Landis sided with the angels, once

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When Earl Averill demanded a piece of his sale price from the PCL to the Indians, Landis—wrong without integrity about much—actually sided rightfully with the Hall of Fame outfielder.

The current discussions about whether to replace Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s name from the Show’s Most Valuable Player awards aren’t out of place. (My view is: yes, replace it.) History deems baseball’s first commissioner a tyrannical autocrat who behaved purely for the owners’ good and enforced baseball segregation.

But Landis stood squarely on the side of the angels at least twice during his reign, and those should not be forgotten, either.

Everyone knows he administered justice, sometimes more rough than just, when it came to baseball’s criminal gambling elements. What everyone doesn’t remember or know is that Landis once displayed remarkable insight and foresight when it came to selling players. Insight and foresight which, if heeded, might have made baseball’s future economics very, very different.

A kid from Snohomish, Washington named Earl Averill made the Pacific Coast League a personal playpen from 1926-28. The San Francisco Seals outfielder hit for a .342 traditional batting average and a .538 slugging percentage, with 79 home runs including 36 in 1928.

That caught the eyes of the Cleveland Indians, and the Tribe opened the checkbook and bought Averill from the Seals for $50,000, agreeing that Averill didn’t have to report to them until after the PCL pennant race ended. Averill was normally a quiet type whose passions included flowers and animals. But the future Hall of Famer was savvy enough to flinch when he read about the sale in a newspaper.

Until I read The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract I had no knowledge that Averill actually asked how much of that sale price he could expect to receive. James didn’t say whether or not either the Seals or the Indians laughed their fool heads off over that question.

What he did say was Averill’s answer: translating loosely, wanna bet? The outfielder decided he wasn’t going anywhere no matter how ardently the Seals and the Tribe determined to convince him otherwise. The debate reached Landis’s eyes and ears, and Landis must have surprised anyone privy to his thinking with his response.

The commissioner agreed with Averill. He actually believed Averill wasn’t out of line demanding a piece of that $50,000 sale price. Landis suggested, as James paraphrased, “that baseball should adopt some sort of legislation by which, whenever a player was sold, the player himself would get a cut of the proceeds.” Say what?

Perhaps needless to say, the suggestion went the way of the cylinder phonograph. You could only imagine the major league owners of the time demanding Landis reveal what was in his tea in that moment because they wanted to get swacked, too.

The impasse between Averill and the Indians ended when the Tribe paid him a $5,000 bonus and signed him to a salary somewhat higher than the standard major league rookie salary of the time. He went to Cleveland and launched the Hall of Fame career compromised when a back injury in a 1937 game wrecked his formidable swing.

Bad enough, perhaps, that Landis’s suggestion went nowhere fast enough, but worse was that it never entered the mind of his successor four times removed. Bowie Kuhn so despised Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley that he let it get in the way of sound judgment and put a needless virus into baseball’s economic system.

Quaking over the Messersmith-McNally ruling that ended reserve clause abuse and ushered in free agency, Finley fumed when three of his top players—pitchers Vida Blue and Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, plus outfield star Joe Rudi—refused to sign 1976 contracts lacking no-trade/no-cut clauses, the issue that prompted Andy Messersmith to pitch 1975 without a signed Los Angeles Dodgers contract in the first place.

When Finley brought those three plus third baseman Sal Bando to his sale floor in June 1976, it provoked a bristling crowd of buyers. When the word reached Kuhn at Comiskey Park, where he was watching the Chicago White Sox host the Baltimore Orioles, Kuhn said, wanna bet? He voided the sales, claiming they’d be “devastating” to baseball’s “reputation for integrity.”*

Players too well accustomed to front-office duplicity probably laughed themselves into headaches. Especially when Kuhn continued, “If such transactions now and in the future were permitted, the door would be opened wide to the buying success of the more affluent clubs, public suspicion would be aroused, traditional and sound methods of player development and acquisition would be undermined, and our efforts to preserve the competitive balance would be gravely impaired.”

To James, Kuhn closing Finley’s version of Toys ‘R’ Us “was an ignorant, bone-headed, destructive policy which had no foundation in anything except that Kuhn hated Charlie Finley and saw that he could drive Finley out of the game by denying him the right to sell his [star] players.”

