Matt (iberia) wrote in baseballhistory,

Kenesaw Mountain Landis

Kenesaw Mountain Landis

b. November 20, 1866
d. November 26, 1944

Baseball's first commissioner, the flinty, colorful, and often arbitrary Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, took control of the game when its integrity was in question. When he died nearly a quarter of a century later, baseball's name had long since been restored.

Landis was the son of Dr. Abraham Landis, who had lost the use of his leg in the Civil War battle of Kennesaw Mountain in northwest Georgia. At his son's birth, Dr. Landis suggested they call him "Kenesaw Mountain." The name and the misspelling stuck.

Landis's early career gave little indication of the heights he would later reach. A high school dropout, Landis's first ambition was to be a brakeman on the Vandalia and Southern Railroad, but the company's officials rejected his application. The diminutive Landis won some fame as a bicycle racer at various Indiana fairgrounds and operated a roller skating rink before moving over to journalism. While covering court cases for the Logansport (Indiana) Journal, he decided to become a lawyer and enrolled in the Y.M.C.A. Law School of Cincinnati. In 1891 Landis obtained his degree from Chicago's Union Law School, now a part of Northwestern University.

Two of his brothers, Charles and Frederick Landis, became Indiana congressmen. While still in his 20s Kenesaw sat in on State Department cabinet meetings. Appointed to the federal judiciary by Theodore Roosevelt, Landis quickly earned a reputation for quirky but newsworthy justice.

His record $29,240,000 fining of Standard Oil, the Ryan baby case, and the jailing of 94 Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members and Socialist Congressman Victor Berger for antiwar activities during World War I all placed him squarely in the public eye, even though his decisions were often overturned.

In one fiery wartime speech Landis demanded that Kaiser Wilhelm II, his six sons, and 5,000 German militarists be "lined up against a wall and shot down in justice to the world and to Germany." Many thought him a mere grandstander. "His career 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," said Heywood Broun.

But Organized Baseball (OB) had a high opinion of Landis. During the Federal League war Landis had done the baseball establishment a great service. The existing major leagues had faced a stiff challenge from the Federal League both on the field and in the courts as the upstart circuit sought to overturn Baseball's reserve clause. Landis heard the case within a month, and Baseball held its breath.

But then Landis firmly sat on the case. Months passed, and the Judge issued no decision. It was obvious he didn't want to issue one, because he knew what a flimsy legal structure baseball was built upon. "Both sides must understand that any blows at this thing called baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution," Landis had warned from the bench.

Finally, the Federal League threw in the towel, getting the best deal they could from OB. Landis's inaction had been the key. "Many persons felt that Landis had saved baseball in 1915," wrote The Sporting News' J. G. Taylor Spink. "Had he ruled Organized Baseball to be a gigantic trust, the Federal League contention, he could have thrown the whole game into chaos. There would have been no sanctity of baseball territory. Had he decided against the legality of the reserve and 10-day clauses, the effect would have been free agencies for all the great players of the time…."

Landis had saved OB's hide, and the owners knew it. When the 1919 World Series fix became public knowledge in September 1920, OB needed someone to restore confidence in the badly shaken institution. Landis was an obvious choice. On November 12, 1920, every major league owner except the intransigent Phil Ball of the Browns paid a visit to Landis's Chicago court. They stood in the rear of the room while Landis continued hearing cases. When he finished, Landis called them into his chambers. There, they offered him chairmanship of a new three-member "Board of Control" over Major League Baseball. Landis demanded absolute power and got it.

"At their request and in accordance with my own earnest wishes I am to remain on the bench and continue my work here," announced Landis. "The opportunities for real service are limitless. I have been devoted for nearly 40 years. On the question of policy, all I have to say is this: 'The only thing in anybody's mind now is to make and keep baseball what the millions of fans throughout the United States want it to be.'"

Will Rogers once remarked, "The game needed a touch of class and distinction, and somebody said, 'Get that old guy who sits behind first base all the time. He's out here everyday anyway.' So they offered him a season pass and he grabbed it."

In the summer of 1921 the accused "Black Sox" were acquitted under highly questionable circumstances. Long used to having his decisions overturned by higher courts, Landis, now commissioner of baseball, returned the favor and reversed the jury's decision. "Regardless of the outcome of juries," he said, "no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball."

Old and new scandals continued to plague baseball for the first few years of Landis's tenure. Youthful Giants outfielder Jimmy O'Connell and Giants Coach Cozy Dolan were banned from the game following a failed bribe attempt. Frankie Frisch, Ross Youngs, and George Kelly were implicated but cleared by Landis. "Shufflin' Phil" Douglas was also banned after offering to throw a game. Outfielder Benny Kauff was blacklisted for implication in an auto-theft ring. As in the Black Sox scandal, Landis ignored the verdict of a jury, this time with what many critics felt was far less justification.

Landis was a headstrong, autocratic czar. Current Biography termed him "the only successful dictator in United States history." But Organized Baseball already had a dictator in American League President Ban Johnson. Johnson was by no means ready to relinquish the hold he had on the game. Throughout the early 1920s Landis consolidated power at the expense of his rival. The proud Johnson was left humiliated and stripped of real authority.

The last great scandal of Landis's tenure involved the biggest names in baseball, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. In 1926 pitcher Dutch Leonard accused the two stars of conspiring to fix the last game of the 1919 season. Leonard also accused Smoky Joe Wood of placing bets on the contest for Cobb and Speaker. Landis's verdict exonerating the accused trio has come under heavy criticism from some historians.

Landis was a staunch opponent of Branch Rickey's minor league farm system and fought it tooth and nail. "It will be the ruination of the individual minor league club owners," he declared. Landis liberated numerous minor league players during his tenure. In one 1938 case, Landis freed 91 Cardinal farmhands, including Pete Reiser and James "Skeeter" Webb. In January 1940 he hit the Detroit system, freeing scores of players and costing the Tigers an estimated $500,000.

One of Landis's most important personnel decisions came on December 10, 1936, when he awarded young Bob Feller's contract to Cleveland. Another significant decision involved the freeing of Tommy Henrich from the Indians system in April 1937. Henrich was able to sign with the Yankees for a $25,000 bonus.

Landis's assumption of control over all World Series decisions, his well-publicized disciplining and suspension of Babe Ruth after the 1921 Fall Classic, and his removal of Cardinal outfielder Joe Medwick from the field in the riotous seventh game of the 1934 World Series all created headlines.

World War II threatened to interrupt Major League Baseball, but Landis indirectly obtained President Franklin Roosevelt's green light to continue the national pastime. Landis's last major move was in 1943 when he banned Phils owner William D. Cox from the game for gambling.

It was not until Landis died that Major League Baseball club owners finally integrated their teams. Many have contended that this was no coincidence. Nonetheless, just before Landis died in November 1944, his contract was extended to January 1953, when he would have been 86 years old. Such was the hold of Landis on baseball that even as frail as he was, no one dared oppose him.

Despite his faults, Kenesaw Mountain Landis was passionately devoted to baseball and to preserving its integrity. "Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy," he declared. "It is his training field for life work. Destroy his faith in its squareness and honesty and you have destroyed something more; you have planted suspicion of all things in his heart."

(copied/pasted from En el Punto -yet surprising in English, though the website is out of the Dominican Republic)

There is also a good one-page bio on the Eastland Memorial Society's Website. The direct link to the exact article here.
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