Kenesaw Mountain Landis

views updated May 29 2018

Kenesaw Mountain Landis

As major league baseball's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1866-1944) cleaned up a sport that had been almost fatally corrupted by ties to organized gambling. Ruling with an autocratic hand, Landis saved baseball from squabbling owners and miscreant players and presided over the sport's ascendancy into American's undisputed national pastime during the era between the two World Wars.

A Self-Promoter

During the U.S. Civil War, Abraham H. Landis was a surgeon with the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. On General William Sherman's famous march through Georgia in 1864, Landis nearly lost a leg to a Confederate cannonball at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Two years later, he insisted on naming the sixth of his seven children after that battle, though he misspelled the mountain's name, dropping one "n."

Many of his friends called Kenesaw Mountain Landis by the nickname Kennie. His older brothers and sisters called him "the Squire" for his pompous manner, even at a young age. The family moved to Logansport, Indiana, when Kennie was eight. There he learned to play baseball around the same time as the first professional baseball league, the National League, was forming. He was skilled at baseball but bedeviled by mathematics, and he dropped out of high school before graduation.

As a teenager, Landis played first base for the semipro Goosetown, Indiana, team, and at the age of 17 became its manager. Though only a wiry 5 foot 7 inches, he was offered a professional contract but turned it down because he said he wanted to play "merely for sport and the love of the game." Yet he did not lack competitive drive, winning many medals in bicycle races at county fairs. On one occasion, displaying his unique gift from self-promotion, he pinned 20 store-bought medals on his chest and showed up in a strange town for a big race. Intimidated, his rivals were defeated.

After working various odd jobs as a handyman, an errand boy, a clerk in a general store, and a newspaper hawker, Landis caught on as a court reporter in South Bend, Indiana. He loved the showmanship of the world of law and quickly gained influential friends. In 1886 he became the aide to Indiana's Secretary of State. The following year he was admitted to the state bar, and in 1891 he graduated from Union College of Law in Chicago. Early in his law school days, he was denied admission to a fraternity because he looked like a country bumpkin. Outraged, he organized the other non-fraternity students and they took over the school government.

Even though he had been a high school dropout, Landis proved to be a genius at advancing himself. His rapid rise continued in 1893 when his father's former commanding officer, Walter Greshman, became U.S. Secretary of State and made Landis his personal secretary. President Grover Cleveland was so impressed with his work that he offered him a post as minister to Venezuela, but Landis declined, instead moving back to Chicago in 1895 to practice law and marry a young socialite, Winifred Reed.

Landis became an ardent Chicago Cubs fan and sometimes asked for postponements of court hearings so he could attend a crucial game. He said baseball was a great game and "remarkable for its cleanness" in an era where other sports had an unsavory relationship with gamblers.

Trust-busting Judge

Two of Landis's brothers were elected to the U.S. Congress and Landis was approached to run, but declined. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Landis to a newly created federal judgeship, the District Court of Northern Illinois, in Chicago. Landis was a flamboyant judge who engaged in frequent theatrical flourishes, jumping out of his chair and pointing fingers at recalcitrant witnesses. His procedures often were unorthodox and autocratic; for instance, he would hold suspects without warrants and order people to appear before him without subpoenas.

Landis became famous in 1907 when he summoned the nation's wealthiest man, John D. Rockefeller, to testify in an antitrust case against his own company, Standard Oil. After Rockefeller's evasive testimony, Landis slapped a $29.2 million fine on Standard Oil for colluding with railroads to fix prices. His decision was later overturned on appeal. Citing many cases where his decisions were eventually overturned, critics denounced Landis as a judge who played to the crowds. "His career typifies the heights to which dramatic talent may carry a man in America if only he has the foresight not to go on the stage," wrote sportswriter Heywood Broun.

In 1915, Landis presided over an antitrust suit by the upstart Federal League against baseball's two established major leagues, challenged organized baseball's reserve clause, which gave the American and National leagues lifetime rights to a player's services. He delayed his decision for 11 months, and the frustrated Federal League owners finally agreed to a buyout before Landis rendered a verdict.

