. Chandler told a reporter in the mid-1980s, “I presided over the meeting. They discussed the Robinson situation expressly for a couple hours and then took a vote. They voted 15 to 1 not to let him play. Rickey was the only fella that cast a vote in favor of bringing Robinson to the major leagues. Well, that was advice to me and advice to Mr. Rickey. But I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t feel like I had to take it.”6
Rickey had talked about the meeting back in 1948. He told an audience at Wilberforce University in Ohio that the meeting (which he dated to August 1946 and placed in Chicago) had followed soon after the authorship of a secret report from Yankees owner Larry MacPhail on integration. Rickey said the copies of the report were gathered up after the 15-to-1 vote, but added, “I’d like to see the color of the man’s eyes who would deny [the report].”7
Plenty did deny it in 1948, including MacPhail, Phillies owner Bob Carpenter, and Senators owner Clark Griffith.8 Given Rickey’s reputation for needing a moral windmill against which he could tilt, it was presumed that he had invented the story. Chandler didn’t tell it himself for years, although he included an account of the meeting in a February 1970 letter to The Sporting News publisher C.C. Johnson Spink.9 He discussed it at greater length in both the 1987 interview cited above and his 1989 autobiography.10
Funny enough, though, the paper trail, which Rickey had discounted as a source of confirmation, ended up supporting Chandler’s story. A copy of the report ended up in Chandler’s own papers, and the document, borrowing heavily from a report Larry MacPhail had presented to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in New York City, did indeed come from the direction indicated by Chandler and Rickey.
“The individual action of any one club may exert tremendous pressures upon the whole structure of professional baseball,” the report warned, “and could conceivably result in lessening the value of several major league franchises.”11
Warning for Rickey and Chandler indeed.
While there is no indication that a vote was ever taken or that any vote taken had any purpose beyond indicating to Rickey (and perhaps Chandler) exactly how contrary to the majority view their own sentiments stood, the rest of the story holds up. And at this point, the issues surrounding a vote should be considered in light of the rest of the story. Two National Baseball Hall of Fame members, in separate accounts made decades apart, confirmed the existence of the report and its contents (and in the case of Rickey’s 1948 discussion, he even quoted from the report), and even explained why copies of the report apparently hadn’t survived, only for Chandler’s papers to end up including the report itself. In 1948 they were essentially publicly called liars by other interested parties, who denied the existence of the report.
We now know that the report existed, that Rickey and Chandler were both right about what it said, and that the report itself was ultimately produced to bear them out. If there was even an advisory vote in support of the report or in opposition to integration, considering that Robinson had already been signed by Rickey and would soon be transferred from Montreal to Brooklyn, the real purpose was clearly to try to intimidate or impose a “majority” viewpoint on Rickey and/or Chandler.
The second of the three events is far less certain to have occurred, as there is no “smoking gun” document, and Rickey apparently didn’t feel burdened to discuss it in public. But a close examination of Rickey’s own behavior and modus operandi in springing the decision to integrate baseball gives the episode at least the ring of truth.
In numerous occasions from 1965 to 1989, Chandler discussed a meeting with Rickey at the cabin behind his home in Woodford County, Kentucky, shortly after the meeting with the 15-to-1 vote. This cabin was Chandler’s de-facto office and would indeed have been a reasonable spot for such a meeting.
The details varied from story to story. The 1965 recounting lacked many details, as Chandler told The Sporting News, “Branch Rickey came to me in 1946 and told me he had a Negro ball player. I told Branch I didn’t care what color the boy was so long as (Branch) thought the boy could play ball. I was 100 percent behind Jackie.”12 It is worth noting that Rickey was still very much alive in early 1965 and remained a cantankerous force who could easily have disputed the account, which was published in the so-called Bible of Baseball.
