Wednesday, January 12, 2005

January 12th, 1921

Kenesaw Mountain Landis Becomes Commissioner

That’s a great name, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Sounds like the patriarch of a soap opera family or something. His father, Dr. Abraham H. Landis insisted on naming him that for the Civil War battle where he nearly lost a leg while acting as a surgeon for the army of General Sherman. He did however, manage to misspell it, the actual Kennesaw Mountain is spelled with two n’s. You don’t really get names like that anymore, which might be for the best really, otherwise I could be “Major Deegan Exit #4” Barbieri, for the spot where my father once broke his leg while driving.

Landis is far and away most famously remembered as the first Commissioner although he had a fairly distinguished career as an attorney and federal judge prior to his twenty-three run of absolute power at the head of Major League Baseball. Appointed by Teddy Roosevelt to the Federal Bench, Landis presided over the Standard Oil antitrust trial, fining them $29 million, quite a sum in those days (it's roughly $560 million in 2005 dollars) although the judgment was eventually set aside. Landis also presided over the trial of one-hundred and one members of the Industrial Workers of the World which resulted in a conviction for the lot under the World War I Espionage Act and on frequently shaky evidence. Landis nevertheless sentenced some to terms as long as twenty years.

Landis’ place in history was secured however when he decided to take the position as the first Commissioner. Like a fair number of Presidents, Landis’ first major act remains his most famous, the banishment of eight members of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” from the game. A common misconception is that the eight were banned shortly after the series, in fact seven of the players who would be end up banned played in 1920 season (Arnold “Chick” Gandil was the exception) and the Sox won 96 games, finishing just two games behind Cleveland for the pennant. Nonetheless, a grand jury was convened to investigate the matter, and after both Joe Jackson and pitcher Eddie Cicotte confessed, the case went to trial. The players were acquitted after key evidence, notably the signed confessions of Jackson and Cicotte went missing and the pair recanted. (The confessions would turn up many years later in the office of Charles Comiskey’s lawyer.) Landis was appointed to investigate the matter and despite the acquittals, banned the players for life, most controversially Buck Weaver who had knowledge of the fix but by all accounts did not participate.

Landis served as Commissioner until his death in 1944 (when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in a special election and the MVP award was renamed for him, a legacy that remains, although virtually unknown, to this day) and is still a controversial figure not only for his banning of the Sox, but also for his much-debated role in maintain the segregation of baseball. Landis’ reputation has shifted considerably; many now view him as a bigoted man who unjustly banned Weaver and Joe Jackson. The truth, as always, is considerably more complicated, but the influence Landis held on the game is easy to see.

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