During World War I, Landis was an ardent patriot. He issued several harsh verdicts to alleged seditionists, fining members of the International Workers of the World a total of $2.3 million for draft evasion and sentencing them to up to 20 years in prison. The sentences later were commuted. In another famous trial, Landis, who had said German Americans' hearts were "reeking with disloyalty," gave radical German Austrian émigré Victor Berger and five other socialists twenty-year sentences for conspiracy, saying later he wished he could have had them "lined up against a wall and shot." The Supreme Court later reversed that decision.

Cleaned Up Baseball

In 1919, at the behest of a ring of mobsters, members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds. The affair was covered up but suspicions grew about a fix. The owners, who had run the sport for decades with a weak governing commission, realized they needed a strong leader to dispel debilitating doubts about the game's integrity. On November 12, 1920, 14 owners showed up in Landis's courtroom, hats in hand. The judge told them to be quiet while his court was in session, demonstrating to them that he would not be cowed. That same day, he took the new job of baseball commissioner for $50,000 a year after getting a contract which specified that he could not be fired, fined, or criticized in public by the owners, his ostensible employers. He stayed on as judge for a year, then quit when he was accused of a conflict of interest.

Landis's first important act as commissioner was to banish forever eight members of the 1919 Series fixers, the so-called Chicago "Black" Sox, even though they had been acquitted of all criminal charges in connection with the conspiracy. The banished included the great "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who was little more than a patsy in the fix and had played his hardest during the games. Landis said the eight "will be and remain outlaws." Because of Landis's ruling, Jackson has never been admitted to baseball's Hall of Fame, though many baseball experts and fans feel he should be exonerated.

Landis's cleanup of baseball, which had become corrupted by its association with gamblers, was harsh but uneven. In his first five years as commissioner, he banned seven other players for life and suspended 38 others. Most of those punished had merely been approached by gamblers and had failed to disclose their conversations. Others did even less. Landis banned pitcher Ray Fisher for life when he took a job as a coach at the University of Michigan while still under contract to the Cincinnati Reds. He banned New York Giants outfielder Benny Kauff after Kauff was acquitted on auto-theft charges.

Landis was unafraid to tackle even the game's biggest star, Babe Ruth. In 1921 Landis suspended Ruth and New York Yankees teammate Bob Meusel for 40 games for violating a rarely invoked rule against post-season barnstorming, a common practice in those days. But he reinstated Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, two future Hall of Famers, who had been suspended by American League President Ban Johnson for allegedly throwing games during the 1919 season, even though there was written evidence they were involved in a fix.

Owners who had thought Landis would be their lackey proved sadly mistaken. He ordered owners with financial interests in racetracks to quit any involvement with horse racing or anything related to gambling. He turned down singer Bing Crosby's bid to buy the Pittsburgh Pirates because he owned racehorses. He slammed owners for stockpiling deserving players in their expanding minor league "farm" systems. In 1930 he declared St. Louis Browns player Fred Bennett a free agent, claiming owner Fred Ball had unfairly stymied his career. Ball took Landis to federal court and lost. By the end of the 1930s, Landis had freed almost 200 players under similar circumstances. He often nixed player trades that he figured were not in the best interests of baseball's competitiveness. "He was always on the side of the ballplayer," said manager Leo Durocher. "He had no use for the owners at all."

Landis frequently clashed with Ban Johnson, who had been the most powerful figure in the game for many years. Eventually, he told the owners that either he would go or Johnson would go. It was Johnson who resigned.

The Judge

Along with Ruth and the "lively" ball, which transformed the game into a crowd-pleasing spectacle with more home runs, Landis was largely responsible for redeeming the tarnished reputation of the sport and turning baseball into the nation's undisputed national pastime during the years between the two world wars. With his shock of long white hair and his imperious manner, Landis was a frail-looking, scowling, patrician figure. Autocratic and stern, Landis projected an image of rectitude even while unleashing a vituperative storm of profanity, and he issued frequent lectures against anyone who would besmirch the sport. Baseball historian Harold Seymour described him as a "scowling, white-haired, hawk-visaged curmudgeon who affected battered hats, used salty language, chewed tobacco, and poked listeners in the ribs with a stiff right finger."

Landis frequently attended games and was the sport's unflagging ambassador. He selected announcers for the World Series and watched every inning of every game from his box. In the 1934 World Series, when angry fans in Detroit showered St. Louis outfielder Ducky Medwick with produce during a lopsided game, Landis ordered the Cardinals to remove Medwick to avoid a forfeit. They complied.

