As major league baseball's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1866-1944) cleaned up a sport that had been almost fatally corrupted by ties to organized gambling. Ruling with an autocratic hand, Landis saved baseball from squabbling owners and miscreant players and presided over the sport's ascendancy into American's undisputed national pastime during the era between the two World Wars.
During the U.S. Civil War, Abraham H. Landis was a surgeon with the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. On General William Sherman's famous march through Georgia in 1864, Landis nearly lost a leg to a Confederate cannonball at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Two years later, he insisted on naming the sixth of his seven children after that battle, though he misspelled the mountain's name, dropping one "n."
Many of his friends called Kenesaw Mountain Landis by the nickname Kennie. His older brothers and sisters called him "the Squire" for his pompous manner, even at a young age. The family moved to Logansport, Indiana, when Kennie was eight. There he learned to play baseball around the same time as the first professional baseball league, the National League, was forming. He was skilled at baseball but bedeviled by mathematics, and he dropped out of high school before graduation.
As a teenager, Landis played first base for the semipro Goosetown, Indiana, team, and at the age of 17 became its manager. Though only a wiry 5 foot 7 inches, he was offered a professional contract but turned it down because he said he wanted to play "merely for sport and the love of the game." Yet he did not lack competitive drive, winning many medals in bicycle races at county fairs. On one occasion, displaying his unique gift from self-promotion, he pinned 20 store-bought medals on his chest and showed up in a strange town for a big race. Intimidated, his rivals were defeated.
After working various odd jobs as a handyman, an errand boy, a clerk in a general store, and a newspaper hawker, Landis caught on as a court reporter in South Bend, Indiana. He loved the showmanship of the world of law and quickly gained influential friends. In 1886 he became the aide to Indiana's Secretary of State. The following year he was admitted to the state bar, and in 1891 he graduated from Union College of Law in Chicago. Early in his law school days, he was denied admission to a fraternity because he looked like a country bumpkin. Outraged, he organized the other non-fraternity students and they took over the school government.
Even though he had been a high school dropout, Landis proved to be a genius at advancing himself. His rapid rise continued in 1893 when his father's former commanding officer, Walter Greshman, became U.S. Secretary of State and made Landis his personal secretary. President Grover Cleveland was so impressed with his work that he offered him a post as minister to Venezuela, but Landis declined, instead moving back to Chicago in 1895 to practice law and marry a young socialite, Winifred Reed.
Landis became an ardent Chicago Cubs fan and sometimes asked for postponements of court hearings so he could attend a crucial game. He said baseball was a great game and "remarkable for its cleanness" in an era where other sports had an unsavory relationship with gamblers.
Two of Landis's brothers were elected to the U.S. Congress and Landis was approached to run, but declined. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Landis to a newly created federal judgeship, the District Court of Northern Illinois, in Chicago. Landis was a flamboyant judge who engaged in frequent theatrical flourishes, jumping out of his chair and pointing fingers at recalcitrant witnesses. His procedures often were unorthodox and autocratic; for instance, he would hold suspects without warrants and order people to appear before him without subpoenas.
Landis became famous in 1907 when he summoned the nation's wealthiest man, John D. Rockefeller, to testify in an antitrust case against his own company, Standard Oil. After Rockefeller's evasive testimony, Landis slapped a $29.2 million fine on Standard Oil for colluding with railroads to fix prices. His decision was later overturned on appeal. Citing many cases where his decisions were eventually overturned, critics denounced Landis as a judge who played to the crowds. "His career typifies the heights to which dramatic talent may carry a man in America if only he has the foresight not to go on the stage," wrote sportswriter Heywood Broun.
In 1915, Landis presided over an antitrust suit by the upstart Federal League against baseball's two established major leagues, challenged organized baseball's reserve clause, which gave the American and National leagues lifetime rights to a player's services. He delayed his decision for 11 months, and the frustrated Federal League owners finally agreed to a buyout before Landis rendered a verdict.
During World War I, Landis was an ardent patriot. He issued several harsh verdicts to alleged seditionists, fining members of the International Workers of the World a total of $2.3 million for draft evasion and sentencing them to up to 20 years in prison. The sentences later were commuted. In another famous trial, Landis, who had said German Americans' hearts were "reeking with disloyalty," gave radical German Austrian émigré Victor Berger and five other socialists twenty-year sentences for conspiracy, saying later he wished he could have had them "lined up against a wall and shot." The Supreme Court later reversed that decision.
Cleaned Up Baseball
In 1919, at the behest of a ring of mobsters, members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds. The affair was covered up but suspicions grew about a fix. The owners, who had run the sport for decades with a weak governing commission, realized they needed a strong leader to dispel debilitating doubts about the game's integrity. On November 12, 1920, 14 owners showed up in Landis's courtroom, hats in hand. The judge told them to be quiet while his court was in session, demonstrating to them that he would not be cowed. That same day, he took the new job of baseball commissioner for $50,000 a year after getting a contract which specified that he could not be fired, fined, or criticized in public by the owners, his ostensible employers. He stayed on as judge for a year, then quit when he was accused of a conflict of interest.