What Kuhn should have done, if he had been thinking about the best interests of the game, is adopt the Landis policy: rule that players could be sold for whatever they would bring, but 30% of the money had to go to the players. Had he done that, the effect would have been to allow the rich teams to acquire more of the best players, as they do now. But this policy would have allowed the rich teams to strengthen themselves without inflating the salary structure, and would have allowed the weaker teams, the Montreal-type teams, to remain financially competitive by profiting from developing young players.

If Kuhn adopted the Landis idea, it would have put $300,000 into Rudi’s, Fingers’s, and Blue’s pockets immediately. Finley would have screamed blue murder over getting a measly $2.1 million for only as long as it took him to put it in the bank. His three toys would have earned more before playing a single 1976 inning than either of the three did in 1975.

Now we’ll never know how much less the salary structure might have inflated in due course, if Kuhn hadn’t voided the Rudi-Fingers-Blue sales while imposing a concurrent cap of $400,000 on straight cash deals, meaning teams in need couldn’t sell their stars for big money while keeping their bargains on the sales floor for comparative pocket change.

When Averill was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975, the Earl of Snohomish looked foolish for criticising the Hall in his acceptance speech because of how long it took him to get there. He still looked less foolish than Kuhn did because sticking it to Finley overrode the good of the game.

Somewhere, wherever he was in the great beyond, Landis—who was absolutely on the right side, for once in his baseball life—must have shaken his head in dismay while calling for as stiff a drink as possible.

 

Some portions of this essay have been published previously.—JK.


* Among other things, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley pressed Kuhn against the Rudi-Fingers-Blue sales. This makes a travesty of the integrity of baseball. Pennants are not to be bought! read notes historian John Helyar ascribed to O’Malley in the moment.

So said the owner who bought longtime Dodger nemesis Sal Maglie from the Indians in May 1956—a deal that helped make the final Brooklyn pennant possible. Apparently, buying pennants in June was dangerous, but buying one in May was something else entirely.

By the way, the law firm that represented the National League at the time of the Maglie purchase included a young lawyer named (wait for it!) Bowie Kuhn.

Rename the MVP for a player, instead?

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The late Hall of Famer Frank Robinson proudly displays his two Most Valuable Player Awards—bearing then as still now the name and head image of the commissioner who enforced baseball’s colour line until his death led to the line’s official breakage.

On June’s final day, knowing of a movement afoot to re-name the Show’s Most Valuable Player Awards, I suggested re-naming them in honour of the commissioner who ended “organised baseball’s” disgraceful colour line. That by itself would rebuke the commissioner whose mealy-mouthed segregation enforcement stained and distorted the game.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis may have brought the criminal gambling elements in baseball to heel with and following the Black Sox scandal, but he absolutely refused to sanction a game open to anyone except white men.

So long as he ran the game with the absolute authority he’d accrued during his term, nobody—not even Branch Rickey, who’d long wanted to break the colour line but knew Landis wouldn’t let him—could even think about it without getting the Landis treatment. The treatment saying verbally that nothing in the rules stopped it, but factually that nobody was going to allow it, either.

It took Landis’s death of heart failure in 1944 to end both his tyrannical reign over the game and the colour line, which didn’t quite end right away. Incoming commissioner Albert Benjamin (Happy) Chandler, elected in April 1945, wasted no time answering when asked by Pittsburgh Courier writers Wendell Smith and 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.”

Rickey now had his chance. Recall that Chandler refused to take office formally until World War II but, a week before he did, Rickey signed Kansas City Monarchs (Negro American League) shortstop Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organisation. Having the power to void any contract, Chandler didn’t even think about voiding Robinson’s.

Robinson went to Montreal to get his feet wet. Rickey concurrently signed another pair of Negro Leaguers, pitcher Don Newcombe and Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella. When Rickey brought Robinson up to the Dodgers for 1947, Chandler refused to stop him, promising to fight with him instead. The Show’s colour line was broken formally.

In actual fact, 73 years after Robinson suited up for the Dodgers, baseball’s integration remains an up-and-down thing, in the dugouts and on the coaching lines, and particularly in the game’s front offices up and down the organisations. That, I repeat, isn’t Chandler’s fault.

