The First Unknown Soldier: General Emmett O’Donnell, Baseball Commissioner

This article was written by Bob Bailey

This article was published in The National Pastime (Volume 26, 2006)

When General William D. Eckert was elected to the office of baseball commissioner in 1965, Larry Fox of the New York World-Telegram is reported to have been one of the first to utter the phrase, “They’ve named the Unknown Soldier.” But Eckert, a retired three-star Air Force general, was not the first military man elected to the position of commissioner. That honor falls to General Emmett O’Donnell, who was unanimously elected the third commissioner of baseball in 1951. Needless to say, he never served one minute of his term.

This story had its genesis in the attempt of then­ Commissioner A. B. “Happy” Chandler to get an early extension of his contract in 1949. Chandler had been a surprise selection as the successor to Kenesaw Landis in 1945. In 1949, four years into his seven­ year contract, Happy attempted to get a commitment to renew his contract. He apparently told the owners that he had several other opportunities to consider but would prefer to stay on as commissioner if a suit­able extension could be worked out. Although Happy may have thought he was just being prudent in con­sidering his future, several owners took it otherwise, thinking they were being pressured prematurely to commit to Chandler for another seven-year term. The owners begged off the request, noting that the cur­rent contract did not call for such a decision to be made before the close of 1950.

Happy returned to his Cincinnati office and for the next year handled a string of problems confronting baseball with skill and astuteness. The press and fans were generally favorably impressed with his handling of the return of banned players from the Mexican League, governmental examinations of how major league baseball handled granting rights to radio and television contracts, and various court challenges to baseball’s reserve clause. Ed McAuley of the Cleveland News called Chandler’s performance “a shining success.” H. G. Salsinger of the Detroit News calmly pre­dicted Chandler’s efforts would surely be “offered a new seven-year contract.” The Sporting News called his actions “a personal triumph.” The owners made little comment.

But all was not sweetness and light for the former senator from Kentucky. In addition to these decisions that smoothed the baseball waters for the owners, he had made individual decisions about trades, signings, and the general chicanery that is part and parcel of the baseball owner fraternity. “We all cheat, if we have to,” is what Cleveland owner Alva Bradley reportedly told Chandler not long after his election as commis­sioner. This should not have surprised Chandler. After the better part of a lifetime in the rough and tumble of Kentucky politics, he knew that men like the base­ball club owners were used to getting their way and were not going to sit still if they didn’t.

When Chandler was rebuffed in his effort to get an early extension, several owners sensed a weakness in the commissioner’s position. The leaders of the “Replace Happy” movement were Fred Saigh of the Cardinals, Lou Perini of the Braves, and Del Webb of the Yankees. Saigh made no secret of his antipathy toward Chandler. It was not difficult to find others of a like mind among the team owners. There was no single overriding issue that coalesced the anti­ Chandler group. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, “Happy owners are all alike, every unhappy owner is unhappy in his own way.” Some had had their activities investigated by Chandler, some saw his increasing Landis­ like independence as something to be avoided, some believed Chandler played favorites and they were on the wrong side, and some just did not like his image.

While no owner would come out and say Chandler’s Southern-politician style wasn’t their cup of tea, Del Webb, who became the key force in the anti-Chandler camp said, “I don’t dislike Chandler. I simply think we could get a better Commissioner.” The antipathy to Chandler’s style shows up more clearly in the way many New York newspaper writers would describe him. Even when praising his actions he would be identified as: “the sweet-singing tenor from Kentucky,” (Arthur Daley); “the Blue Grass baritone,” (Joe Williams); having “a penchant for autographing scorecards while warbling ‘My Old Kentucky Home”‘ (Jimmy Powers).

The techniques that stood him in such good stead on the Kentucky campaign trail did not play well in the big city. Bill Corum in the New York Journal-American wrote, “Without intending it in any sense as a back-handed slap at Senator Chandler, it seems to this column that there are any number of men in the United States who are quali­fied for the job of Commissioner.” He may not have “intended” that comment to demean Chandler in any way, but Corum’s “intention” probably did not give Happy much comfort.

By the time the vote on Chandler’s retention came up at the winter meetings in December 1950, the minority had grown to seven votes and denied Chandler the necessary two-thirds he needed to claim a second term. Happy made some feisty comments about continuing the battle, and Washington owner Clark Griffith took it upon himself to lead the charge to overturn Chandler’s dumping. In April all pretense of returning evaporated as the opposition held their seven votes, and Chandler began negotiating his early exit from the commissioner’s office.

