Baseball’s Most Valuable Player Awards remain named for baseball’s first commissioner. The good news: Kenesaw Mountain Landis administered justice in baseball’s first and most jarring gambling scandal. The bad news: Landis also obstructed the game’s integration until the day he died.
It begs the question as to whether one of the game’s highest single-season honours should continue bearing his name. Especially since it puts baseball at war with itself by way of the Rookie of the Year Award now bearing the name of the black man who won the first ROY award, when it was born as a major league and not a separate-leagues award.
“If you’re looking to expose individuals in baseball’s history who promoted racism by continuing to close baseball’s doors to men of color, Kenesaw Landis would be a candidate,” says Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who knows something about MVP awards. (He won three.) “Looking back to baseball in the early 1900s, this was the norm. It doesn’t make it right, though. Removing his name from the MVP [plaque] would expose the injustice of that era. I’d gladly replace the engraving on my [plaques].”
Landis loved baseball, despised gambling, and sounded duplicitous at best about whether “organised baseball” should be open to others beside white men. Leo Durocher found out the hard way in 1942. Say what you will about Durocher otherwise, and there’s plenty to be said against the man, but when it came to who should be allowed to play the game no matter what the Lip could be and often was the essence of enlightenment.
In 1942, Landis blocked a fourth exhibition game between the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League and a team of all-stars assembled by Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, because the three prior games out-drew Show games at the gates. The same year, Durocher was quoted as telling a reporter he knew several talented black players he’d sign in a heartbeat if blacks were allowed to play major league baseball.
Not so fast, Landis harrumphed. He called Durocher onto the carpet. Then, he told Durocher, according to the New York Herald-Tribune, “that he could hire one Negro ball player, or 25 Negro ball players, just the same as whites. Negroes are not barred from Organized Baseball by the Commissioner and never have been in the 21 years I have served.” Sure, and Custer defeated Sitting Bull.
As Larry Moffi wrote in The Conscience of the Game: Baseball’s Commissioners from Landis to Selig, “Landis reminded anyone who might want to believe that racism was already so ingrained into American life that a formal rule prohibiting black ballplayers from competing in Organized Baseball would have been redundant.”
Landis died in office of heart failure in November 1944. Not long before that, Wendell Smith, a sportswriting legend with the black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, talked about integrating baseball with Landis, and Landis’s final words to Smith were, “There is nothing further to discuss.”
World War II stopped baseball from choosing a new commissioner until April 1945. After choosing sitting U.S. Senator Albert B. (Happy) Chandler of Kentucky, Chandler refused to assume his new duties until the war was over later in the year. But in due course he had plenty (to Peter Golenbock, for Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers) to say about Landis’s kind of racism:
For twenty-four years Judge Landis wouldn’t let a black man play. I had his records, and I read them, and for twenty-four years Landis consistently blocked any attempts to put blacks and whites together on a big league field. He even refused to let them play exhibition games. Now, see, I had known Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige, and of course, Josh died without having his chance, and I lamented that, because he was one of the greatest players I ever saw, a great catcher and a great hitter, and I thought that was an injustice.
For twenty-four years the record will show that my predecessor said, ‘If you’re black, you can’t play.’ Why? Because that’s what the owners wanted him to do. Landis has a reputation as an independent commissioner that he doesn’t deserve.
Ponder the irony. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Ohio born, judicial reputation established in Chicago, refused to allow “organised baseball’s” integration. Happy Chandler, a man of the South, wasting no time telling Smith and fellow Courier writer Rick Roberts, “I’m for the Four Freedoms, and if a black boy can make it at Okinawa and go to Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball.”
One of those who saw the new commissioner’s words was a certain team president in Brooklyn. Branch Rickey—who’d waited a couple of decades for the chance he knew he wouldn’t have so long as Landis ran the show—“began making plans,” Chandler remembered, the moment he saw that Courier edition and quote.
Chandler took office formally in October 1945. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, a week before Chandler began his new job Rickey signed Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, the Monarchs’ shortstop, to a contract with the Dodgers’ AAA farm in Montreal, hoping to break Robinson in in 1946 before calling him up to the Dodgers for 1947.
The commissioner’s powers included voiding contracts. Chandler never moved so much as a pinkie to void Robinson’s. Thus encouraged, and despite his fellow National League bosses quaking, Rickey signed two more Negro Leagues comers—pitcher Don Newcombe and Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella—to the Dodger system while Robinson began his 1946 season in Montreal.