It’d still be a fine gesture—not to mention the final overdue rebuke to Landis—to remove Landis’s name from the Most Valuable Player Awards and replace it with Chandler’s. But there’ve been numerous comments in the press and around social media suggesting that, well, if we’re going to remove Landis’s name from the MVPs, why not replace it that of a player?

That’s not an unsound thought. But Jackie Robinson’s name went on the Show’s Rookie of the Year Awards in 1987. Appropriately enough, since the Hall of Famer and colour line breaker won the first ROY in 1947—when it was a major league, not an each-league award.

Hall of Famer Willie Mays’s name is on the World Series MVP award. The Roberto Clemente Award honours each year’s most charitably inclined player in memory of the Hall of Famer killed in a plane crash on a humanitarian mission. Hall of Famer Henry Aaron’s name goes on the award handed to each season’s best hitter. Hall of Famer Ted Williams’s name is on the award handed to the All-Star Game’s most valuable player. And the pitchers are covered nicely by an award named after a Hall of Famer named Cy Young.

Any one of those players’ names would have graced each league’s regular-season MVP. Since they’re covered on very significant awards already, however, there’s a candidate untouched as yet and still too often under-appreciated for just how great he was—despite being a Hall of Famer and the only man in baseball history still to have won MVPs in each major league.

The Frank Robinson Most Valuable Player Award, anyone?

Robinson died last year after a battle with bone cancer. Three years after his groundbreaking namesake spoke aloud saying he lived for the day when he’d see a black man managing a major league team, Robinson made that wish come true, when the Cleveland Indians named him their player/manager.

As a player, Robinson combined a take-no-prisoners style of play with an often underappreciated sense of humour. Underappreciated outside his clubhouses, that is. Stories abound about Robinson’s wicked wit, including the once-fabled tale of the Baltimore Orioles team bus approaching a junkyard in slow traffic and Robinson asking the driver to stop at the junkyard so less-than-sure-handed outfielder Curt Blefary (whom Robinson nicknamed Clank) could pick out a new glove.

After the Orioles downed the Minnesota Twins in the 1969 American League Championship Series, Robinson hollered in the clubhouse, “Bring on the Mets and Ron Gaspar!” Corrected by catcher Merv Rettenmund—“It’s ROD, stupid!”—Robinson didn’t miss. “Then bring on the Mets and Rod Stupid!”

When he got to manage the Orioles in due course, it came thanks to Cal Ripken, Sr.’s firing as the team’s to-be-infamous 1988-opening losing streak was at a mere six games. Told of a local disc jockey swearing to stay on the air until the Orioles won, Robinson lamented, “We’re gonna kill the poor guy.” When the streak hit twenty straight losses, he  opened his desk drawer and showed a reporter a button he’d been given: “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

The following season, Robinson managed the Orioles to second place in the American League East and himself into Manager of the Year honours. I could be wrong, but he may  also be the only man in baseball history to win two MVPs and a Manager of the Year award.

Not too shabby for a man who was also a fourteen-time All-Star, a Triple Crown winner (in 1966, his first with the Orioles), a Rookie of the Year (National League, 1956, with the Cincinnati Reds), a World Series and All-Star Game MVP, and—persuaded by the Indians’ front office that he should also play in the first game he managed—squared off against New York Yankees pitcher Doc Medich and blasted a home run his first time up.

After the Orioles started slowly in 1991, Robinson moved to the front office where he stayed until a shakeup left him open to his hiring as baseball’s vice president in charge of discipline. He got one more chance to manage, shepherding the Montreal Expos’s transition into the Washington Nationals.

Robinson often showed his humane side out of the public eye. As the founder and judge of the Orioles’ kangaroo court in the 1960s, he decreed that the fines collected for 1969 should go to Pat Corrales, a catcher on the Reds, after Corrales’s wife died while giving birth that year. When ESPN writer Buster Olney was an Orioles beat writer, he asked Robinson for advice on handling asking his prospective father-in-law for permission to marry the man’s daughter.

“He shriveled in horror,” Olney writes, “his body folding in a nearby seat as if he were ducking underneath a fastball, and Frank began to cackle, his laughter taking the form of a hiss. ‘Oh boy, you’re in trouble,’ he told me, doing everything he could to exacerbate my anxiety. ‘You’re on your own with that one’.”

