‘The Czar is Dead — Long Live the Czar!’ How Kansas City Played a Role in Creating the Commissioner’s Office

This article was written by David Pietrusza

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “Unions to Royals: The Story of Professional Baseball in Kansas City,” the 1996 SABR convention journal.

 

In the wake of the Black Sox Scandal, baseball ownership searched for new leadership to salvage the game’s rapidly sinking reputation. When Chicagoan Albert Lasker proposed a new three- member commission, to be headed by fiery Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to rule baseball, many applauded. But American League president Byron “Ban” Johnson did not. Jealous of losing—or even of sharing—control of the game, Johnson retained the support of five of his eight club presidents. It appeared that baseball might split asunder, with eleven clubs following Landis and the “loyal five” still pledging fealty to Johnson.

On Tuesday, November 9, 1920, major league owners assembled at Kansas City’s Hotel Muehlebach, where the National Association was to meet the following day.

Johnson was belligerent as ever. Not only were his “loyal five” threatening to go their own way, but rumors swirled by pro-Johnson forces were scheming to oust National Association secretary John H. Farrell and replace him with a friendlier individual. Addressing the convention for the first time in his career, Johnson laughed at the threat of war and called it “the best cleanser.” He attacked “undesirable owners” who tolerated gambling in their parks and declared that only his “loyal five” had aided him in any meaningful sense in battling the gaming scourge. Albert Lasker, he declared, was “one who has not shed his swaddling clothes in baseball.” The National Association, warned Johnson, should steer clear of the new league and Lasker’s plan.

Aside from such bluster, the Johnson forces did manage to present their own version of baseball’s future. American League attorney George W. Miller proposed an unwieldy nine-member commission, composed of three members named by the National League, three by the American, and three by the National Association.

The minor league delegates seemed impressed by Johnson’s enthusiastic rhetoric, but while he had been orating, his major league allies were clearly wavering. In a Hotel Muehlebach corridor, Barney Dreyfuss, Bob Quinn (representing Browns owner Phil Ball), Clark Griffith and Garry Herrmann assembled. “If my two boys wanted to fight over anything so silly,” Quinn sadly observed over the coming baseball war, “I would spank them both.” The Johnsonites concurred, and it was agreed Griffith and Quinn would sit in on a meeting with the “eleven” to represent the “loyal five’s” interests.

During the session Herrmann raised the issue: “Judge Landis has been chosen as head of the new Commission at a salary of $50,000 a year. It is now proposed that his two associates be selected at a salary of $25,000. It seems to me that considerable trouble will result unless we pay these associates as much as Judge Landis. They will naturally be prominent men who will consider themselves as competent as the Judge and deserving of as much salary.”

Quinn now raised an entirely new issue. “Personally,” he stated, “I see no necessity for having three commissioners. In my mind one would do as well. A man like Judge Landis, who is a Federal Judge and accustomed to handling large business interests, can certainly be trusted to administer any business Organized Baseball may give him.”

Herrmann interrupted. He wanted to know if Quinn spoke on his own or represented Ball. “I have not consulted Mr. Ball on this matter,” Quinn admitted, “but I will say that he has never failed to back me up in any reasonable measure. I consider this measure reasonable. I am sure the St. Louis Browns would never be involved in any difficulties they would not trust to the hands of Judge Landis.”

The proposal failed to meet with any enthusiasm. Shortly thereafter, when Clark Griffith proposed a six-member joint committee (three members from each faction) the session nearly collapsed. But when the owners reconvened, Garry Herrmann endorsed Quinn’s one-commissioner proposal. In the interim all the owners had swung around to Ball’s thinking.

Detroit owner Frank Navin and Herrmann spoke to the National Association convention the next morning. As Herrmann addressed the minor leaguers, he was handed a note. He stunned the gathering with its contents. His fellow owners had agreed to meet the next day in Chicago. No attorneys, no stenographers, and most significantly, no league presidents would be present.

The Kansas City Journal headlined “Moguls Leave Determined to Fight It Out,” but it was all over for Johnson. His loyalists had realized the futility of a new baseball war. Before the next opening day, they would have to create three new franchises and staff them. If they tried to place new clubs in Boston, New York, and Chicago, they would have to find not only new owners but new ballparks. In New York that would be virtually impossible. In bidding for talent they would have to go against such millionaires as Jake Ruppert and Charles Stoneham. They knew resistance would be folly.

A new czar of baseball was about to be crowned.

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