The Montreal Royals won their pennant and went to Chandler’s Kentucky itself to play the Louisville Colonels in the 1946 Little World Series. Chandler warned the Colonels that racial protests against the Royals wouldn’t be tolerated. When Robinson came up to the Dodgers in 1947, and Ben Chapman led his Phillies in racial taunting brutal by anyone’s standard, Chandler threatened disciplinary action. Nobody in baseball on whatever side doubted Chandler meant it.
Chandler and Rickey met on Chandler’s turf prior to Robinson’s call-up to the Dodgers. Rickey asked point blank where Chandler stood. “All I had to do is say, ‘I’m not going to get into it. Why should I?’ and Rickey’s dead. Bury him, lay him down, because he’s whipped fifteen to one with his own fellows,” Chandler would remember.
I told Rickey, “If Landis was still commissioner, he wouldn’t let this boy play, and you wouldn’t ask him.” I said, “Mr. Rickey, I’m going to have to meet my Maker some day. If He asked me why I didn’t let this boy play, and I answered, ‘Because he’s a Negro,’ that might not be a sufficient answer. I will approve the transfer of Robinson’s contract from Montreal to Brooklyn, and we’ll make a fight with you. So you bring him on in.”
. . . I have nothing to be ashamed of. I had the respect of the respectable people in baseball, and I protected the integrity of the game, and that’s just the truth, pardner.
Chandler was ousted in a 1950 vote. We’ll never know if it was because the owners wanted payback for what enough of them might have seen as jamming integration down their throats. Or, whether Chandler’s suspension of Leo Durocher for 1947 over his continuing associations with professional gamblers—after Durocher exploded publicly over Yankee boss Larry MacPhail having similar if not quite such deep associations—rolled them the wrong way.
Or, whether Chandler’s inadvertent mishap with the game’s first major television contract got him into the owners’ electric chair. In the same year, he sold World Series broadcasting rights to Gillette for $6 million ($1 million a year over six years), but the safety razor/shaving cream company flipped the rights to NBC promptly for $16 million ($4 million over four years). Ouch.
Chandler probably also got into the owners’ bad graces by just having the temerity to act like an independent commissioner. He had continuing support from Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley (around the same time he squeezed Rickey out of the Dodgers, though at a large cost thanks to a stock buyback clause Rickey exercised), Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith (who once feared integration not because of bias but because the legendary Homestead Grays—playing home games in Griffith Stadium—were actually more profitable to him than the Old Nats), and New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham. But Chandler won only a 9-7 vote and was out.
The commissioner needed a 75 percent supermajority to stay aboard. “It’s the first time I ever won a majority but lost an election,” he said.
SABR writer Terry Bohn has said, “Rather than one specific incident, his failure to secure a second term seems to reflect how he often sided with the interests of the players instead of the owners. For this, he was often called the ‘players’ commissioner’. Chandler was a baseball fan at heart, and bemoaned how the owners treated the game that he loved as a big business.”
Chandler opening the door Landis kept tight shut didn’t exactly mean baseball’s integration would proceed en masse, or even smoothly. Not even if Bill Veeck followed Rickey in 1947 and signed outfielder Larry Doby (Newark Eagles in the Negro National League) for the Cleveland Indians whom he then owned. It took over a decade for the last major league team to do so (the Boston Red Sox) to admit a black player to the parent roster. “Organised baseball” formally is open to all races and ethnicities, but even today the organisations are slow enough on the uptake to find more players, coaches, managers, and executives from non-white races and ethnicities.
That’s not Chandler’s fault, of course. Remember those words to Smith and Roberts: If a black boy can make it at Okinawa and go to Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball. Note that he didn’t specify “playing” baseball. You don’t have to just reach out for token signings or deny a qualified white person to find, sign, and promote well-qualified black, Latino, Oriental, and other ethnics in a baseball organisation, whether a coach, manager, farm or scouting director, or other front-office leader.
When Chandler’s term in office expired in 1951, he went from there to resume his political career, ultimately becoming again what he was once before becoming a senator and a baseball official, the state’s governor. He had presidential aspirations that came to nothing. Baseball ignored him for the most part until the Veterans Committee steered him into the Hall of Fame in 1981.
Whose name would you rather see on the Most Valuable Player Award, then? The commissioner who talked through both sides of his mouth about baseball integration and blocked it from happening for too long? Or the commissioner who talked straight, no chaser about letting it happen, defied portion enough of his native grounds, and put his and baseball’s money where his mouth was?
The Albert Benjamin Chandler Most Valuable Player Award. Bring it on in.