Robinson also preferred to break barriers quietly. When he joined the Orioles in 1966, a clumsy reporter honest-to-God couldn’t distinguish between him and the Orioles’s well-established Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, he cracked, “Can’t you see we wear different numbers?” Relentless though he was on the field, Robinson preferred to break barriers with wit, with a first-inning blast, or quiet reflection otherwise.

“Jackie and Floyd Patterson were brave men to go [integration marches], but I couldn’t,” he told those who wondered why he lend his baseball prestige to civil rights battles. “Not now. Not until I’m through with baseball. I don’t believe baseball should be a fight for anything except baseball.”

The Baseball Writers Association of America (which has the power to do so, since they confer the prize) may not see fit to re-name the MVPs after the commissioner who ended baseball segregation formally and officially. Perhaps they’ll see fit to re-name it for the assassin on the field and the gentleman off the field who won every conceivable MVP award baseball has to confer.

If the Albert Benjamin Chandler Most Valuable Player Award doesn’t work for you, the Frank Robinson Most Valuable Player Award should. Admirably.

A season without the Trout hitting?

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Mike Trout and his wife, Jessica, in a photo they posted to Instagram. If push comes to shove, Trout would rather sit this season than risk infecting her and their child-to-be.

Mike Trout’s virtues include that he’s as close to a hopeless romantic as a baseball player gets. This is the Angel who proposed to his wife by hiring a skywriting team to pop the question. He is also the Angels’ franchise face who’s pondering seriously whether to opt out of playing whatever the 2020 season happens to be.

Jessica Trout expects their first child next month. And her husband the romantic would like to be as certain as a young man can be that he doesn’t bring home such unwanted gifts for mother and child as the coronarivus.

As a matter of fact, the very thought of it makes Trout quake more than any pitcher has ever made the three-(should-be-four-)time American League Most Valuable Player quake. “Honestly,” Trout has told Los Angeles Times baseball writer Mike DiGiovanna, “I still don’t feel that comfortable. It’s gonna be tough. I’ve got to be really cautious these next couple weeks. I don’t want to test positive. I don’t want to bring it back to my wife. It’s a tough situation we’re in.”

Yes, it’s a difference from when Trout was among the players pleading, “When and where,” before the impasse between the owners and the players over starting a season finished. And, yes, there are millions of other people who’ve gone to work at far less lucrative jobs than Trout performs for money some small national economies rarely if ever see.

Let’s just put that into perspective, if we dare. The Wal-Mart or 7-Eleven clerk, the gas station attendant, the Starbucks barista, the cashier or floor walker at Macy*s, the servers at the Olive Garden, the local bartender, the dealers and floor walkers at the casino, are seen doing their jobs and judged on the spot by several thousand people every day.

But not at the same time. Not concurrently on national and even international television aboard which they’re watched by several million as well as the 55,000 who would be in the ballpark in normal, non-viral times. Unless they make a mistake too egregious to ignore, and it happens within range of the nearest smartphone camera trained upon them, their errors are unlikely to go past their boss and their complaining customers.

They don’t get hammered en masse aboard social media for having the occasional 0-for-4 day or night. They don’t get massively insulted for the heinous offense of not coming with 25 clones able to lift a team its best player can’t always be proud of from the ranks of the also-rans.

Whether or not you think it’s a crime, or at least a miscarriage of justice, the clerks, attendants, baristas, cashiers, floor walkers, servers, bartenders, and dealers don’t exactly bring uncounted millions into their companies through sales of their hats, uniforms, and aprons, or other bric-a-brac of their jobs. Nobody’s in half the hurry to hit the nearest Lids, Inc. or call Amazon up on their computers to buy their favourite barista’s Starbucks shirt.

Nobody loves the idea that those folks plus particular farmers, factory or warehouse labourers, repair people, waterfront workers, or airport workers can be replaced simply enough. Replacing a Mike Trout is something else entirely. It’s not his fault the Angels have been a nowhere team for his entire career to date. Good luck asking them (as some social media meatheads have) to just pay the ingrate off and find another player with even a passing resemblance.