So who would be the next commissioner? Dozens and dozens of names were floated. It had become a baseball tradition for writers and owners to create long lists of distinguished candidates that were under consideration. These names kept appearing in the press even though everyone from the deepest baseball insider to your Aunt Minnie knew most would accept the position only if it was the sole way to escape a prison sentence. Politicians, elected and appointed, judges, businessmen, and baseball insiders dominat­ed the lists. But all the lists always included at least one military name.

This inclusion of the military as a source of can­didates was getting to be a tradition in baseball. In 1920, when baseball was debating how to overhaul the National Commission in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal, among the names put forth were Generals “Black Jack” Pershing and Leonard Wood. In 1945 it was more difficult to put forward a creditable candidate with World War II in progress. But someone listed Coast Guard Admiral Robert Donohue among the candidates.

By 1951, even with the Korean War raging, multiple military names came out. General Douglas MacArthur had recently been relieved of his position by President Truman and so was added to the list. General Dwight Eisenhower saw his name appear in print as a candidate, as did Major General Maxwell Taylor, General Clifton F. Gates, and Major General Emmett O’Donnell. O’Donnell’s name first surfaced in the Los Angeles Times story of August 22, 1951. The crux of the story, however, was that all uniformed military candidates had been eliminated due to the Korean War.

This report notwithstanding, The Sporting News reported in its August 29, 1951 edition that General Emmett “Rosy” O’Donnell had been unanimously elected baseball’s third commissioner in an owners’ meeting in New York on August 21. While O’Donnell’s name seemed to suddenly appear as a potential commissioner, he was not some unknown quantity. Born in 1906 in Brooklyn, New York, he graduated from West Point in 1928. While at the military academy Rosy, whose nickname appar­ently stemmed from his habit of blushing excessively when embarrassed, was a 155-pound halfback for Army.

Seldom used, he was reputed to be very fast and elusive. Over the years as he attained higher military rank, his football reputation also increased. During the next decade O’Donnell served in the Army Air Corps and from 1934 to 1938 he was an assistant football coach at West Point. A major by 1941, O’Donnell led a large contingent of planes from Hawaii to the Philippines in an effort to reinforce MacArthur’s troops. Immediately after Pearl Harbor he was stationed at Clark Field in the Philippines. While the field was under Japanese air attack, his bomber squadron took to the air to attack enemy naval targets. During the battle Major O’Donnell was credited with shooting down four Japanese planes and damaging several Japanese naval vessels. He was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for this action.

O’Donnell remained in the Pacific Theater, being stationed at Java and India before assuming command of the 73rd Bombing Wing out of Salina, Kansas. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1944 before taking his unit to Saipan. In November 1944 he led B-29 bombers on the first attack on the Japanese homeland since the Doolittle raid of 1942.

After the conclusion of World War II, General O’Donnell was part of the newly formed United States Air Force and became the commanding general of the 15th Air Force at Colorado Springs in 1948. He had received the rank of major general in 1947. The 15th Air Force moved to Japan in 1950 as the Korean War started, and O’Donnell set up the Far East Bomber Command. General O’Donnell returned to the United States in early 1951.

O’Donnell’s passage through the military to the rank of major general had not been without some controversy. Along with Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle and Major General Curtis LeMay and others, O’Donnell was an outspoken advocate of a separate Air Force. Saying in December 1945 that the United States had “no air force worthy of the name” did not endear him to many. Comments while in Japan in 1950, noting that his bomber group had not been allowed to bomb “the real strategic targets” above the Yalu River, immediately preceded his transfer back to the United States. At March Air Force Base in January 1951 he responded to a reporter’s question by advocating use of atomic weapons in Korea. He was immediately called to the Pentagon. Upon emerging from this visit, he returned to his California base and was publicly instructed to “use care” in what he said.

During this controversy Rosy O’Donnell was criti­cized harshly in the press. Add to this his June 1951 appearance before a Senate investigating committee looking into the dismissal of MacArthur by President Truman, and we might be looking at a man seeking a new outlet outside the military.

Rosy O’Donnell was a novice in the world of sports politics when the major league baseball owners approached him, but he was not unknown in sport­ing circles. He was often mentioned in sports reports, attending various sports functions from banquets to games to speaking engagements before press groups. In the 1930s O’Donnell became friends with Detroit manager Mickey Cochrane and was often a visitor at the Tigers training camp in Lakeland, Florida. It is from this Detroit connection that Tigers owner Spike Briggs became his champion among the owners. He was friends with writers Red Smith and Arthur Daley. Smith called him “one of the good people;’ and Daley considered him “one of our gang.”