Landis's first important act as commissioner was to banish forever eight members of the 1919 Series fixers, the so-called Chicago "Black" Sox, even though they had been acquitted of all criminal charges in connection with the conspiracy. The banished included the great "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who was little more than a patsy in the fix and had played his hardest during the games. Landis said the eight "will be and remain outlaws." Because of Landis's ruling, Jackson has never been admitted to baseball's Hall of Fame, though many baseball experts and fans feel he should be exonerated.
Landis's cleanup of baseball, which had become corrupted by its association with gamblers, was harsh but uneven. In his first five years as commissioner, he banned seven other players for life and suspended 38 others. Most of those punished had merely been approached by gamblers and had failed to disclose their conversations. Others did even less. Landis banned pitcher Ray Fisher for life when he took a job as a coach at the University of Michigan while still under contract to the Cincinnati Reds. He banned New York Giants outfielder Benny Kauff after Kauff was acquitted on auto-theft charges.
Landis was unafraid to tackle even the game's biggest star, Babe Ruth. In 1921 Landis suspended Ruth and New York Yankees teammate Bob Meusel for 40 games for violating a rarely invoked rule against post-season barnstorming, a common practice in those days. But he reinstated Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, two future Hall of Famers, who had been suspended by American League President Ban Johnson for allegedly throwing games during the 1919 season, even though there was written evidence they were involved in a fix.
Owners who had thought Landis would be their lackey proved sadly mistaken. He ordered owners with financial interests in racetracks to quit any involvement with horse racing or anything related to gambling. He turned down singer Bing Crosby's bid to buy the Pittsburgh Pirates because he owned racehorses. He slammed owners for stockpiling deserving players in their expanding minor league "farm" systems. In 1930 he declared St. Louis Browns player Fred Bennett a free agent, claiming owner Fred Ball had unfairly stymied his career. Ball took Landis to federal court and lost. By the end of the 1930s, Landis had freed almost 200 players under similar circumstances. He often nixed player trades that he figured were not in the best interests of baseball's competitiveness. "He was always on the side of the ballplayer," said manager Leo Durocher. "He had no use for the owners at all."
Landis frequently clashed with Ban Johnson, who had been the most powerful figure in the game for many years. Eventually, he told the owners that either he would go or Johnson would go. It was Johnson who resigned.
Along with Ruth and the "lively" ball, which transformed the game into a crowd-pleasing spectacle with more home runs, Landis was largely responsible for redeeming the tarnished reputation of the sport and turning baseball into the nation's undisputed national pastime during the years between the two world wars. With his shock of long white hair and his imperious manner, Landis was a frail-looking, scowling, patrician figure. Autocratic and stern, Landis projected an image of rectitude even while unleashing a vituperative storm of profanity, and he issued frequent lectures against anyone who would besmirch the sport. Baseball historian Harold Seymour described him as a "scowling, white-haired, hawk-visaged curmudgeon who affected battered hats, used salty language, chewed tobacco, and poked listeners in the ribs with a stiff right finger."
Landis frequently attended games and was the sport's unflagging ambassador. He selected announcers for the World Series and watched every inning of every game from his box. In the 1934 World Series, when angry fans in Detroit showered St. Louis outfielder Ducky Medwick with produce during a lopsided game, Landis ordered the Cardinals to remove Medwick to avoid a forfeit. They complied.
Few people dared defy Landis, who as commissioner was known simply as "the Judge." His office in downtown Chicago had a single word stenciled on the door: BASEBALL. He was the game's one-man judge and jury. His centralized authority was a stark contrast to the lackadaisical way the game had been run prior to his installment. Critics said too much decision-making power had been invested in one man.
Landis's obstinate views on race thwarted all attempts to integrate baseball under his watch. He repeatedly upheld the sport's unwritten ban against African American players. When the Pittsburgh Pirates sought to sign legendary Negro League star Josh Gibson to a contract in 1943, Landis stopped them. "The colored ballplayers have their own league," he said. "Let them stay in their own league." Owner Bill Veeck claimed Landis prevented him from buying the Philadelphia Phillies because Veeck had told him he planned to integrate the team, but some historians doubt Veeck's account.
Two days before the start of the 1944 World Series, Landis was hospitalized for his chronic respiratory problems. In mid-November, the owners again renewed Landis's contract for seven years, but it was mainly an act of tribute. Landis died on November 25, 1944, at the age of 78. He had decreed there would be no funeral, so he was cremated and buried modestly in Chicago. Two weeks later he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. His plaque reads: "His Integrity and Leadership Established Baseball in the Respect, Esteem and Affection of the American People."
Never again did baseball's owners invest a commissioner with such sweeping powers. Subsequent baseball commissioners often kowtowed to the owners and rarely interfered in trades and sales of teams. Never again would one man wield such supreme authority over the sport.
Alexander, Charles C., Ty Cobb, Oxford University Press, 1984.
Asinof, Eliot, Eight Men Out, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.
Seymour, Harold, Baseball: The Golden Age, Oxford University Press, 1971.
Smithsonian, October 2000, p. 120.
Sports Illustrated, July 19, 1993, p. 76.