His Own Biggest Fan

Baseball's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was part hero, all ego
July 18, 1993

In retrospect he seems like baseball's George Washington, a wise and all-powerful figure who, assuming an office no one had ever held before, kept a floundering enterprise together, cleansing it of corruption and divisiveness. Even his name, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, suggests grandeur, lofty ideals, high-mindedness. And the man had been a federal judge, no less. Who better to determine right from wrong? Compared with the milquetoasts who have succeeded him as commissioner of baseball, old Kenesaw Mountain stands as a tower of strength, a rock of integrity.

In truth Judge Landis was a most peculiar duck. With his long white hair, severe mien and fragile physique he looked, said one critic, "like Whistler's Mother in slacks." During his tenure on the federal bench in Chicago he was known more as a shameless publicity seeker than as a dispenser of justice. In fact, many of Landis's most famous courtroom decisions were overturned in higher courts. No amount of theatrics from the bench—and his were abundant—could disguise this high school dropout's shallow grasp of the law. "His career," wrote columnist Heywood Broun in the New York World, "typifies the heights to which dramatic talent may carry a man in America if only he has the foresight not to go on the stage."

Appointed baseball's first commissioner in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Landis was granted extraordinary power to "safeguard the interests of the national game of baseball." And he used that power arbitrarily, sometimes even whimsically. Mostly he enjoyed exercising power over his employers, fancying himself the final court of appeal for players and fans. In the view of the team owners who had hired Landis, far too many of his decisions were at their expense.

Landis was an ardent moralist, a staunch prohibitionist, but no prude. He could swear like a sailor. Once, while helping his wife, Winifred, out of a taxi onto a slippery Chicago sidewalk, he advised her, "Be careful, dear, or you'll break your goddam neck." But for all of his preaching about the evils of drink, late hours and, especially, gambling, Landis, perhaps more than any other figure in baseball, was responsible for a grievous sin: the exclusion of blacks and other minorities from a pastime that, under his rule, was national in name only.

Landis's father, Abraham H. Landis, was a surgeon attached to the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment that marched through Georgia with General William Tecumseh Sherman in the climactic battles of the Civil War. But that inexorable advance by Union troops was momentarily slowed just outside Atlanta on June 27, 1864, by Confederate soldiers stationed atop an isolated 1,809-foot-high promontory in Cobb County. Sherman, in a failure of strategy, lost 3,000 men there and was forced to retreat and regroup before resuming his devastating campaign. Abraham Landis was performing an amputation during this battle when a nearly spent Rebel cannonball ricocheted off a nearby tree and into Landis's leg. The limp he would have for the rest of his life left him with an indelible impression of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.

And so, when the sixth of his seven children was born, on Nov. 20, 1866, in Millville, Ohio, Landis decided to name the boy, over the fervent objections of the rest of his family, after that battleground—though he misspelled Kennesaw in the process. "Thus," wrote biographer Henry Fowles Pringle, "was the blunder of General Sherman immortalized."

When Kenesaw Mountain was a lad of eight, the Landis family moved to the Indiana town of Logansport, where the boy learned to play baseball. He never did learn algebra, though, and after flunking that subject in his first year at Logansport High, he dropped out of school, working for the next few years at various jobs until he finally settled in as a court reporter in South Bend. Inspired as much by the theatricality of life in the courtroom as by the jurisprudence that took place there, Kennie, as he was called, undertook the study of law and, in 1891, graduated from the Union College of Law in Chicago.

After making good use of family connections in Washington, D.C., Landis, in 1905 at the age of 39, was appointed a judge of the U.S. District Court of Northern Illinois by President Theodore Roosevelt. Landis quickly established himself as a Rooseveltian trust-buster of unusual flamboyance. By slapping Standard Oil in 1907 with a record $29,240,000 fine for accepting rebates from a railroad, and summoning old John D. Rockefeller himself from New York to testify in Chicago, Landis received worldwide publicity. No matter that his decision was reversed a year later by the Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Judge, as Landis liked to be called, was a fierce patriot, famous for throwing the book at alleged seditionists during World War I. After Congressman Victor L. Berger, a member of the National Socialist Party who was convicted of "impeding the war effort," was sentenced by Landis to the maximum penalty, the Judge remarked, "It was my great disappointment to give Berger only 20 years in Leavenworth. I believe the law should have enabled me to have had him lined up against a wall and shot." Berger's sentence was also overturned in a higher court.

