It’s been four years that I’ve been writing this blog. In that time I’ve written about a lot of the saints and the sinners that made baseball such a great game. But I’ve failed to do more than just briefly mention one of the half-dozen or so most important people (as opposed to best players) to ever work in Major League Baseball. It’s time to change that. It’s time to write about Judge Landis.
Kennesaw Mountain Landis (the first and middle names are from a battle in the Civil War where the Judge’s father fought) was a baseball fan, but not affiliated with the game prior to 1920. He was a federal judge with quite a mixed bag of decisions. He was noted to be anti-trust, but he’d rendered the decision that declared baseball a legal trust. He was progressive in the 1910s sense of the word (not necessarily the same as the modern political definition of the word) but did not favor integration of the races. He was, in short, a pretty complex man.
You have seen pictures of him (like the one just above). He was tall, thin, had that craggy face and the big head of white hair. He looked like a judge. Heck, he looked like a thin version of Zeus. He was dictatorial, petty, generous, bigoted, a champion of the weaker teams. Like I said above, a complex man.
He came to power in 1921 in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal. His first move was to bar all eight of the “Black Sox” from professional baseball. He also moved to ban an entire set of players (about 23 that I can find) from the game for gambling. It worked. The combination of banning players who bet on the game, took money to throw games, and to also ban those who knew of such plots began to seriously clean up the game. Baseball hasn’t had a major gambling scandal since (Pete Rose excepted) and I think most everyone believes the games are on the up and up. Some people tell us that Babe Ruth “saved baseball” in the 1920s. No, Judge Landis did. Ruth made it popular, but Landis made the critical decisions that restored integrity and didn’t change rules in such a way that would have stopped the offensive explosion brought on by Ruth and the new ball.
He did it because he had both a lifetime contract and absolute power over the game. Those were unprecedented. But the owners were scared in 1921 and Landis, for all his problems, was seen as a rock of integrity and the owners desperately wanted him to oversee the game. He drove a bargain that made sense to him. “Put me in charge, don’t mess with me, and don’t make me worry about job security, and I’ll clean up the game,” was his mantra (not in those exact words). He got what he wanted and that was both good and bad. It did mean that the game would be cleaned up. It meant that players would have to toe a particular line in their baseball activities (like forbidding barnstorming), it meant that Branch Rickey’s attempt to corner the market with his “Farm System” would be accepted as a good idea, but the cornering of the market part would be forbidden (I’ve got to do something about Rickey’s clash with Landis over the farm system at some point). It also meant that there would be no Jackie Robinson while Landis was in charge because the Judge accepted “separate but equal.”
So Landis is a very mixed bag for baseball. It’s tough to like him, even tougher to respect his views on race. On the other hand he did clean up the sport, did open up the minors, did lend Major League Baseball a veneer of respectability. He’s in the Hall of Fame where he should be. We’ll never see a Commissioner like him again. That both a good and a bad thing.