Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Iron-Fisted General

By: C.G. Morelli

It’s tough to love a guy who was once dubbed “the only successful dictator in United States history.” But when you consider the circumstances and the cold, calculated detachment with which Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis treated his MLB commissionership in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, it’s obvious he was the right man for the job; a necessary evil I guess you could say.

Landis was the son of a Civil War hero, a Union soldier named Abraham who lost part of his leg in the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia.

Perhaps Landis was hardened by a name that served as a constant reminder of his father’s heroism. Or possibly, it was watching two of his older brothers take seats in the U.S. Congress that served as motivation.

Whatever the case, old Kenesaw Mountain Landis worked his way to the judge’s bench in 1905 after serving as court prosecutor in Chicago for 14 years. Being a self proclaimed man of action, he was determined to make his impact felt.

After just two years on the bench, Landis dropped a $30 million fine on the Standard Oil Company for snaking rebates off the rail and shipping companies. The decision was eventually overturned by higher courts, but the incident cemented an image of Landis as a hard-nosed maverick of the court systems.

In 1915, Landis took the opportunity to dip his nose into one of his life long loves…professional baseball. The Federal League had leveled an anti-trust case against MLB and wanted to have the leagues dissolved and reorganized. But the tough, old judge would not bite. He ruled against the Federal League claiming vehemently that “any blows leveled against baseball would be considered a blow against all national institutions” in his court.

So, when baseball faced its first real scandal in 1919, with the White Sox throwing of the World Series, MLB officials looked to Landis for salvation. They handed complete control of all baseball affairs over to the grizzled judge, and Landis was quick to strike a devastating blow.

Without so much as blinking, he banned for life all eight White Sox players who were involved in the scandal, including the great Shoeless Joe Jackson. He did so without giving any credence to a federal jury who’d found all eight players not guilty of any charges just a few weeks prior. And then he issued a statement that came to define his iron-fisted style of rule from the commissioner’s office.

“Regardless of the outcome of juries,” he said, “No player that throws a ball game, no man that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball.”

And, boy, did he live by these words during his tenure. After ousting the famous White Sox eight, Landis continued his quest to clean up baseball. After the Black Sox scandal, the commish gave the boot to 13 more players and coaches who had consorted with gamblers. The list includes Joe Gedeon of the St. Louis Browns, Eugene Paulette of the Phillies, and Hal Chase of the Giants. He was even responsible for banning the Phillies owner, William B. Cox, in 1943 for betting on his team’s games.  

Landis also made headlines by temporarily canning Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, both coaches at the time, for allegedly involving themselves in a conspiracy with pitcher Smokey Joe Wood to throw a game in Detroit’s direction. The shady victory allowed the Tigers to finish in third place instead of fourth and therefore collect a larger share of the end of season profits.

When hard evidence could not be produced, Landis was forced to reinstate the two legends. But the message was clear and no player, no matter how illustrious, was above it. The game of baseball, in the eyes of Landis, was a game of purity and the old war hero’s son was determined to keep it that way.

Baseball fans and historians alike may not agree with all of the tactics employed by Kenesaw Mountain Landis during his tenure as commissioner. Players of the time period may have been happy to take their resentment to the graves for the culture of fear Landis injected into the game in his time. But the fact still remains that Major League Baseball was able to surmount its gambling problem and regain the public’s trust as a direct result of the iron-fisted rule of Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

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