Kenesaw Mountain Landis


Kenesaw Mountain Landis : biography

November 20, 1866 – November 25, 1944

Soon after Landis’s appointment, he surprised the major league owners by requiring that they disclose their minor league interests. Landis fought against the practice of "covering up", using transfers between two teams controlled by the same major league team to make players ineligible for the draft. His first formal act as commissioner was to declare infielder Phil Todt a free agent, dissolving his contract with the St. Louis Browns (at the time run by Rickey, who soon thereafter moved across town to run the Cardinals); in 1928 he ruled future Hall of Famer Chuck Klein a free agent as he held the Cardinals had tried to cover Klein up. The following year, he freed Detroit Tigers prospect and future Hall of Famer Rick Ferrell, who attracted a significant signing bonus with the Browns. In 1936, Landis found that teenage pitching prospect Bob Feller’s signing by minor league club Fargo-Moorhead had been a charade; the young pitcher was for all intents and purposes property of the Cleveland Indians. However, Feller indicated that he wanted to play for Cleveland and Landis issued a ruling which required the Indians to pay damages to minor league clubs, but allowed them to retain Feller, who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Indians.

Landis’s attempts to crack down on "covering up" provoked the only time he was ever sued by one of his owners. After the 1930 season, minor leaguer Fred Bennett, convinced he was being covered up by the Browns, petitioned Landis for his release. Landis ruled that the Browns could either keep Bennett on their roster for the entire 1931 season, trade him, or release him. Instead, Browns owner Phil Ball brought suit against Landis in his old court in Chicago. Federal Judge Walter Lindley ruled for Landis, noting that the agreements and rules were intended to "endow the Commissioner with all the attributes of a benevolent but absolute despot and all the disciplinary powers of the proverbial pater familias ". Ball intended to appeal, but after a meeting between team owners and Landis in which the commissioner reminded owners of their agreement not to sue, agreed to drop the case.

Landis had hoped that the large Cardinal farm system would become economically unfeasible; when it proved successful for the Cardinals, he had tolerated it for several years and was in a poor position to abolish it. In 1938, however, finding that the Cardinals effectively controlled multiple teams in the same league (a practice disliked by Landis), he freed 70 players from their farm system. As few of the players were likely prospects for the major leagues, Landis’s actions generated headlines, but had little effect on the Cardinals organization, and the development of the modern farm system, whereby each major league club has several minor league teams which it uses to develop talent, proceeded apace. Rob Neyer describes Landis’s effort as "a noble effort in a good cause, but it was also doomed to fail."

Baseball color line

One of the most controversial aspects of Landis’s commissionership is the question of race. From 1884, black ballplayers were informally banned from organized baseball. No black ballplayer played in organized baseball during Landis’s commissionership; Rickey (then running the Brooklyn Dodgers) broke the color line by signing Jackie Robinson to play for the minor league Montreal Royals in 1946, after Landis’s death; Robinson became the first black in the major leagues since the 19th century, playing with the Dodgers beginning in 1947.

According to contemporary newspaper columns, at the time of his appointment as commissioner, Landis was considered a liberal on race questions; two Chicago African-American newspapers defended him against the 1921 efforts to impeach him from his judgeship. A number of baseball authors have ascribed racism to Landis, who they say actively perpetuated baseball’s color line. James Bankes, in The Pittsburgh Crawfords, tracing the history of that Negro League team, states that Landis, whom the author suggests was a Southerner, made "little effort to disguise his racial prejudice during 25 years in office" and "remained a steadfast foe of integration". Negro League historian John Holway termed Landis "the hard-bitten Carolinian Kennesaw Mountain Landis". In a 2000 article in Smithsonian magazine, writer Bruce Watson states that Landis "upheld baseball’s unwritten ban on black players and did nothing to push owners toward integration". A number of authors say that Landis banned major league play against black teams for fear the white teams would lose, though they ascribe various dates for this action and the Dodgers are known to have played black teams in and around their Havana spring training base as late as 1942.