Few people dared defy Landis, who as commissioner was known simply as "the Judge." His office in downtown Chicago had a single word stenciled on the door: BASEBALL. He was the game's one-man judge and jury. His centralized authority was a stark contrast to the lackadaisical way the game had been run prior to his installment. Critics said too much decision-making power had been invested in one man.

Landis's obstinate views on race thwarted all attempts to integrate baseball under his watch. He repeatedly upheld the sport's unwritten ban against African American players. When the Pittsburgh Pirates sought to sign legendary Negro League star Josh Gibson to a contract in 1943, Landis stopped them. "The colored ballplayers have their own league," he said. "Let them stay in their own league." Owner Bill Veeck claimed Landis prevented him from buying the Philadelphia Phillies because Veeck had told him he planned to integrate the team, but some historians doubt Veeck's account.

Two days before the start of the 1944 World Series, Landis was hospitalized for his chronic respiratory problems. In mid-November, the owners again renewed Landis's contract for seven years, but it was mainly an act of tribute. Landis died on November 25, 1944, at the age of 78. He had decreed there would be no funeral, so he was cremated and buried modestly in Chicago. Two weeks later he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. His plaque reads: "His Integrity and Leadership Established Baseball in the Respect, Esteem and Affection of the American People."

Never again did baseball's owners invest a commissioner with such sweeping powers. Subsequent baseball commissioners often kowtowed to the owners and rarely interfered in trades and sales of teams. Never again would one man wield such supreme authority over the sport.


Alexander, Charles C., Ty Cobb, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Asinof, Eliot, Eight Men Out, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.

Seymour, Harold, Baseball: The Golden Age, Oxford University Press, 1971.


Smithsonian, October 2000, p. 120.

Sports Illustrated, July 19, 1993, p. 76. □

Landis, Kenesaw Mountain

views updated May 21 2018

LANDIS, Kenesaw Mountain

(b. 20 November 1866 in Millville, Ohio; d. 25 November 1944 in Chicago, Illinois), lawyer, federal judge, and first and most powerful Commissioner of Baseball who is credited with earning the public's respect for the integrity of professional baseball.

Landis was one of seven children of Abraham Landis and Mary Kumler Landis, a homemaker. Abraham Landis, a physician who had been a Union soldier during the Civil War, had a leg injured during a battle at Kennesaw (with two n 's) Mountain in Georgia on 27 June 1864. When his son was born, he named him after the place of the battle, misspelling Kenesaw with one n. Young Landis was a roustabout, a high school dropout whose ambition to work the railroads ended when Vandalia and Southern Railroad rejected his application to become a brakeman. He then became a bicycle racer at fairs, earning some fame in the Midwest. For a time he seemed to have found his calling as a journalist, working for the Logansport Journal in Indiana from 1889–1891.

While working as a reporter, Landis became interested in the legal proceedings he covered, and he enrolled in the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) Law School of Cincinnati. He transferred to the Union Law School (later the law school of Northwestern University) in Chicago, graduating in 1891. After practicing law in Chicago for a few years he joined President Grover Cleveland's administration as secretary to the Secretary of State. Landis married Winifred Reed on 25 July 1896. The couple had two children.

Landis's work was highly esteemed, and in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him a U.S. District Court Judge for the district of northern Illinois. He became well known for his antitrust rulings, especially those enforcing the Sherman Antitrust Act, but his rulings were often overturned by higher courts. Landis came to the attention of Major League Baseball team owners in 1915, when he presided over the lawsuit filed against the National League (NL) and the American League (AL) by the Federal League (FL), which was trying to establish itself as a major league and had raided major league ballplayers. NL and AL teams had been forced to increase the salaries of their ballplayers in order to keep them from jumping to the Federal League; thus the owners were unhappy and anxious about the FL's potential for success. The Federal League sued to have the major leagues declared a monopoly that violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, and trustbuster Landis was probably the last judge the major league owners wanted to have preside over the case. However, Landis confused everybody by delaying the case, insisting that the leagues negotiate. "Both sides must understand that any blows at this thing called baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution," he said. The Federal League caved in, settled out of court, then folded. Landis was seen as the savior of "Organized Baseball," that is the major and minor professional leagues, for having prevented their breakup as monopolies.