In 1970 Chandler wrote, “I made the decision for Rickey to bring Robinson from Montreal to Brooklyn … at my cabin on the backside of my country place at Versailles and I told Rickey that I would protect Robinson in every possible way.”13
By Chandler’s telling in 1972, Rickey had come to see him and told him he knew that he could not proceed with integration without Chandler’s support. Chandler asked if Robinson could play and that was then affirmed, and he explained, “[T]hen and there I decided that I didn’t want it on my conscience that I had deprived anyone of a chance to play.”14
As the years passed, the story grew. In 1987 Chandler again reiterated that Rickey had come to the cabin, that they talked for about an hour, that Rickey stated that he would proceed only with Chandler’s support. Chandler then recalled telling Rickey, “I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to have to meet my maker someday. If he asks me why I didn’t let this boy play and I say it’s because he’s Black, that might not be a satisfactory answer. So you bring him in and I’ll approve the transfer.”15
That is essentially the same version Chandler told in his 1989 autobiography, albeit with yet a few more self-serving details. While the exact conversation differs from account to account, the common threads were that Rickey came to see Chandler at the cabin in Versailles, Kentucky, that they discussed Robinson’s impending promotion, that Chandler assured Rickey of his cooperation and thus supported his direction.
All of this said, as one historian notes, “[T]here is no evidence that the 1947 meeting between Chandler and Rickey ever occurred.”16 The same author notes, “Moreover, the meeting as described by Chandler would not have fit Rickey’s behavior pattern.”17 On this point, the otherwise thorough scholar could be mistaken.
The story of Rickey’s decision to integrate baseball is full of meetings in which Rickey revealed some element of his plan to integrate the game, sought outside cooperation, and left the individual with the sincere belief that he had made some great contribution. Dodgers financier George V. McLaughlin experienced such a meeting.18 Red Barber famously shared his own story of such a meeting.19 Dodgers reliever Clyde King had yet another story of such a meeting.20
Rickey’s daughter Jane Jones told one author, “Dad would say to someone, ‘You’re the only person I’ve told this to, and I don’t want you to repeat it to another soul,’ and then he’d proceed to say the same thing three different times on the same day to three different people – and they’d all wind up thinking that they were the only one.”21
The meeting with Chandler feels like another Rickey production. This time, though, the time-line was set forth by Chandler himself, Rickey had signed Robinson, and he had played successfully for the Montreal farm team. Rickey didn’t meet with Chandler for assurance of his path with Robinson. He met with Chandler to seek his approval and support, understanding that he could have gotten along at loggerheads with Chandler just as he could have with McLaughlin or Barber or King. But if Rickey, the man known as “The Mahatma” for his extreme gift of gab and flattery, could appeal to the better angels of Chandler’s nature, he could win another supporter of the Jackie Robinson experiment.
That support was far from meaningless. Chandler did back Robinson in many small ways – from sending word to minor-league opponents to curb racist behavior to working to curb racist banter from Phillies manager Ben Chapman to condemning the Cardinals’ alleged strike22 to assigning a friend to shadow and protect Robinson,23 Chandler was firmly in Robinson’s corner. Some have discounted some of these acts, accusing Chandler of enhancing his own credentials in an act of mythology. Robinson himself wrote the former commissioner in 1956, “I will never forget your part in the so-called Rickey experiment.”24
While there is no proof of a late 1946/early 1947 meeting at Chandler’s cabin, there’s plenty of context in Rickey’s behavior and in Chandler’s discussions of the meeting to believe that something very like what Rickey depicted did indeed occur, and was significant in securing Chandler’s support.
That said, not all of Chandler’s stories hold up to scrutiny. Chandler loved to tell the story of how supporting Robinson cost him his job as the commissioner of baseball. “I never regretted my decision to let Robinson play, but it probably cost me my job,” Chandler told The Sporting News in 1972.25 The vast majority of evidence, contemporary and otherwise, shows this to be something between and embellishment and an outright fiction.
Granted, in late 1950, when Chandler was essentially maneuvered out of his job as commissioner, baseball still was very much in a conservative place on racial integration. Only a dozen African American players had seen major-league action in the four seasons of integration, and just five teams had integrated.26 But integration was far from the only way that Chandler conflicted with many team owners.
