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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), baseball commissioner, lawyer, governor, and U.S. senator, was best known for defying team owners and helping to end racial segregation in major league baseball.

Chandler, the son of Joseph Chandler, a handyman, rural letter carrier, and telephone operator; and Callie Sanders, a homemaker who left the family when Chandler was only four, grew up in a broken home plagued by poverty. His only brother died at the age of fourteen in a fall from a tree. Chandler attended Corydon High School in Henderson County, Kentucky. After serving as a private in the U.S. Army in 1918 and 1919, he enrolled at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. His constant smile earned him the nickname “Happy.” He earned tuition by working in a laundry and waiting on tables and starred in baseball, football, and basketball. He graduated from Transylvania with a B.A. degree in 1921 and attended Harvard University Law School for one year, leaving for financial reasons. He earned a bachelor of laws degree from the University of Kentucky in 1924.

Chandler married Mildred Watkins on 12 November 1925. They had four children. Chandler commenced law practice in Versailles, Kentucky, in 1924 and played professional baseball. After being selected master commissioner of the Woodford County circuit court in 1928, he served as a Democrat in the state senate in 1930 and 1931 and as lieutenant governor from 1931 to 1935. During the absence of Governor Ruby Laffoon in 1935 he called a special session of the General Assembly to enact a state primary law. Chandler defeated the Laffoon-backed candidate for governor in the Democratic primary and was elected chief executive that November.

Chandler served as governor of Kentucky from December 1935 until October 1939. His administration replaced sales taxes with liquor and income taxes, eliminated 130 state agencies, eradicated a $20 million deficit, reformed prisons, built many hospitals, and secured ratification of a child labor amendment. In 1939 he activated 1,000 National Guardsmen to restore order in Harlan County, where the United Mine Workers had struck to win recognition for a union shop.

Because governors were limited to one term, Chandler opposed incumbent U.S. senator Alben Barkley in the 1938 Democratic primary. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s support helped Barkley win by over 50,000 votes.

When Kentucky’s junior U.S. senator, Marvel Logan, died in 1939, Chandler resigned as governor and was appointed to fill the vacant Senate seat. He was elected to fill the remainder of Logan’s term in November 1940 and defeated the Republican John Young Brown in November 1942 for a full six-year Senate term.

Chandler chaired a subcommittee of the Senate Military Affairs Committee that visited Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in 1942. He favored defeating Japan before Germany, fearing that Great Britain and the USSR would otherwise not help the United States win the Pacific war. Chandler supported Lend-Lease, reciprocal trade extension, the Bretton Woods Agreement, the United Nations Charter, the extension of Farm Security Administration loans, and the spending of $100 million for soil conservation. At the 1944 Democratic National Convention he unsuccessfully sought the vice presidential nomination.

In November 1945 Chandler resigned from the Senate and replaced the authoritarian Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the commissioner of baseball. He became the goodwill ambassador that baseball needed, acting fairly, honestly, and ethically. Chandler persuaded owners not to sign high school baseball players until they graduated and favored playing more night games. He imposed a five-year ban on the eighteen major league stars who in 1946 jumped to the outlaw Mexican League. Several players filed a suit against major league baseball in 1948; the case was settled out of court, with the players being reinstated when Chandler gave them blanket amnesty in 1949. Many of them returned to the major league that year.

Chandler approved the transfer of Jackie Robinson’s contract to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 despite a 15–1 negative vote by team owners. His action and Robinson’s excellence on the field paved the way for Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron, and other black stars. In April 1947 he suspended the Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for the 1947 season for associating with gamblers. Chandler instituted the pension fund for players, signed baseball’s first television contract, and ordered that the revenue be used to support the players pension fund. He knew every player by name and face and supported a $5,000 minimum salary for major leaguers.

The owners resented the strong commissioner, preferring a vassal instead. Several owners revolted against Chandler for approving the racial integration of major league baseball, arbitrarily jeopardizing the reserve clause, and investigating the alleged gambling activities of some owners. During the All-Star break in July 1951 they fired him. Chandler secured only nine of the twelve votes necessary for reelection and was forced to resign as commissioner that month. He returned to Versailles to practice law, raise tobacco, and operate a weekly newspaper, the Woodford Sun.