Baseball’s paradoxes include one enunciated best by Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, when he returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers as a pitching instructor in the late 1970s/early 1980s. “You are part of an entertainment, but you are not an entertainer,” he told Thomas Boswell, reflecting on his pitching career. (The article was re-published in Boswell’s anthology, How Life Imitates the World Series.) “But I enjoyed it, probably more than the fans enjoyed watching. I thank them for enjoying it with me.”

To this day people rub their eyes in amazement that Koufax walked away from baseball at the absolute height of his pitching career, at age thirty, because the thought of living without full use of his left arm—which is exactly what doctors told him he risked if he tried to pitch even one more season—troubled him that deeply. Koufax earned $125,000 in his final season, 1966. That salary in today’s dollars would be about $2 million short of what Trout stands to earn just pro-rated for the 2020 season.

Today there are probably people enough rubbing their eyes in amazement that Trout would even think of walking away from just that salary because the idea of becoming infected with a grave disease he might transmit to his wife and his child-to-be offends him as deeply as the idea of crippling himself for life on behalf of just one more season offended Koufax.

After almost three months worth of the owners trying to game the players out of their previously-agreed pro-rated season salaries for whenever a season might be played, the coronavirus world tour shows few if any signs of winding down. The least sensible among us accuse them of malingering while injured; the completely witless have been known to accuse them of inviting the injuries.

When Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. incurred a few too many injuries during his Cincinnati years, I had a few too many arguments with a few too many Reds fans accusing him of failing to stay in proper shape and thus leaving himself injury prone. As if the most perfectly conditioned athlete could yet avoid three season-ending injuries in four years and their impact on his swing, bat speed, and outfield range.

We see ballplayers as wealthy sport savants and forget more often than we should that they’re human men. (How often do you hear the least sensible fans accuse them of malingering while injured, simply because proper recovery time is longer than fans like?) We barely accept when they’re injured on the field; we wrestle with them now wrestling between their itch to play, our itch to watch them play, and their too real need to safeguard themselves reasonably and their families profoundly.

The most fearless player on the planet finds no reason to quake facing a 100-mph fastball, or running to haul down a fly ball only a foot between himself and disaster against a particularly unforgiving outfield wall. A virus with a particular penchant for death makes him fearful for his family and for himself. Trout knows it.

“I got to be really cautious these next few weeks,” he told an online news conference Friday morning. “I think the biggest thing is obviously I don’t want to test positive and I don’t want to bring it back to my wife. We thought hard about all this, still thinking about all this. It’s a tough time, tough situation we’re in, everyone’s in, and everybody’s got a responsibility in this clubhouse to social distance, stay inside, wear a mask, and keep everybody safe.”

ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez cites an unidentified major league infielder’s concern “how the quick ramp-up to what MLB is calling ‘Summer Camp’ might prevent teams from having the logistics in place to ensure proper social distancing at their respective facilities. He also expressed doubt that all those people making up Tiers 1 and 2 — up to 125 per team, consisting of players, coaches, trainers, front-office executives, public-relations employees and clubhouse personnel, among others — will care enough to consistently adhere to all the health-and-safety protocols.”

Later Friday, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association announced 38 of the first 31,185 people going through its screening process tested positive for the coronavirus, and 31 were players. Thirty-eight overall out of 31,185 is .001 percent. Thirty-one out of 38 is eight points higher than Hall of Famer Rickey (The Man of Steal) Henderson’s lifetime stolen base percentage. (.808, if you’re scoring at home.)

Previously, it became known that Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and twelve members of the Philadelphia Phillies were infected. Today, the Atlanta Braves revealed first baseman Freddie Freeman tested COVID-19 positive.

The game’s government and players have developed protocols for testing and social distancing. But Gonzalez warns, “It will come down to discipline, accountability and self-policing. Positive cases are inevitable; the hope is to avoid the type of outbreaks that might postpone or even cancel the season. If one person wavers, the entire system might collapse. And even if players adhere to monklike sensibilities over the next three to four months, the realities of a pandemic that forges on might render their efforts meaningless. It’s why so many players are hesitant.”

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake was the first player to exercise the opt-out option on playing this year. Following suit were two World Series-champion Washington Nationals (first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, pitcher Joe Ross), another Rockies outfielder (Ian Desmond), and free-agent pitcher Tyson Ross. There could be more to follow, with or without Trout joining their number.

