"Regardless of the outcome of the juries, no player that throws a ball game, no man that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball."
- Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis
Love him or hate him, for better or worse, the name and persona of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis will inextricably be entwined with American history, not for the decisions he made as a federal judge, but for his heavy-handedness in reining in the bawdy, free-ranging era of post-World War I organized baseball in general, and his handling of the aftermath of the 1919 World Series, the Black Sox Scandal, in particular.
He has been called "the only successful dictator in United States history," but most observers agree on one thing — Landis was the right man for the job at the time.
The early years
Kenesaw Mountain is a variant spelling of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, the site of a Civil War battle at which Landis's father Abraham, a physician and surgeon, served on the Union side, receiving a leg wound during the fighting. Abraham and Mary lived in Millville, Ohio, in the southwestern part of the state, just north of Cincinnati.
Landis was the sixth of seven children in the family and fourth of five males. Two of his brothers would go on to politics and serve in the U.S. Congress.
He married Winnefred Reed in 1895 and produced a family of three.
On the bench
Landis was appointed to the district bench in 1905 in the Northern District of Illinois after practicing law in Chicago from 1891.
In 1907, he fined Standard Oil of Indiana nearly $30 million for taking rebates from rail shipping companies. The judgment was altered by a higher court, but Landis was given high marks by the public and his colleagues for his decision.
In 1915, Landis presided over an antitrust case involving Major League baseball, as it had been established for a little more than a decade, with its American and National leagues. The upstart Federal League charged that the Major Leagues were, in essence, a huge trust, and the structure should be dismantled. The Federal League, it claimed, should have equal access to every player now under contract, and should be allowed to offer players as much money as the market would bear, as in an open economy.
Landis knew this was a time bomb of sorts, and could have far-reaching implications. Knowing the flimsy legal structure of organized baseball, he issued a stern warning to both parties, saying, "Both sides must understand that any blows at this thing called baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution." His decision was — to make no decision, until the Federal League gave up the pursuit. A sports writer opined, "Many [people] felt that Landis had saved baseball in 1915."
In 1918, Landis sentenced several radical labor leaders, including Victor Berger and other Socialists in the ill-fated Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), to prison for sedition. That action again added to his tough-minded, conservative judicial posture.
Baseball struggled to gain back credibility and public confidence in the game following the Black Sox Scandal. But the scandal itself was just the major element of what was amiss in 1919. Gambling was rife, even during the regular season, but team owners generally just looked the other way.
The integrity of the game was being called into question — with the end of World War I, Americans needed something to "hang their hats on." The American Pastime was it. Yet even then, the game was on the brink of collapse.
Organized baseball's governing body, the "National Commission," headed by August Herrmann, decided to disband and reorganize. They called on Judge Landis to come in and "clean house" as Commissioner. They gave him absolute power to do whatever he thought would end the ruffian characterization of the game as perceived by the American public.
Judge Landis to the rescue
As if scripted by Hollywood, in strode baseball's new leading man. Landis immediately wielded his heavy ax by issuing lifetime suspensions to the eight players from the Chicago White Sox team who allegedly conspired to throw the 1919 World Series. Those players included Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil (instigator), Shoeless Joe Jackson (of Hall-of-Fame ability and questionable culpability), Fred McMullin, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver (Jackson's best friend, also a marginal culprit), and Lefty Weaver.
A problem with the ruling was that a jury had found the eight men not guilty of criminal charges. Since Illinois had no sports bribery statutes, the men were brought up on charges of "defrauding White Sox owner Charles Comiskey's business." The players invoked their Fifth Amendment rights, and, without previous written confessions — which had mysteriously disappeared from the courthouse — the grand jury could not convict.
1922 and beyond
Other minor scandals surfaced, of course — graft does not so easily release its steely grip.
In a "sticky wicket" situation, it was revealed in 1926 by an ex-Detroit pitcher that Hall-of-Famers Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were involved in a conspiracy in 1919 with ex-pitcher "Smokey" Joe Wood, to throw a Detroit-Cleveland game Detroit's way, so the club could collect money for finshing in third place instead of fourth.
The allegations existed in the form of letters passed among the parties involved and were passed on to the American League president, Ban Johnson, and eventually to Landis. Behind closed doors, an agreement was worked out so that Cobb and Speaker would step down as managers of their respective clubs, without any fanfare or publicity.
Without Leonard's appearnace at a later hearing to corroborate the evidence, Landis issued a decision that cleared Cobb and Speaker, and ordered them reinstated.
It was during this time that The Roaring Twenties were beginning to assert their identity. Babe Ruth was beginning to hit home runs. Fans were pouring into ballparks throughout the league. And, following a superlative season and World Series in 1921, Ruth was feeling a bit cocky.
The league had a rule, established in 1911, that there would be no "barnstorming" (touring exhibitions) after the season. Landis had warned Ruth that he, Ruth, was not bigger than the game, and would be punished if he followed through on his plan to carry out his exhibition schedule. Ruth did barnstorm, and Landis suspended Ruth for the 1922 season's first six weeks.
On the larger organized baseball stage, Landis was opposed to the "farm system" that Brooklyn Dodger owner Branch Rickey had set up, whereby players would be signed to a contract to play in the Minor leagues until they were ready to be called up to the big leagues. Whereas before Rickey, Minor League teams in cities throughout America might be made up of players signed by any number of teams, Rickey kept all of his signees playing together in one city, promoting, it was hoped, camaraderie and familial ties in the "Dodger household."
Landis took exception to the concept, in the broader view that these players, once signed, could not hope to advance to the big leagues unless someone retired. Landis favored free movement within the Minor league system and released a number of players from their contracts, making them free agents able to sign with any club, for any signing bonus they could get.
In 1938, Landis released 91 St. Louis Cardinal farmhands, including "Pistol Pete" Reiser and James "Skeeter" Webb. Then in January 1940, the Detroit Tigers took a hit, losing dozens of players to free agency, costing the club about $500,000.
When Landis freed Tommy Heinrich from the Cleveland Indians system, Heinrich parlayed his release into a $25,000 signing bonus with the Yankees.
Landis also was interested in keeping a lid on the on-field brawling that was so common in the early years of the league. In the seventh game of the 1934 World Series, Landis had Cardinal Hall-of-Famer Joe "Ducky" Medwick pulled from the game, after Medwick, according to Detroit fans, slid into third on a triple just a little to hard. With the game well in hand for the Cardinals, the slide drew the wrath of the Tiger fans, who began to pelt Medwick with an assortment of objects when he took his position in left field on defense.
Landis the racist?
Many people contend that it is no coincidence that the color barrier in the Major leagues was not broken until Landis died in 1944. Landis's defense was just to pass off the Negro League players as "just not good enough."
But it may have been the owners who were reluctant to sign black players in those times, the post-World War II years.
As the evidence stood, Landis's successor "Happy" Chandler's contract was not renewed after he took the initial steps to end segregation in the Major leagues, when he approved Jackie Robinson's contract to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
That chapter of organized baseball is a distant, if bitter, memory.