Published reports of the process leave several questions unanswered. How did O’Donnell become a candidate for Commissioner? How did he garner enough votes to be elected and then never serve as Commissioner? The Sporting News of August 29, 1951, reported that 10 days before the election O’Donnell was offered the commissionership. The report also notes that the week before O’Donnell’s selection, Spike Briggs visited Washington to find out if the general could be released from duty to accept the baseball position. The story goes on to say that President Truman refused citing the current Korean conflict a taking precedence. If this is true, why did the owners subsequent­ly even bother to take a vote on O’Donnell, let alone elect him?

To confuse matters further, an item in the New York Times on September 10, 1951, has Spike Briggs giving the story of the process saying that first the owners elected O’Donnell and then sent Briggs to approach him about accepting. “Rosy never batted an eye,” Briggs said, and told that the general immediately declined the position because of the “international situation.” Was he elected and approached or approached and elected? Did he decline or was he interested enough to allow baseball to inquire of his availability? Reports of the time stop with the Times story, and nobody seemed interested in sorting out the correct chronology. 

But if we can speculate just a bit, it seems unlikely that baseball would put itself in a position of electing a commissioner without knowing if he would accept the position. So I would put forward that General Emmett O’Donnell would have accepted the position had he been released from his military duties, and Briggs’ September interview was an attempt to put the best face on the situation.

O’Donnell had served honorably and well for over two decades, and per­haps this was a way out of the political arena he found himself. From the owners’ perspective, he would have been a good fit to follow Chandler, who saw himself as the boss of the owners rather than the other way around. O’Donnell would be educated in the business of baseball by the owner and would carry the aura of war hero into the office. The owners might have seen O’Donnell’s hero status as beneficial in Washington circles, as there were whispers of baseball being curtailed during the Korean War. Coincidently, this same argument was put forward as a reason for select­ing Chandler in 1945. But it remains strange that the owner would not have secured agreement for General O’Donnell’s release before going through the election process.

A month after O’Donnell’s premature elec­tion the baseball moguls selected National League President Ford Frick as commissioner. This came after a tempestuous four week of politicking where Frick, Cincinnati President Warren Giles, former Postmater General James Farley, and Ohio Governor Frank Lausche were all declared sure-fire winners in the race.

If the owners had thought that O’Donnell might be a malleable commissioner who would not interfere with what were viewed as owner’ prerogatives, they got the next best thing in Frick. He was a baseball man whose first speech at a baseball function after his election contained this quote: “I am not a monitor on high, ready to swing the big stick.” But that would be unnecessary, as he described his bosses as “honest men, eager for the right, engaged in an honest business in an honest way.” The threat of another commissioner acting like Landis was past. 

General Emmett O’Donnell did not quietly fade from the military or sports scene after his brief flir­tation with the commissioner’s position. He contin­ued to serve in the Air Force until his retirement in 1963 with the rank of full general. In the late 1950’s he had an ongoing feud with Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. The dust-up tatted over O’Donnell’s support of the nomination of actor James Stewart to the rank of general in the Air Force Reserves. Smith felt Stewart’s nomination a mere publicity stunt while other, more deserving candidates were passed over. In 1959 she loudly opposed his fourth star when he was appointed commander of the Pacific Air Forces.

In the sporting world, Rosy O’Donnell’s name started to appear with more regularity in press stories. In March 1952 he was part of the administration of the military s involvement in the Pan-American Games in Mexico City. He took a verbal shot at International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage. Brundage had mused publicly that he had some question about the amateur standing of those in the military who took extensive foreign tour to compete in world athletic events. Rosy served on the United State Olympic Committee for  several years in the mid-1950’s and in 1961 was named an honorary delegate to the Amateur Athletic Union. At his death in 1971 O’Donnell’s considerable obituaries made no mention of his brief flirtation with major league base­ball.

BOB BAILEY lives in Newtown, PA, where he researches and writes on a variety of historical baseball topics when he is not visiting his grandchildren Anthony, Dominic and Matteo.



Thanks to Bill Marshall, author of Baseball’s Pivotal Era, for his kindness in sharing his insights and research into this period of baseball history and for his suggestion that have improved this article.