A third National, relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, who’s become something of a social media star with his wife, Eireann Dolan, through their articulate tweets, has said aloud that he fears baseball won’t work this year no matter the protocols. Eireann suffers chronic lung issues leaving her prone to respiratory infections and with several hospital stays on her resume.

Doolittle would love to play this year but hates to make things worse for her. He’s popular above and beyond his team’s fan base, but he’s not exactly the final face of the Nats. Neither is Leake for the Diamondbacks; they’d take a bigger blow if they lose freshly-minted Madison Bumgarner or breakout star Ketel Marte. Blackmon’s arguably the Rockies’ face (when you can see it under his hat and behind his Bunyanesque beard), but not yet baseball’s. Freeman’s one of the Braves’s two faces. (Ronald Acuna, Jr. joins him.)

Even a truncated season without Trout would shatter not just the Angels but the game itself. Even if commissioner Rob Manfred once decided the reason Trout isn’t the face of the game above and beyond just the sport itself was . . . Trout himself, considering Trout is possibly baseball’s least self-promoting young man.

It’s almost to worry, should more players such as himself finally opt out of playing this year, that Manfred might see any coming opt-outs and decide it’s all . . . Trout’s fault, for opening his big yap, and admitting that push coming to shove would mean he’d rather take the season off than infect his wife and child-to-be.

Perspective on stats lost to a virus

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Ted Williams lost a lot more statistical enhancement serving in two wars than this year’s players stand to lose in a short or cancelled coronavirus season.

So you think you and the objects of your baseball affections will lose things irretrievable by the time the Show re-opens for regular if truncated season business? You think a pandemic bringing out the best in you and your fellow citizens but the worst in your local, state, and national leadership has robbed you and your baseball loved ones?

Viruses come, viruses go, some more stubborn than others. Wars come and go, too, but guess which of the two is easier to fight. Writing shortly before his death as World War II wound to its formal finish, the bellettrist Albert Jay Nock reminded a correspondent, “You are not going to stop war until you can change man.”

So perhaps this would be a fine time to think for a moment about what some of your baseball forebears lost when the game and their play or management of it was rudely interrupted by war:

Yogi Berra—He spent three years in the Navy and earned a number of medals for his D-Day performances on a rocket boat during and immediately after the landings at Normandy. (He was afraid to put in for his Purple Heart, though, because he feared causing his already-nervous mother a purple heart attack.)

Yogi’s Navy service cost him valuable minor league development. He might have blossomed as the Hall of Fame catcher he became a couple of years sooner than he finally did.

Lou Brissie—This lefthanded pitcher would have signed with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1941 if his father hadn’t insisted he finish school first. He enlisted in the Army in 1942, after a year at Presbyterian College, and was with the 88th Infantry when an artillery shell exploded close to him. The blast shattered most of his lower left leg.

Brissie begged Army doctors to save his leg even if it might cost his life—because he had a shot in major league baseball. Two years and 23 surgeries later, Brissie with a metal brace signed with the A’s in late 1946 and earned a September 1947 call-up. He had two fine seasons as a starting pitcher, including an All-Star team, before becoming a decent reliever, over a six-season career with the A’s and the Cleveland Indians.

We’ll never know what Brissie would have been as a pitcher if he finished college and then signed with the A’s instead of going to war? Especially since he was a mere 20 when his lower leg was almost blown off in the first place.

Hank Bauer—After a tryout and contract with a Chicago White Sox minor league affiliate, Bauer enlisted in the Marines a month after Pearl Harbour. He was deployed to the Pacific and felled by malaria on Guadalcanal. After his recovery, Bauer earned eleven campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts—the second on Okinawa.

That injury got Bauer shipped back to the United States. After his recovery, he was signed by a Yankee scout for one of their lowest-level minor league affiliates in his native Illinois. He eventually made a fine career as a Yankee outfielder and, in due course, a World Series-winning Baltimore Orioles manager. He might have remained a White Sox, though, if not for the war; he might also have made the Show far sooner.

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Christy Mathewson–The Big Six didn’t lose his pitching credentials, but his accidental gassing in World War I stopped his managing career and cost the Boston Braves a principal owner.