Chandler’s handling of a gambling scandal with Durocher ended up shocking the baseball world. Chandler also had Cardinals owner Fred Saigh investigated during his tenure.27 While Saigh ended up going to prison for tax evasion, he undoubtedly did not appreciate Chandler’s attention. On several other occasions, Chandler made unpopular decisions involving bonus signees or transactions, including voiding the sale of Yankees first baseman Dick Wakefield. Chandler said months after his resignation, “I would still be commissioner today if I had not ruled against the Yankees in the Dick Wakefield case in 1950.”28
Perhaps more important than individual scandals was that Chandler was fully determined to be his own conscience as baseball’s grand ruler. He negotiated the first deal to televise the All-Star Game and the World Series. He established a players pension fund, and he angered the owners by discussing the potential impact of the Korean War on baseball without consulting them. The final word might belong to Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who noted that Happy Chandler was “the players’ commissioner, the fans’ commissioner, the press and radio commissioner – everybody’s commissioner but the men who pay him.”29
For his part, Chandler always blamed baseball’s rule change to a requirement of a three-quarters vote to maintain the job. In the winter of 1950, owners actually voted 9 to 7 to approve a new contract for Chandler, but being shy of three-quarters, Chandler doubtlessly saw the writing on the wall and resigned soon thereafter. “If Jesus Christ were baseball commissioner, I’m not sure he could carry twelve votes,” he bitterly noted.30
Perhaps not. Chandler was certainly far from perfect,31 but his political acumen and raconteur’s tendency to embellish shouldn’t hurt the acceptance of his role in the Robinson drama. Certainly, every detail of his supposed adventures doesn’t hold up, but in the case of the secret report and vote, the cabin meeting, and the mythical loss of his job due to Robinson, as singer Meat Loaf famously observed, two out of three ain’t bad.
JOE COX has written or contributed to 10 sports books. His most recent solo offering, A Fine Team Man: Jackie Robinson and the Lives He Touched, was published by Lyons Press in 2019. Joe practices law and lives near Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he’s looking forward to being able to return to rooting on the Class-A Bowling Green Hot Rods.
1 Landis’s rise to power and government of baseball are discussed in many places, including Jerome Holtzman, The Commissioners: Baseball’s Midlife Crisis (New York: Total Sports, 1998), 24-45.
2 The public aspects of the story are well-documented, including “Majors Can Sign Negroes – Landis,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 17, 1942: 9.
3 Bill Veeck with Ed Linn, Veeck as in Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962), 170-71.
4 Murray Polner, Branch Rickey: A Biography (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007), 174.
5 Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 43.
9 The letter to Spink, dated February 13, 1970, is included in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s file on Happy Chandler. It states in relevant part, “In fact, in the Winter before Rickey brought Robinson from Montreal to Brooklyn at an informal meeting of the owners held in New York, the vote was 15-1 not to allow Robinson to play.”
10 Happy Chandler with Vance H. Trimble, Heroes, Plain Folks, and Skunks: The Life and Times of Happy Chandler (Chicago: Bonus Books, 1989), 226-27.
11 The author viewed the report within the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s integration file and the quotes are taken verbatim from the document itself.
12 Bob Addie, “Happy Pessimistic Over Game, Proud of Its Strides Under Him,” The Sporting News, February 6, 1965: 22.
31 Despite his work with Robinson, Chandler’s final legacy is complicated by an embarrassing racist statement he rendered in a meeting of the trustees of the University of Kentucky near the end of his long life. For more details on the Robinson/Chandler connection, see Chapter 3 of my book: Joe Cox, A Fine Team Man: Jackie Robinson and the Lives He Touched (Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2019).
https://sabr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/research-collection4_350x300.jpg300350sabr/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/sabr_logo.pngsabr2022-01-11 14:00:032022-01-11 14:00:03Happy Helping? Inside Commissioner Chandler's Role in Jackie Robinson's Great Quest