But what made Landis attractive to major league baseball owners was a decision he never made. When the renegade Federal League took the established baseball big leagues to court in a 1915 antitrust action, Landis delayed his ruling long enough that the frustrated Federal League officials—after 11 months of waiting—submitted to a buyout. And so, when it was discovered in 1920 that eight members of the American League-champion Chicago White Sox had conspired with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series, panicky team owners, fearful of losing the confidence of their paying customers, sought out a strong man to rescue their disgraced game. Landis had all the credentials. He was a fan, a rabid backer of the Chicago Cubs. He was well known. He had a reputation, largely self-promoted, for integrity and decisiveness. And by staving off the Federal League, he had already saved the owners a pot of money.

At a meeting in Chicago on Nov. 12, 1920, the leagues voted to offer Landis the job. The Judge invited the owners to come on down to his courtroom to talk about it. A joint committee of 14 owners showed up later that day as Landis was hearing an income-tax bribery case. As the 14 men filed into the back of the courtroom, Landis glared at them from the bench. "Unless that noise ceases," he barked, "I shall have to clear the courtroom." It was a gesture calculated to show them who was boss. Forty-five minutes later he accepted the job.

Landis insisted, however, on retaining his federal judgeship, deducting his $7,500 government salary from the $50,000 that baseball had agreed to pay him. He held down both jobs for a year, quitting the bench only after several congressmen threatened him with impeachment for using his position to lobby on baseball's behalf.

As commissioner, Landis hit the ground running. In March 1921, he banished all eight of the Black Sox, even though they had been exonerated in criminal court on the technicality that no intent to defraud the public had been proven. Landis was adamant: "There is absolutely no chance for any of them to creep back into organized baseball. They will be and remain outlaws." During his first decade in office the new commissioner would banish 11 players for gambling-related offenses.

In 1921 he also took on the game's greatest star, Babe Ruth, for violating an arcane rule forbidding members of a World Series team from postseason barnstorming. Ruth, who could double his salary in those days on barnstorming excursions, considered the rule unfair, so he openly defied it, suggesting that Landis "go jump in a lake." Landis responded in kind: "It seems I'll have to show somebody who's running this game." He suspended both Ruth and Yankee teammate Bob Meusel for the first 40 games of the 1922 season, once again demonstrating his absolute authority.

And yet Landis took no action against star players Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker after retired pitcher Dutch Leonard charged in 1926 that Cobb and Leonard, of the Detroit Tigers, together with Speaker and Smokey Joe Wood of the Cleveland Indians, had conspired to throw a 1919 game between the two teams. Leonard even had letters to substantiate his claims. But after some weeks of due consideration Landis cleared the men of wrongdoing, claiming that Leonard was acting out of a personal grudge. Wood had already retired, but both Cobb and Speaker were allowed to return to their teams.

Landis established himself as a players' advocate with his repeated denunciations of the ever-growing farm systems, arguing that by stockpiling prospects in the minors, the owners were depriving worthy players of big league jobs. In July 1930 he declared that outfielder Fred Bennett, a minor leaguer in the St. Louis Browns' system, was a free agent, charging that team owner Phil Ball was stalling Bennett's career. Ball, a virulent Landis opponent, took the commissioner to federal court and lost. The gates were opened: In the late 1930s, Landis freed nearly 200 minor league players.

In 1943 Landis banished Philadelphia Phillie owner William Cox for life for betting on games. But it was largely the commissioner's own fault that Cox was in the game at all. Late in the '42 season Bill Veeck Jr., then 28, planned to buy the Phillies from owner Gerry Nugent and fill his wartime roster with available players from the Negro leagues. As a courtesy to the commissioner, Veeck informed Landis of his revolutionary scheme; by the next day the National League itself had assumed control of the team and, with Landis's blessing, sold it to the soon-to-be-infamous Cox. Landis had long declared that baseball had no rule preventing blacks from playing, but, as in this instance, he discouraged every effort to lift the unwritten ban.

By 1944, after enduring more than two decades of Landis's autocratic rule, the owners were openly rebelling against their now elderly commissioner, whom they referred to as the Czar. There was among them growing concern that they had created a monster. But in calling for either his dismissal or a drastic reduction of his powers, the owners incurred the wrath of the press and the public, who remained Landis supporters to the end. If the commissioner should be replaced, wrote New York sports columnist Tom Meany, his successor would be "merely an employee. And who ever heard of any employee finding against his bosses?"

But Landis's heart failed him in the fall of that year, and with the Judge safely tucked into a hospital bed, the owners saved face by voting him, on Nov. 17, a new seven-year contract. Kenesaw Mountain Landis died eight days later, at the age of 78. His final decree was that there should be no funeral. There wasn't.

PHOTOUPI BETTMANN NEWSPHOTOSThe owners signed up Landis in 1920 (above) as baseball's watchdog. PHOTOAP[See caption above.] PHOTOAPA/ARCHIVE PHOTOSThough he despised gambling, Landis let Speaker (right) off the hook. PHOTOAPA/ARCHIVE PHOTOSLandis's theatrics veiled some dubious decisions.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)