Chandler bucked the Democratic party machine by running for governor of Kentucky in 1955. He challenged Governor Lawrence Wetherby and Senators Earle Clements and Alben Barkley, who supported Bertram Combs. Chandler campaigned for ten months, making 900 speeches. His slogan was “Be like your pappy and vote for Happy.” After each campaign speech, he sang, “There’s a Gold Mine in the Sky.” He won the August primary by 18,000 out of 500,000 votes and then defeated Republican Edward Denny by a record 129,000 votes.

Chandler served as governor for a second term from 1955 to 1959. The Adair County Consolidated High School in Columbia was integrated in January 1956 and other schools followed the next September. Most communities accepted the change peacefully. Chandler appointed Robert Humphreys to fill the unexpired Senate term of Alben Barkley in 1956, but the Democratic State Central Committee rejected Humphreys in favor of former governor Lawrence Wetherby to run in the November 1956 election. In 1959 the University of Kentucky Medical Center was named in Chandler’s honor.

Chandler unsuccessfully sought the Democratic party nomination for governor in 1963. He then became vice president and director of First Flight Golf Company of Chattanooga, director of Coastal States Life Insurance Company of Georgia, receiver for the Inter-South Life Insurance Company of Louisville, and organizer of the Kentucky Home Life Insurance Company. Chandler chaired the Woodford County Democratic Executive Committee and was Democratic national committeeman for Kentucky.

He was elected to the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame in 1957 and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. Chandler served as president of the International Baseball Congress in Wichita, Kansas, as commissioner of the Continental Football League in 1965, and as a trustee of the Ty Cobb Foundation and at the University of Kentucky. He chaired the board of trustees at Transylvania College. Chandler received the bishops’ medal of the Episcopal Church in 1959 and the Jefferson Davis medal in 1975. He died of a heart attack at the age of ninety-two. He is buried in Pisgah Church Cemetery in Versailles.

The independent-minded Chandler often defied both the political and baseball establishments. He bucked the Kentucky State Democratic Party and clashed with the team owners who did not want a strong, dominant commissioner. Chandler boldly supported the racial integration of major league baseball, paving the way for black athletes.

Chandler’s papers and oral history are located at the Margaret I. King Library, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, and the National Baseball Library, Cooperstown, New York. His autobiography, Heroes, Plain Folks, and Skunks (1989), coauthored with Vance Trimble, describes his political and baseball careers. J. B. Shannon, “‘Happy’ Chandler: A Kentucky Epic,” in The American Politician (1938), edited by J. T. Salter, reviews his early political career. Fred J. Hood, ed., Kentucky: Its History and Heritage (1978), and Lowell H. Harrison, ed., Kentucky’s Governors, 1792–1985 (1985), recount Chandler’s two terms as governor. Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983), details Chandler’s support for the integration of major league baseball. Jerome Holtzman, The Commissioners (1998), assesses Chandler’s role as baseball commissioner. Articles in Current Biography 1943 (1943) and Current Biography 1956 (1956) summarize Chandler’s career. Harold H. Martin, “Happy’s Last Hurrah!” Saturday Evening Post (10 Aug. 1963), provides further information about Chandler as governor. Chandler discusses his role as commissioner in John Underwood, “How I Jumped from Clean Politics to Dirty Baseball,” Sports Illustrated (26 Apr. 1971 and 3 May 3,1971). Milton Gross, “The Truth About Happy Chandler,” Sport (Apr. 1949) and John Drebinger, “A Commissioner’s Reign Ends,” Baseball Digest (Aug. 1951), discuss Chandler’s role in the integration of baseball. Other useful articles include “Chandler Casts a Happy Shadow,” Southern Living (June 1981), and Frank Deford, “Happy Days,” Sports Illustrated (20 July 1987). Obituaries of Chandler are in the New York Times (16 June 1991) and Time (24 June 1991).

David L. porter

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