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.