Today in 1920: Judge Landis named first baseball commissioner

November 12, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryIt was 90 years ago today that Major League Baseball hired its very first commissioner to bring closure to the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.

To restore honor to America’s tarnished pastime, baseball’s owners fittingly turned to a federal judge who was named after a mountain.

But before he would accept the lucrative new position, Kenesaw Mountain Landis – who owed his colorful name to the battlefield in Georgia where his father lost a leg during the Civil War – demanded unlimited authority over all aspects of baseball. That the owners agreed to this outrageous demand shows how desperate they were to put the Black Sox affair behind them.

The Black Sox Scandal involved several Chicago White Sox players who were paid off by a group of professional gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. They did so by playing just poorly enough for the Cincinnati Reds to take the championship, and they played the part well; no one who watched the series suspected any foul play. But after the season ended, tales of suspicious betting against the heavily favored White Sox made the rounds. The rumors gained momentum throughout the next season, and by the fall of 1920 they loomed over the sport like a fifth-inning thunderhead.

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, first commissioner of baseballBefore assuming his new role as baseball’s first CEO, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled from the bench of the U.S. district court in Chicago. He became an expert on the business of baseball while presiding over a 1914 antitrust case that pitted the struggling Federal League against the powerful American and National leagues. (This was eight years before the U.S. Supreme Court would rule that the Sherman Antitrust Act did not apply to Major League Baseball.)

After Landis became commissioner, eight White Sox players – including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of the best hitters of all time – were indicted on criminal charges, but all were eventually acquitted.

Even so, Landis banned all eight players from baseball for life…and then some. Due to Landis’s ruling, Shoeless Joe – an obvious shoe-in (no pun intended) for the Baseball Hall of Fame – remains ineligible, even though many now believe he was a reluctant participant in the conspiracy.

Landis sensed that the only way to restore fan respect for baseball was to make an example of the players tainted by the Black Sox Scandal. “Regardless of the verdict of juries,” he explained to the press, “no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers 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.”

Over the next 24 years, the iron-fisted Landis would banish several more players, along with a coach and a team president. He even suspended Babe Ruth – the first superstar of pro sports – for 40 games after Ruth went on a barnstorming tour, playing unofficial exhibition games in the off-season in defiance of an explicit warning from Landis.

In facing down the Bambino, Landis brought the rule of law to baseball, making it clear that the commissioner was truly the most powerful player in the major leagues. Fay Vincent, another controversial commissioner of baseball, later said of Landis: “That middle name tells you all there is to know about how tough he was.”