Kenesaw Mountain Landis : biography
Kenesaw Mountain Landis ( November 20, 1866 – November 25, 1944) was an American jurist who served as a federal judge from 1905 to 1922 and as the first Commissioner of Baseball from 1920 until his death. He is remembered for his handling of the Black Sox scandal, in which he expelled eight members of the Chicago White Sox from organized baseball for conspiring to lose the 1919 World Series and repeatedly refused their reinstatement requests. His firm actions and iron rule over baseball in the near quarter-century of his commissionership are generally credited with restoring public confidence in the game.
Landis was born in Millville, Ohio in 1866, his name a spelling variation on the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in the American Civil War, where his father was wounded in 1864. Landis spent much of his youth in Indiana; he left school at fifteen and worked in a series of positions in that state. His involvement in politics led to a civil service job. At age 21, Landis applied to become a lawyer—there were then no educational or examination requirements for the Indiana bar. Following a year of unprofitable practice, he went to law school. After his graduation, he opened an office in Chicago, but left it when Walter Q. Gresham, the new United States Secretary of State, named him his personal secretary in 1893. After Gresham’s death in 1895, Landis refused an offer of an ambassadorship, and returned to Chicago to practice law and marry.
President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Landis a federal judge in 1905. Landis received national attention in 1907 when he fined Standard Oil of Indiana more than $29 million for violating federal laws forbidding rebates on railroad freight tariffs. Though Landis was reversed on appeal, he was seen as a judge determined to rein in big business. During and after World War I, Landis, an ardent patriot, presided over several high-profile trials of draft resisters and others whom he saw as opposing the war effort. He imposed heavy sentences on those who were convicted; some of the convictions were reversed on appeal, and other sentences were commuted.
In 1920, Judge Landis was a leading candidate when American League and National League team owners, embarrassed by the Black Sox scandal and other instances of players throwing games, sought someone to rule over baseball. Landis was given full power to act in the sport’s best interest, and used that power extensively over the next quarter-century. Landis was widely praised for cleaning up the game, although some of his decisions in the Black Sox matter remain controversial: supporters of "Shoeless Joe" Jackson and Buck Weaver contend that he was overly harsh with those players. Others blame Landis for, in their view, delaying the racial integration of baseball. Landis was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by a special vote shortly after he died in 1944.
Landis’s courtroom, room 627 in the Chicago Federal Building, was ornate and featured two murals; one of King John conceding Magna Carta, the other of Moses about to smash the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The mahogany and marble chamber was, according to Landis biographer David Pietrusza, "just the spot for Landis’s sense of the theatrical. In it he would hold court for nearly the next decade and a half." According to Spink, "It wasn’t long before Chicago writers discovered they had a ‘character’ on the bench." A. L. Sloan of the Chicago Herald-American, a friend of Landis, recalled:
The Judge was always headline news. He was a great showman, theatrical in appearance, with his sharp jaw and shock of white hair, and people always crowded into his courtroom, knowing there would be something going on. There were few dull moments.
If Judge Landis was suspicious of an attorney’s line of questioning, he would begin to wrinkle his nose, and once told a witness, "Now let’s stop fooling around and tell exactly what did happen, without reciting your life’s history." When an elderly defendant told him that he would not be able to live to complete a five-year sentence, Landis scowled at him and asked, "Well, you can try, can’t you?" When a young man stood before him for sentencing after admitting to stealing jewels from a parcel, the defendant’s wife stood near him, infant daughter in her arms, and Landis mused what to do about the situation. After a dramatic pause, Landis ordered the young man to take his wife and daughter and go home with them, expressing his unwillingness to have the girl be the daughter of a convict. According to sportswriter Ed Fitzgerald in SPORT magazine, "[w]omen wept unashamed and the entire courtroom burst into spontaneous, prolonged applause."