(Dave’s note: Rob’s litigation consulting company has been working crazy long days on a huge case for the past week or so, and I’m covering for him today. Rob will be back in action doing his first Funny Names In The News post on Friday, which gives me a rare opportunity to write a baseball post, since Rob has been hogging those lately 🙂 )
Effective leadership is a tricky thing. Sometimes you really need a person with a nuanced understanding of complex issues, and other times it takes a firebrand – someone who is hellbent on one or two issues to the exclusion of all others. For the latter category, being described as “the only successful dictator in United States history” is a very good thing, and for that reason, today’s nominee not only became the first commissioner in Major League Baseball history, but is remembered as one of the sport’s finest.
Just look at that guy. Just by looking at his face, you can see why his parents named him after Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia – the place where his father served as a Civil War medic and got shot in the leg.
It’s safe to call Kenesaw Mountain Landis a hardcore SOB – but only because he’s no longer alive. If I said something like that between about 1905 and 1944, he would probably have me banned not only from ever writing about baseball again (hey, he’s kind of like Rob! 😉 ) but also from writing about anything, period.
That’s just the way Kenesaw was, and to understand his legacy, you need to understand what baseball was like before he became commish in 1920. In 1919, the Black Sox Scandal tarnished the game’s already-spotty reputation, when eight players were paid off by gamblers to intentionally lose the world series. This, combined with the sport’s freewheeling, slap-happy reputation and questionable financial dealings, created the need for a strong authoritarian to clean up the game, and almost unanimously, people chose ol’ Kenny Landis (who probably would hate me for calling him that too).
Landis was a former judge, who was ballsy enough to sue Nelson Rockefeller $30 million dollars, and take on other leaders of giant monopolies during the early part of the century. To show he could hit from both sides of the plate, he later sent a lot of radical labor leaders to prison for sedition. In between, he presided over an antitrust case against Major League Baseball that many believe saved the sport.
His first move as commissioner was to ban the eight Black Sox culprits from baseball for life, inadvertently creating one of the best-named groups of all time. The players who got the axe: Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver, and Lefty Weaver.
Then just to show he feared no one, he then went after hall-of-famers Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Smokey Joe Wood. Then he decided to suspend Babe Ruth – the game’s most famous player – for a month and half in the 1922 season.
Later on, in the final game of the 1934 World Series, he kicked another hall-of-famer, Joe “Ducky” Medwick out of a game for sliding too hard into third base. (Perhaps Landis had decided that the best way to ensure his dominance over the league was by going after talented, funny-named players – a decision I simply can’t support)
Unsurprisingly, the legacy of Kenesaw Mountain Landis is one that has stoked considerable controversy, as some blame him for keeping baseball’s “color barrier” in place longer than it otherwise might have. This accusation of racism is obviously not flattering to Landis for several reasons – not the least of which was because Major League Baseball would have been much better if guys like Spottswood Poles were allowed to participate.
There’s no blatant evidence supporting the accusation, but observers note that less than three years after Landis’ death, under his successor Happy Chandler,Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the big leagues.
Nonetheless, most baseball historians say Kenesaw Mountain Landis was exactly the iron-fisted ruler that baseball needed during a time when its very existence was on the ropes. I’m tempted to agree.
Hopefully that last paragraph proves two things:
- I’m way better at using boxing metaphors than baseball ones.
- As you might expect, I’m willing to give a guy named Kenesaw Mountain Landis the benefit of the doubt.
P.S. Last week, our brilliant blog friend (and minor baseball celebrity) Mark Sackler awarded me with the inaugural BLAHS award! You know what that means: bragging rights and a second great way to pick up girls!