If you’ll take the time to go to The On Deck Circle (see blogroll at right), you’ll find an interesting article by Bill Miller about Bud Selig. It got me to thinking about the office of commissioner and about the men who held the job. Some of them did well, others not so much. If I had to pick the most underrated, and that’s hard to say because he made the Hall of Fame, it would be Albert “Happy” Chandler.
Chandler was born in Kentucky in 1898, attended Transylvania University in Lexington, and was in some ways a typical jock. He played baseball, football, and basketball, did some work in semipro baseball during the summers and graduated in 1921. He went to both Harvard and the University of Kentucky Law Schools, getting his degree from the latter (and to think I’m about to say some good things about both a lawyer and a politician, EEK!!!). He coached as an assistant in football at Center College in Kentucky while practicing law. In his autobiography he calls the period one of his favorite times. He had a new wife, the got to practice law, and he was still active in sports.
In 1928 he went into politics, running for the Kentucky state senate and winning. By 1931 he was lieutenant governor and in 1935 governor of Kentucky. He was 37. A New Deal Progresive (which isn’t the same as a modern “progressive”), he got rid of the sales tax and prohibition. I always wondered how well prohibition went over in Bourbon County. Anyway, he was quite popular and in 1939 was appointed to the US Senate (the sitting Senator died in office). He was confirmed in office in a 1940 special election and elected to a full term in 1942. He supported the President and the war effort, although he favored attacking Japan first over Germany. He also began to look around to find ways to integrate the military. That came to nothing, but baseball came calling.
In 1944 Judge Landis died and baseball needed a new commissioner. In April 1945, Chandler got the job, resigning his US Senate seat for a higher calling. Because of his lack of a baseball background, he was controversial from the beginning (but remember Landis was a judge, not a sports executive). In 1947 he tossed Leo Durocher from the game because of Durocher’s perceived association with gamblers and “loose women” (there’s a gag here, but my wife tells me I shouldn’t use it on a family oriented blog). He tended to favor players in arguments with owners and was instrumental in setting up the first player’s pension fund. But overshadowing his entire term as commissioner was the issue of integration.
When Branch Rickey sent Chandler the contract for Jackie Robinson, there was instant opposition from most of the owners. They bluntly urged him to void the contract and as he was a Southerner they seem to have expected he would. In a secret meeting they voted 15-1 (Rickey being the one) against integrating the big leagues. Chandler steadfastly backed Rickey and Robinson and accepted the contract. He told Rickey that as a Senator he had seen black soldiers fight and die for the US and he was sure that “I’m going to have to meet my Maker some day. And if he asks me why I didn’t let this boy play, and I say it’s because he’s black, that might not be a satisfactory answer.” The Robinson experiment was a success, but most everyone agrees it cost Chandler his job. When his term was up in 1951, he wasn’t rehired as commissioner. As a short aside, considering the reputation the South has when it comes to race, it’s surprising how many border Southerners (Chandler, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson) have been instrumental in shifting race relations toward equality. Maybe it’s “border” that’s the key word. I dunno.
Chandler went back to Kentucky, won another term as Governor, where he enforced the Brown vs Board of Education ruling to integrate schools and helped set up the Medical Center at the University of Kentucky. He went back to law after the term ended. Although he threw his hat in the ring a couple more times, his political career, like his baseball career, was over. In 1968 George Wallace considered him as a Vice Presidential running mate, but chose another. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982 and died in 1991.
Nobody pays much attention to Chandler anymore. If they do, it’s because of his connection to Robinson. But his ability to take the side of the players and his support of the pension system are almost as significant because they represent a departure from the commissioner’s normal position as spokesman for the owners (And I don’t mean to imply that Landis never went his own way. He did on occasion.). I don’t think Chandler gets enough credit for being a first-rate commissioner. If forced to rank the commissioners, I’d probably place Chandler second, right behind Judge Landis.