Landis, Baseball, and Racism — A Brief Comment

This article was written by Richard Crepeau

This article was published in the Summer 2009 Baseball Research Journal


In his essay “Does Baseball Deserve This Black Eye?” Norman Macht raises a number of questions. First is the question embedded in the title, a question he doesn’t address until his concluding comments. Second, he asks how it is known that Judge Landis was instrumental in barring blacks from baseball. This second question occupies much more of Macht’s attention than the first. In addition, Macht devotes considerable effort to demonstrate that the United States was a racist society through the first half of the twentieth century. To expend this much effort on a truth that has now reached axiomatic status seems odd, but there is a logic to Macht’s approach.

Before addressing these issues let me just mention two points of fact raised by Macht that I would question as proof of anything. First, to blame baseball’s failure to desegregate on the customers—or, as Macht would have it, “our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents”—is ludicrous. The customers no more controlled the racial makeup of baseball than they controlled the rules of the game, the price of tickets, the salaries of players, or the profits of the owners.

Second, that baseball led the nation by integrating before either Truman’s civil-rights legislation or the desegregation of the NBA is, although true, a diversionary claim. Macht’s claim conveniently ignores the fact that the NFL was the first professional sport to desegregate, that African Americans were playing intercollegiate sports all through its history, and that President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, by which he created the Fair Employment Practices Commission, was issued in 1941, well before the desegregation of baseball.

But I digress.

What Macht offers as one of his main arguments supporting Landis is that the commissioner was a product of his times. He was immersed in a racist culture and therefore his racism, and indeed that of baseball, should not be used to condemn either Landis or baseball. This is a dubious proposition on several counts.

From what Macht tells us, and from several other sources, including Landis’s major biographer, David Pietrusza, it is clear that Commissioner Landis was a bulwark against change. His denials of any rule or ban on African Americans in baseball was a convenient way of saying, I can do nothing to change things because there is nothing to change. At the same time, Landis denied there was what Larry MacPhail called “an unwritten law tantamount to an agreement between major league clubs on the subject of the racial issue.”1 It seems to me that the hypocrisy of Landis’s public posture is clear and that for whatever reason Landis was ducking the issue.

When desegregation did come, the existence of such an agreement became clear, as MacPhail and the other owners mounted considerable resistance to Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson. This is well documented by Jules Tygiel, Lee Lowenfish, and others.2 The slow pace of desegregation is also a clear indication of resistance among the owners.

As the leader of a major public institution, Organized Baseball, Judge Landis resisted attempts to move that institution to desegregate. One can argue that he was simply a man of his times and therefore his behavior is understandable. One can also argue that those who defended institutional racism at any level, which meant a vast majority of white Americans, were part of the problem.

One thing we know about Landis is that in both his judicial career and his time as commissioner he was a staunch defender of the status quo. We also know that he was a man who saw himself in tune with the will of the populace. In both roles, he played to the public, relished public adulation, and loved the spotlight. For Landis to have moved to desegregate baseball would have been an action out of character.

In a changing world in which the forces attacking segregation were beginning to move forward, Judge Landis failed the test of leadership and hid behind dissembling rhetoric. He was indeed a man of his times, not a leader of them.

As for baseball, does it deserve this black eye? Did it resist social change and social justice? Did it do so while describing itself as the game of democracy, the national pastime, and the American game? Did it see itself as a vehicle for teaching democracy to American immigrants? Did it see itself as a vehicle for spreading democracy and civilization around the world? Did it see itself as democratic because it conducted its business under the rules of fair play and equal opportunity, proclaiming its purity as a meritocracy?

If you can answer all these questions in the affirmative, and I am certain from my own work that you can,3 then Norman Macht’s primary question can only be answered in the affirmative. Baseball deserves this back eye.

As for Landis, was he a racist? No more so than his contemporaries. He was the commissioner of baseball who defended the institutional racism within Organized Baseball, and he failed to seek any alteration of the status quo. In this, he shared a responsibility with many. As Tygiel notes, Landis did not “single-handedly perpetuate baseball segregation.”4 As Pietrusza points out there were no owners pressing Landis to support their desire for change, and there was no rush to desegregate after Landis’s death.5

The question about Landis should not be whether he was racist but whether, as commissioner of baseball, he provided leadership for justice and equality. 

 

Notes

  1. David Pietrusza, Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (South Bend, : Diamond Communications, 1998), 419.
  2. Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), passim; Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), passim.
  3. Richard Crepeau, Baseball: America’s Diamond Mind (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 2.
  4. Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment, 32.
  5. Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, 427.

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