In 1917 Landis garnered more national attention when he presided over several treason cases. America was fighting in World War I, and those who hindered the war effort were charged with sedition. In one case Landis sentenced labor leader William D. Haywood to twenty years in prison, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court overturn his ruling. Later he sentenced seven socialist antiwar activists, including Congressman Victor Berger, to prison for trying to harm the war effort. He jailed more than ninety people for impeding America's war mobilization. Even in cases in which Landis's rulings were overturned, most of the public thought he was morally right.

During the World Series of 1919 between the Cincinnati Reds of the NL and the Chicago White Sox of the AL, eight players for the White Sox conspired with gangsters to rig games. The White Sox lost the series to a Reds club that was good but not their equal. There were hints from the start of the series that something criminal was going on, and all through 1920 news reporters were finding evidence of a fix. By the final month of the season the evidence was overwhelming, and the owner of the White Sox suspended the offending players. Shaken by the sudden loss of public faith in professional baseball that resulted from the bribes, team owners tried to find a way to restore confidence in their game. The three-man board of governors that oversaw league operations had become ineffective. A new leader was wanted, and out of several possibilities arose the name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, savior of the major leagues in 1915. Landis insisted that he be given sole and absolute authority over organized baseball and that no team owner be allowed to publicly criticize any of his decisions. His terms were agreed to on 12 November 1920 and formally ratified on 12 January 1921.

The White Sox conspirators were tried for taking bribes and found not guilty. A fire had been deliberately set in the prosecution's evidence room, destroying all the evidence against the White Sox, including confessions from three conspirators. The fire was almost certainly set by cronies of one of the gangsters who had bribed them. After the acquittal the players celebrated with the jurors, raising suspicions about the jurors' impartiality. Despite the acquittal, there was and is ample reason to believe the players were guilty, including public confessions by conspirators such as pitcher Eddie Cicotte. Landis banned all the conspirators from baseball for life, including Hall of Fame possibilities Cicotte and Joe Jackson. On 4 August 1921, two days after the trial, Landis declared, "Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players 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 standards Landis outlined in his statement in August 1921 have been gospel for the commissioners who succeeded him.

The decision to ban the players was Landis's most controversial decision, but he had other severe problems with which to contend. He found that Major League Baseball was rife with bribery, cheating, and thrown games, and in a few years he banned fifteen ballplayers and suspended more than fifty, including the game's greatest star, Babe Ruth. Ruth and teammates Bob Meusel and Bill Piercy were suspended on 16 October 1921 until 20 May 1922 for playing exhibition games against Negro League teams (Landis wanted to avoid the embarrassment of major leaguers losing to African Americans).

During the 1920s and 1930s Landis became a popular folk figure, a symbol of rectitude and a comfort to those who wanted baseball to be more than a business. He said: "Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy. It is his training field for life work. Destroy his faith in its squareness and honesty and you have destroyed something more; you have planted suspicion of all things in his heart." Landis gained a reputation for looking out for the well-being of players, often declaring minor leaguers to be free agents because their teams were unfairly keeping them buried in farm clubs. In 1938 he freed more than ninety Cardinals minor leaguers from their contracts, including Pete Reiser, who signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers for a big bonus and would become the National League's batting champion in 1941. In 1940 Landis did the same for Detroit Tigers farmhands. He always opposed major league teams' having farm systems, asserting that independent minor league teams would be driven out of business and that major league–quality players were unfairly denied a chance to play in the majors.

Although Landis did much good by restoring public confidence in professional baseball and should be forgiven for grandstanding and enjoying being commissioner of baseball, he had a dark side. He was often arbitrary, and his decisions did not always make sense. Worse, he was racist. In 1942 he said to a reporter for the New York Daily Worker, "There is no rule, formal or informal, against the hiring of Negro players." In 1943 he declared to Paul Robeson at the annual meeting of Major League team owners, "There is no rule, formal or informal, or any understanding—unwritten, subterranean or sub-anything—against the hiring of Negro players by the teams of organized baseball. Negroes are not barred from organized baseball—never have been in the twenty-one years I have served." In both instances, he lied. In private, he had vowed from the start that African Americans would not be allowed to play in the major leagues while he was in charge.

