Kenesaw Mountain Landis was the first Commissioner of
Kenesaw Mountain Landis (November 20, 1866 – November 25,
1944) was an American jurist who served as a federal judge from 1905
to 1922, and subsequently as the first commissioner of Major League
Baseball. Born in Millville, Ohio, to Abraham Hoch Landis and Mary
(Kumler) Landis. He grew up in Logansport, Indiana where, at the age
of 17, he played on and managed the Logansport High School baseball
team. He later dropped out of school to take a job at the courthouse
in South Bend, Indiana. He died in Chicago in 1944. His name comes
from a variant spelling of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, where his
father, a physician, fought on the Union side and lost a leg during
the American Civil War at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Two of
his brothers, Charles Beary Landis (1858-1922) and Frederick Landis
(1872-1934), served in the United States Congress.
While serving as a federal judge, Landis was selected as chairman
of a new National Commission of baseball. The owners decided to
appoint a commission made up entirely of non-baseball men to restore
confidence in the sport following the 1919 Black Sox Scandal,
perhaps the worst of a number of incidents that jeopardized the
integrity of the game.
But Kenesaw Mountain Landis hated the game so much that he
declared that he would only accept an appointment as its sole
commissioner. He also demanded unlimited authority over all aspects
of the organized game. The owners, still reeling from the perception
that the sport was crooked, readily agreed. Some historians believe
he extorted and intimidated them into that agreement; however, that
accusation that has not been proven.
Landis' first act was to deal with the Black Sox Scandal. He
banned eight players suspected of involvement in the fix for life,
including Buck Weaver and superstar Shoeless Joe Jackson. Although
they had been acquitted in court, Landis argued that the need to
clean up baseball's reputation took precedence over any legal
judgments. He dealt harshly with others proven to have thrown
individual games or consorted with gamblers. Among the others he
banned were New York Giants players Phil Douglas, Benny Kauff and
Jimmy O'Connell, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Gene Paulette, Giants
coach Cozy Dolan, and (in 1943) Phillies owner William D. Cox. He
also formalized the unofficial banishments of Hal Chase and Heinie
Kenesaw Mountain Landis perpetuated the color line and prolonged
the segregation of organized baseball. His successor Happy Chandler
said, "For twenty-four years Judge Landis wouldn't let a black man
play. I had his records, and I read them, and for twenty-four years
Landis consistently blocked any attempts to put blacks and whites
together on a big league field." Club owner Bill Veeck claimed
Landis prevented him from purchasing the Phillies when Landis
learned of Veeck's plan to integrate the team. The signing of the
first black ballplayer, Jackie Robinson, came less than a year after
Landis's death, on the watch of the new, progressive Commissioner A.
B. "Happy" Chandler and was engineered by one of Landis's old
nemeses, Branch Rickey. Eleven weeks after Robinson's debut with the
Brooklyn Dodgers, Veeck became the first American League owner to
break the color line.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis tried to curb the growth of minor league
farm systems by innovators such as Rickey, in the name of protecting
the lower levels of professional ball. Landis argued that because a
parent club could unilaterally call up players from teams which were
involved in pennant races, the organization was unfairly interfering
with the minor competitions; his position was that the championship
of each minor league was of no less importance than the
championships of the major leagues, and that minor league fans and
supporters had the right to see their teams competing as best they
could. Yet he also prevented the formation of a powerful third major
league when he stopped Pants Rowland from upgrading the Pacific
Coast League in the 1940s.
One of the schemes he fought was the effort by major-league teams
to "cover up" players they were hiding in their farm systems. The
term, not used in formal communications by league or team officials,
referred to players clandestinely signed by a major-league team to a
minor-league contract. Occasionally one team would serendipitously
find such a player in the off-season draft, as in this occasion
recorded in the book Dodger Daze and Knights:
All the clubowners and managers, and Commissioner Kenesaw
Mountain Landis, were assembled to conduct the draft. One team
representative said he "claim[s] Player [Paul] Richards of
"You can't do that!" barked a surprised Wilbert Robinson, manager
of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"Why not?" asked Landis.
"Because Brooklyn has him covered up," sputtered Robbie.
Most of the others broke down laughing. Even Landis smirked.
Tyrannical though he might have been as commissioner, Landis was
not without a sense of humor. He showed it at the start of the fifth
game of the 1929 World Series, under the oddest of circumstances.
The Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Athletics had been trading vile
invective during the first four games, and Landis called managers
Joe McCarthy and Connie Mack to his office and said the culprits
would forfeit a full Series share. Mack told his team, but
hot-headed Mickey Cochrane, the A's' catcher, hollered to the Cubs,
"After the game we'll serve tea in the clubhouse."
Mack warned Cochrane that he risked a fine or suspension for the
remark. After the game, however, Kenesaw Mountain Landis visited the
A's clubhouse. He approached Cochrane, shook his hand and asked,
"Now, where's the tea?"
Whether his decisions were praised or criticized, he was
satisfied with being respected and feared. Dubbed "the baseball
tyrant" by journalists of the day, his rule was absolute. In the
context of ensuring the integrity of the game itself, baseball
historians generally regard him as the right man at the right time
when appointed, but also as a man who perhaps held office too
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1944, in a special
election held one month after his death, and Major League Baseball's
Most Valuable Player Award is officially known as the Kenesaw
Mountain Landis Award in his honor.
Landis's body is interred in the Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago,