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Chandler, Albert Benjamin ("Happy")

CHANDLER, Albert Benjamin ("Happy")

(b. 14 July 1898 in Corydon, Kentucky; d. 15 June 1991 in Versailles, Kentucky), successful politician who, as the second Commissioner of Baseball, presided over major changes that secured the sport's national preeminence.

Chandler was one of two sons of Joseph Sephus Chandler, a poor farmer, and Callie Sanders Chandler, a homemaker, who deserted the family when Albert was four years old. Although he had to work to supplement his family's finances, Chandler was valedictorian of his class at Corydon High School, from which he graduated in 1917. Entering Transylvania College with only "a red sweater, a $5 bill and a smile," he starred in four sports (football, baseball, basketball, and track) and won the name "Happy." Chandler served a brief term in the U.S. Army in 1918 before returning to college and earning an A.B. in history and political science in 1921. He then attended Harvard Law School but left after a year to enter the University of Kentucky in 1922. While still in school, Chandler played several summers of semipro baseball as a pitcher-infielder and worked as an assistant football coach and scout at tiny Centre College, in Danville, Kentucky. After obtaining his L..B. from the University of Kentucky in 1924, Chandler established a practice in Versailles (near Lexington, Kentucky) and married Mildred Lewis Watkins on 12 November 1925, a union that lasted sixty-five years. The couple had four children. In time Chandler received the degree of Doctor of Laws from both Transylvania (1936) and Kentucky (1937).

Chandler, who loved to sing in a passable tenor, was a natural for Democratic politics because of his charismatic folksiness; he was elected to the Kentucky senate in 1929. A gifted speaker, he was lieutenant governor on Ruby Laffoon's ticket in 1931 but broke with the governor over a three percent sales tax imposed during the Great Depression. Although he was ostracized, Chandler used Laffoon's temporary absence from the state in 1935 to obtain legislative enactment of a primary law ending caucus nominations. Party nominations would be made by primary elections, thus putting a stop to cronyism and the control of politics by those in power. Chandler won Kentucky's first primary in the fall of 1935 and was elected governor. He served from 1935 to 1939.

The youngest governor in the nation, Chandler was a strong New Dealer who led a populist administration. Under his administration, the sales tax was repealed and government streamlined, and public works spending built hospitals, schools, and roads—including a four-lane highway to Versailles. Funding for these programs came from Washington, D.C., as well as income, liquor excise, and luxury taxes. In spite of Chandler's achievements as governor, state law prohibited reelection, and Chandler failed in an attempt to unseat the incumbent U.S. senator, Alben Barkley, in 1938. However, the sudden death of Senator Marvell Mills Logan in 1939 allowed Chandler to obtain an interim senatorial appointment. He won a special senatorial election in 1940 and a full six-year term in 1942. As a member of the Military Affairs Committee during World War II, Chandler advocated preparedness, greater emphasis on the Pacific theater of war, and wariness toward Great Britain because he believed they continued to have imperial ambitions. In domestic politics he sanctioned the continuation of major league baseball even though 4,000 of its 5,700 athletes had been inducted into the armed forces.

Chandler's vocal praise for baseball led the baseball executive Larry MacPhail to support him as commissioner. The two men first met when Chandler attended Cincinnati Reds games, and "Loud Larry" convinced other owners that Chandler could replace "Kenesaw Mountain" Landis, the "myth" who had ruled the sport since 1920. Installed as second Commissioner of Baseball on 12 July 1945, Chandler reveled in a seven-year appointment, earning $50,000 per year (five times his senate salary). He retained his senate seat until the war concluded and resigned on 1 November 1945. As baseball commissioner, Chandler was determined not to be a figurehead, and he forced owners to renew their "loyalty oath" to accept his decisions. In 1922, the Supreme Court had decided that baseball was a sport, not a business, and granted it unique exemption from the antimonopoly and antitrust laws. Chandler understood that owners wanted to retain baseball's antitrust exemption and needed his political connections.

Chandler led baseball in historic times. He met a major crisis in April 1946 by suspending eighteen players who had jumped to the Mexican League. Chandler's acceptance of responsibility showed strength, but his insistence on a five-year banishment of the wayward players ultimately cost him support. In June 1945 he successfully opposed player unionization by the American Baseball Guild but was shocked by their paltry salaries. Chandler became the "players commissioner" by endorsing a uniform contract, payment of salary while injured, and weekly spring training allowances; he also suggested higher wages for umpires. Painfully aware of past gambling scandals, Chandler rejected reinstatement for "Buck" Weaver, a member of the Chicago White Sox team (later dubbed the "Black Sox") who had disgraced baseball by throwing the 1919 World Series. Even more dramatically, he suspended the Dodgers manager, Leo Durocher on 9 April 1947 for association with gamblers and "an accumulation of unpleasant incidents … detrimental to baseball." As a result of this decision, Chandler was hung in effigy in Brooklyn, and faced down hostile metropolitan fans during Babe Ruth Day later that month. His decisiveness also lost him the support of both MacPhail and the New York media.

Chandler was no backwoods bigot. In May 1945 he called for the desegregation of baseball, but less enlightened owners recorded a 15–1 margin against integration in a still controversial vote taken in 1946. Chandler nonetheless approved the transfer of the black player Jackie Robinson's contract from the Montreal Royals to the Brooklyn Dodgers and quashed a potentially riotous situation in Philadelphia in 1947. Although the commissioner had no power to enforce integration, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck remembered that Chandler "did what he could to make Robinson's path easier." Chandler also facilitated Larry Doby's integration of the American League that July when Doby was signed to play with the Indians. Chandler's reputation was secured had he done nothing else.

From 1947 to 1950, the commissioner's support among owners eroded. To safeguard baseball's image, he turned down Liebman Brewery's sponsorship of the World Series and accepted Gillette's offer of $1 million annually, 80 percent of which went toward pensions. This arrangement was criticized when Gillette sold the rights for much more. Chandler feuded with the American League over umpire compensation, fined teams for violations of high school signing regulations, located his offices in Cincinnati rather than New York, and even put Robinson "on the carpet" when the Dodger star threatened to "get rough" with those who still opposed integration. Antitrust suits against his Mexican rulings were settled cheaply out of court but troubled the ownership. Most unsettling was Chandler's decision to investigate the owners of the Cardinals and Yankees for questionable conduct. The owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, Fred Saigh, denounced Chandler as a "bluegrass jackass," and the New York Yankees owner Del Webb later said his greatest baseball thrill was ousting Chandler. Tom Yawkey, owner of the Boston Red Sox, said that Chandler was "the player's … fan's … press' and radio's commissioner, everybody's commissioner but the men who pay." Chandler won nine votes for reappointment in 1951, but lacked the three-quarter margin that owners had imposed in 1945. Accepting the inevitable, he resigned on 15 July 1951. Of his successor, Chandler quipped that the "owners had a vacancy and decided to keep it."

After his resignation, Chandler returned to law and politics, serving as Kentucky's governor from 1955 to 1959 during school-integration struggles. He won votes for U.S. vice president in 1956 and later became something of a perennial national candidate. Honors accumulated. The University of Kentucky Medical Center bears his name (1959), and he is in Kentucky's Sports Hall of Fame. Chandler also was named state Man of the Year and Man of the Century in various polls. His sports reputation won him appointment as commissioner of the short-lived Continental Football League (1965), but baseball ignored him. Conspicuously not invited to World Series and All-Star games, Chandler's vindication came with election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York (1982). Still happy and contentious, Chandler died of heart disease and is buried in the cemetery of Pisgah Presbyterian Church in Woodford County, near Versailles.

Chandler's papers are deposited at the University of Kentucky, with an additional file at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Coopers-town, New York. His autobiography (written with Vance H. Trimble), Heroes, Plain Folks and Skunks: The Life and Times of Happy Chandler (1989), is an easy read. More nuanced assessments of his career are in Arthur Mann, Secret History of the War Between Chandler, Durocher and MacPhail (1951); Jerome Holtzman, The Commissioners: Baseball's Midlife Crisis (1998); and William Marshall, Baseball's Pivotal Era, 1945–1951 (1999). Jules Tygiel, Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983) is critical of Chandler, a judgment somewhat modified in a 1997 edition of the book. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Louisville Courier-Journal (both 16 June 1991).

George J. Lankevich

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