Efforts by New York Giants manager John McGraw to play African Americans were squelched. In 1935, when Clark Griffith tried to sign Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson to his Washington Senators, he was threatened with financial ruin by other club owners, a majority of whom had throughout Landis's service opposed allowing African Americans into their leagues. In 1940 eccentric baseball man Bill Veeck led a group of investors that tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies; when word got out that he would include African Americans on his club, Veeck's offer was discarded in favor of a lesser one from William D. Cox (whom Landis later banned from baseball for gambling). Veeck blamed Landis's prejudice against African Americans for his group's failure to buy the Phillies.

Landis's term as commissioner had been extended to 1953, but he died of a coronary thrombosis in 1944. He is buried in Oakwoods Cemetery in Chicago. Landis had always been a fervent supporter of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 1944 he was voted in by the Hall's veterans committee.

For many years Judge Landis and Twenty-Five Years of Baseball (1947), by Sporting News reporter J. G. Taylor Spink was the best account of Landis's life, although it had errors and obscured some of the darker side of his character. A better account is David Pietrusza, Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1998), which is rich in baseball history and its depiction of Landis. Leonard Koppett, The New Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball (1991), offers an historical perspective on Landis's contributions to baseball. Jerome Holtzman, The Commissioners: Baseball's Midlife Crisis (1998), places Landis in the context of the lives of the other commissioners, showing how Landis's often arbitrary conduct actually weakened the powers of his successors. An obituary is in the New York Times (26 Nov. 1944).

Kirk H. Beetz

Landis, Kenesaw Mountain

views updated May 29 2018


Kenesaw Mountain Landis is remembered by some as the trust-busting federal judge who in 1907 imposed a whopping fine against millionaire John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil. More often, sports fans remember Landis as the first and, arguably, most powerful commissioner of U.S. baseball.

Landis earned a reputation as a stern, highly principled baseball commissioner who ran a tight ship and disapproved of gambling. He antagonized many team owners with his dictatorial style, yet was reelected several times during his twenty-four-year reign.

Although Landis is criticized for maintaining racially segregated major league teams, he is credited with restoring the integrity of the sport after the Black Sox cheating scandal—in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series—nearly ruined baseball. Surprisingly popular with the public, the former judge was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1944.

Landis was born November 20, 1866, in the small Ohio town of Millville. He was named after the mountaintop near Atlanta where his father, a Union Army surgeon, was wounded in battle during the u.s. civil war. Although Landis did not finish high school, he attended the University of Cincinnati and the Union College of Law in Chicago. He practiced law in Chicago until 1905 when he was appointed by President theodore roosevelt to serve as U.S. district judge for northern Illinois.

Landis made headlines in 1907 when he fined Standard Oil of Indiana a record $29.24 million for illegal freight rebates. The decision was applauded by the public but thrown out on appeal. Landis remained on the federal bench from 1905 to 1922, also gaining national attention for his sedition trials of labor leaders and socialists during world war i. After becoming the first baseball commissioner in 1921, Landis retained his judgeship for one year, until members of Congress complained about conflict of interest in matters pertaining to the sport.

In 1921, Landis replaced the three-person national commission set up in 1903 to oversee the sport of baseball. Although his official title was commissioner for the American and National Leagues of Professional Baseball Clubs and for the National Association of Professional Baseball, Landis was often called simply the czar of baseball.

Landis was asked to do nothing less than save professional baseball. The game suffered a public relations disaster after the White Sox conspiracy and bribery scandal. To cleanse the sport of corruption or the mere appearance of cheating, Landis imposed lifetime bans on the eight White Sox players who had collaborated with gamblers during the 1919 World Series. He also did not hesitate to ban other ballplayers for gambling offenses.

"Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game, … sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club … will ever again play professional baseball."
Kenesaw Mountain Landis

Landis died in Chicago, at age seventy-eight, on November 25, 1944.

Landis, Kenesaw Mountain

views updated May 17 2018

Landis, Kenesaw Mountain (1866–1944) US jurist and sports administrator. Baseball's first commissioner (1920–44), he was a US district judge before taking control of baseball following the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal. He restored the game's integrity through his disciplinarian leadership. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1944.