Bob Feller—The first professional American athlete to enlist for World War II, Feller was made a Navy physical fitness instructor before he volunteered for combat. He became a gun boat petty officer serving near Britain and in the Pacific Theater, earning six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.

Feller lost his ages 23-25 seasons to the war. He resumed life as the American League’s strikeout king for a few years to follow (he set the major league season record his first full season back, the record Sandy Koufax smashed in 1965), but he might have finished his career with over 3,000 or even close to 4,000 punchouts had he not gone to war.

Christy Mathewson—The Hall of Fame pitcher looked to have a promising career as a major league manager, until duty compelled him to enlist in the Army for what proved the tail end of World War I. Oops. Mathewson was mustard-gassed accidentially during a training exercise, leaving him prone to the tuberculosis that killed him seven years later.

Among other things, the gassing and the disease it invited left Mathewson unable to remain as the principal owner and president of the Boston Braves, the team he bought with Emil Fuchs two years before his death at 45.

Warren Spahn—This Hall of Fame lefthander enlisted for World War II after a brief cup of coffee with the Braves—where then-manager Casey Stengel shipped him back to the minors after he refused to brush back the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese. It was a send-down Stengel lived to regret:

I said “no guts” to a kid who went on to become a war hero and one of the greatest lefthanded pitchers you ever saw. You can’t say I don’t miss ’em when I miss ’em.

Spahn earned a battlefield commission and decorations for service in the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge. He lost his ages 22-24 seasons to the war. Some speculate it cost him a shot at 400 pitching wins, but Spahn himself was never sure about that:

I matured a lot in three years, and I think I was better equipped to handle major league hitters at 25 than I was at 22. Also, I pitched until I was 44. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do that otherwise.

Ted Williams—Teddy Ballgame entered the Naval Reserve in May 1942, went on active duty in 1943, and was commissioned a Marine second lieutenant as an aviator in May 1944. He awaited orders as a replacement pilot when World War II ended in August 1945. Then, come the Korean War, Williams suited up and flew for the Marines, including 37 combat missions—about half of which involved flying wing for a pilot named John H. Glenn, Jr.

Proud enough of his Marine services, the Hall of Famer lost his ages 24-26 seasons to World War II and much of his ages 33-34 seasons to the Korean War.

Babe Ruth is said to have met Williams once and hoped to his face that he’d be the one to break the Babe’s home run records. Williams might well have gotten extremely close to breaking the career mark, at least, had he been able to play during those lost seasons. (Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci has speculated the wartime absences kept Williams from hitting 675 or more.)

All that is before mentioning twelve players (Tom Burr, Elmer Gedeon, Harry Glenn, Eddie Grant*, Newt Halliday, Bob Neighbors, Harry O’Neill, Ralph Sharman, Bill Stearns, Bun Troy) at various levels of major league accomplisment who were killed in war. And, without mentioning players (Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Willie Mays, others) who went into the military in wartime during their careers but didn’t see combat.

Yes, this nation’s leadership from top to bottom has handled the coronavirus world tour about as deftly as batted balls were handled by Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart. But do you really think today’s Mike Trouts or Justin Verlanders losing one season’s statistical time to a virus disruption compares to those who lost more than that kind of time to war?

—————-

* Eddie Grant, who’d retired in 1915, was the first former player to die in World War I, killed in action in the Argonne Forest. Grant was memorialised in his former home ballpark: the Giants erected a monument in his memory in the Polo Grounds’ center field, with a bronze plaque centered on the stone listing his baseball career and military service and death, with the rank of captain.

The stone sat 470 feet from home plate but was still considered in fair territory under the Polo Grounds ground rules. The stone stayed there, beneath the elevated clubhouse/offices structure, until the park closed for keeps after the Mets’ 1963 season.

The plaque on the stone went first to a New York police officer, somehow, whose duty involved foot patrols around the Polo Grounds area. When another New Jersey family bought his home there in due course, they discovered the plaque wrapped in blankets in the attic. They contacted the Baseball Reliquary, who have had possession of the plaque since 1999.

Re-name the MVP the Chandler Award

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Baseball commissioner Happy Chandler with Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson (left) and pitcher Don Newcombe (right) at the 1949 World Series.

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.