Kenesaw Mountain Landis


Kenesaw Mountain Landis : biography

November 20, 1866 – November 25, 1944

Federal League and Baby Iraene cases (1909–1917)

A lifelong baseball fan, Landis often slipped away from the courthouse for a White Sox or Cubs game. In 1914, the two existing major leagues were challenged by a new league, the Federal League. In 1915, the upstart league brought suit against the existing leagues and owners under the Sherman Act and the case was assigned to Landis. Baseball owners feared that the reserve clause, which forced players to sign new contracts only with their former team, and the 10-day clause, which allowed teams (but not players) to terminate player contracts on ten days notice, would be struck down by Landis.

Landis held hearings in late January 1915, and newspapers expected a quick decision, certainly before spring training began in March. During the hearings, Landis admonished the parties, "Both sides must understand that any blows at the thing called baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution". When the National League’s chief counsel, future Senator George Wharton Pepper referred to the activities of baseball players on the field as "labor", Landis interrupted him: "As a result of 30 years of observation, I am shocked because you call playing baseball ‘labor.’ " Landis reserved judgment, and the parties waited for his ruling. Spring training passed, as did the entire regular season and the World Series. In December 1915, still with no word from Landis, the parties reached a settlement, and the Federal League disbanded. Landis made no public statement as to the reasons for his failure to rule, though he told close friends that he had been certain the parties would reach a settlement sooner or later. Most observers thought that Landis waited because he did not want to rule against the two established leagues and their contracts.

In 1916, Landis presided over the "Ryan Baby" or "Baby Iraene" case. The recent widow of a prominent Chicago banker, Anna Dollie Ledgerwood Matters, had brought a baby girl home from a visit to Canada and claimed that the child was her late husband’s posthumous heir. Matters had left an estate of $250,000. However, a shop girl from Ontario, Margaret Ryan, claimed the baby was hers, and brought a writ of habeas corpus in Landis’s court. Ryan stated that she had given birth to the girl in an Ottawa hospital, but had been told her baby had died. In the era before blood and DNA testing, Landis relied on witness testimony and awarded the child to Ryan. The case brought comparisons between Landis and King Solomon, who had judged a similar case. Landis was reversed by the Supreme Court, which held he had no jurisdiction in the matter. A Canadian court later awarded the child to Ryan.

Although Landis was an autocrat in the courtroom, he was less so at home. In a 1916 interview, he stated,

Every member of this family does exactly what he or she wants to do. Each one is his or her supreme court. Everything for the common good of the family is decided according to the wishes of the whole family. Each one knows what is right and each one can do whatever he thinks is best. It is purely democratic.

Wartime cases (1917–1919)

In early 1917, Landis considered leaving the bench and returning to private practice—though he greatly enjoyed being a judge, the salary of $7,500 was considerably lower than what he could make as an attorney. The entry of the United States into World War I in April ended Landis’s determination to resign; a firm supporter of the war effort, he felt he could best serve the country by remaining on the bench. Despite this decision and his age, fifty, Landis wrote to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, asking him to take him into the service and send him to France, where the war was raging. Baker urged Landis to make speeches in support of the war instead, which he did. The judge’s son, Reed, had already served briefly in the Illinois National Guard; when war came he became a pilot and eventually became an ace.