Today is the 90th anniversary of a landmark day in the history of Major League Baseball. On this date in 1921, the owners elected Kenesaw ‘Mountain’ Landis to the newly created position of Commissioner. His job, to do whatever it took to restore confidence in the American public following the infamous “Black Sox” scandal of 1919.
The reasons for the creation of the position and for Landis’ specific hiring constitute an important and interesting chapter in the history of America’s pastime. The National League was founded in 1876, replacing the old National Association that had been formed in 1871 to begin some type of organization for the blossoming sport on a national level.
The American League was founded in 1900 from origins as the Western League which had been itself formed in 1893. In 1901, the A.L. elevated itself to major league status and became direct competition for the N.L.’s senior circuit. In 1903, the champions of the two leagues met in the first World Series, a competition that became permanent in 1905.
In 1919, the A.L.’s Chicago White Sox were considered the best team in the game at that time, led by one of the true early legends in the sport, ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson. The Sox had won the World Series of 1917, and were prohibitive favorites in this World Series against the N.L.’s Cincinnati Reds, but the Reds ended up winning what was then a best-of-9 games event, 5 games to 3.
During that 1919 series, rumors began to surface that a “fix” was in, that professional gamblers had successfully paid off some of the White Sox key players to “throw” the series in the Reds favor. These allegations and rumors continued into and through the 1920 season, and a grand jury was finally convened to investigate the matter. The grand jury convened as the Sox were again battling for the A.L. pennant. When Jackson and a teammate, the team’s best pitcher Eddie Cicotte, confessed their involvement to the grand jury, Sox owner Charles Comiskey suspended 8 players believed to have been involved, costing them the 1920 pennant.
A highly publicized trial of the 8 players who were allegedly involved took place. One young boy is famously quoted as approaching Jackson with the plea “Say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.”
Key evidence, including the signed confessions of Cicotte and Jackson went missing. Both men recanted these confessions. There were numerous scandalous incidents during the proceedings. In the end, the jury found the players “not guilty”, and it was presumed that they would simply continue on with their careers.
However, Major League Baseball was not happy. The legal jury verdict was obviously a result of a combination of the farcical trial incidents and some hero-worship among the jurors. The owners knew that gamblers had their hands in the outcome of some games almost since the inception of the Major Leagues, and needed to eliminate that influence and win back the integrity of the game in order to keep the respect and interest of the increasingly skeptical fans.
To this end, the owners decided that they needed someone strong, forceful and popular to lead the game’s efforts. Prior to that point, administration of the sport such as arbiting disputes among owners was done by a National Commission created as a part of the 1903 peace agreement between the N.L. and A.L. The NC was made up of the President’s of both leagues, as well as a Commission chairman.
The owners choice for the Commission chairman job was none other than Landis, an Illinois federal judge who had presided over a famous anti-trust case regarding Standard Oil, and who had popularly presided over the trials of numerous Socialists who were trying to influence the United States in a variety of ways, including hindering the draft efforts for the American forces in World War I. Landis agreed to accept the post, but not as then constructed. He insisted on an all-powerful position as sole Commissioner of Baseball.
The owners agreed, giving him full authority to act, as he demanded, “in the best interests of baseball” as relating to any matter. He was appointed to the post of Commissioner on the same day that the White Sox players were convicted, and the following day Landis made his now legendary proclamation:
“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
The 8 players were permanently banned from baseball with this statement. Two other players who were peripherally involved were also eventually banned. The cheating members of that 1919 team became nicknamed the “Black Sox” by the media. The entire incident was famously immortalized in the popular 1988 film “Eight Men Out“, which itself was based on a book Eliot Asinof titled “Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series.”
The owners thought that following his role in resolving the scandal, that Judge Landis would ease into light activity in a semi-retirement role. However, Landis had other ideas, and using his popularity with both the public and the press, he ended up presiding over the game for the next quarter century. Among the many improvements to the game during his reign were an end to hooliganism by many player, the negotiation of broadcasting contracts as first radio and then television began to cover the sport, and negotiating ends to some negative labor practices by owners. Landis also infamously perpetuated the segregation of baseball throughout his reign, and severely restricted MLB control over minor league baseball.
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (pictured above with Hall of Famer Ty Cobb) was undoubtedly the right man at the right time in dealing with the Black Sox scandal in particular and the issue of overthrowing the gamblers influence and returning the integrity of the game of professional baseball. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame just one month after his death, and the MVP Award in both leagues is officially named after him.
The aftermath of the infamous 1919 World Series saw eight men, the notorious White Sox players, out of the game permanently and one man, the Commissioner of Baseball, first in the person of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, introduced into the game. Both results would have to be considered as victories in the end for all true fans of America’s national pastime.