In the Best Interests of Baseball

Baseball Commissioner

Photo courtesy of Detroit News, and Baseball Hall of Fame

In the Best Interests of Baseball
| published August 12, 2014 |

By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review contributor

On August 14, 2014, the owners of the thirty major league baseball franchises will elect the tenth Commissioner of Baseball. Alan H. “Bud” Selig has held the position officially since July 9, 1998, but he held it as de facto commissioner from 1992 to 1998 while the post was vacant. His 22-year tenure is the second longest among commissioners.

The record of 24 years was set by the first man to hold the office.

The first Commissioner of Baseball assumed office in January, 1921. A former federal judge in Illinois, he was described as a firm, solid, decisive man and this description of his personality matched his middle name. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was born the year after the end of the Civil War when baseball was still a new game played and seen by relatively few people. Landis grew up on a farm in Illinois, and was born the sixth of seven children. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1891 and was appointed to the federal bench by Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 after building a successful corporate law practice. Landis was also prominent in Illinois state politics. He was known as a tough, colorful and sometimes unpredictable judge. For example, he frequently handed down harsh sentences to criminals but was almost impeached for his leniency toward the destitute. Not easily intimidated by powerful figures, Landis once levied a fine of 29 million dollars against John Rockefeller and Standard Oil. That steadfast quality would stand him in good stead when Landis became the first Commissioner of Baseball in 1921.

In the latter years of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, America grew and became an economic dynamo. The popularity of baseball grew with it, becoming the National Pastime. By 1903, major league baseball was organized into the National League and the American League with eight teams per league. The game’s popularity grew quickly.

The office of Commissioner of Baseball was created in 1920 in response to the so-called “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, when eight Chicago White Sox players were caught in a deal with gamblers whereby the players would throw the World Series. The owners of the sixteen franchises were prodded into action by the loud public outcry over the scandal and calls in the media to “clean up” baseball. Up to that time, baseball was governed by a three-man board called the National Commission, established in 1903 when the established National League recognized the American League as a an equal entity. The commission ultimately proved unworkable because its members all had vested interests in particular teams. For example, in its seventeen years of existence, the commission only had one chairman, August Herrman, who was also president of the Cincinnati Reds.

In response to the Black Sox scandal, the National League owners proposed establishing a non-partisan commissioner’s office as set forth in the Lasker Plan, named for its author, Arthur Lasker, who was a part-owner of the Chicago Cubs. The document recommended the election of a man of “unquestionable reputation in a field other than baseball, whose mere presence would ensure that the public interest is served…”

After reaching a compromise with the American League concerning the parameters of the new office, a new Major League Agreement was ratified to establish the office of Commissioner of Baseball and to provide rules for governing and administering the game. This agreement superseded the Agreement of 1903, and it exists today, in modified form, as the Major League Baseball Constitution.

Judge Landis was recommended in an article in The Sporting News, and he was formally elected on January 21, 1921. The legalistic framework of the Major League Agreement provided the structure and parameters within which the former judge would carry out his mission. Although Landis was a baseball fan his legal background gave him the necessary ability to be as impartial as possible in his day-to-day duties. Article I of the Major League Agreement specified the duties of the commissioner and provisions as to how a future commissioner was to be elected. Judge Landis himself drafted many of the conditions of his employment. His salary was set at $50,000 annually and it could not be reduced. The commissioner could not be fired. In addition, a decision by the commissioner could not be appealed—even to a court of law, in any jurisdiction—and those decisions were binding for all involved parties. Furthermore, the commissioner was to be the sole (and final) arbiter of any dispute or issue involving major league baseball, its players, franchises or other officials or entities.

Privately, the owners of the teams were reticent to allow Landis such unfettered power. However, they had boxed themselves into a corner by collectively stating in public that the game would be vigorously cleaned up and policed. They also were worried about their bottom line, fearing the public would begin to stay away from games in light of baseball’s tarnished reputation. Landis was certainly the man for the job in terms of his background and temperament and the owners were confident Landis would understand that he worked for them. As commissioner, Landis didn’t see it that way. His vision was that the commissioner would be the protector of the image and legacy of baseball as a cultural institution—a sort of trustee of the National Pastime. With his shock of white hair, solid jaw and steely gaze, Landis also projected to the public an image of integrity and honesty. As commissioner, Landis even had a sign placed on the wall outside his office. The sign read simply “Baseball.”

During his 24 year term, Judge Landis succeeded in cleaning up baseball regarding the gambling activities which had brought so much public scorn. The eight White Sox players were banned for life from professional baseball and their expulsion remains in force today. Gambling is still an issue the commissioner’s office takes very seriously. Following Landis’ precedent, Commissioner Bart Giamatti handed down a lifetime ban against Pete Rose in 1989. Rose’s was the first ban since 1943, when Landis expelled Phillies owner William Cox from the game after Cox was found to have associated with gamblers and bet on his own team. Fifteen other players were banned from baseball by Judge Landis in other gambling incidents.

Landis also put an early stamp on the game by suspending Babe Ruth for 30 games in 1922. Ruth and several other major leaguers had violated a rule against players “barnstorming,” playing exhibition games around the country in the offseason. Ruth ignored the commissioner’s warnings and organized a barnstorming tour. Landis recognized and respected Ruth’s importance to the game. Nevertheless, if Ruth was allowed to defy Landis, the commissioner might become a glorified office manager, or worse. Ruth was suspended. Ruth’s appeal was denied and he served the suspension.

There were other developments in the game during Judge Landis’ tenure as commissioner which exist today as part of his legacy. The “farm system” of minor league teams was formalized and rules governing the minor leagues were instituted. In 1933, the first All-Star game was played, an innovation Landis, an enthusiastic fan himself, encouraged. He attended every all-star game played during his term. Further, the commissioner’s office acquired full jurisdiction over any issues concerning the World Series. Kenesaw Landis loomed like a mountain over baseball for a quarter of a century. He accomplished his appointed goal of removing the influence of professional gamblers from the game and provided a largely impartial voice to issues regarding the game. The All-star game and the minor leagues were formalized into the game’s structure. Commissioner Landis also restored the game’s image in the eyes of the fans. Baseball also entered the “live ball” era, which greatly enhanced the game’s popularity.

With his formal, though autocratic powers, Landis had been tasked by the team owners to act “in the best interests of baseball,” as he interpreted them. It was a move for public show as far as the owners were concerned, as they viewed themselves as the arbiters of the game. However, Landis took the job seriously. His interpretation of the commissioner’s authority would ultimately prove to be problematic: team owners were uneasy with the powers they had contractually granted the commissioner. It is not an accident that the most powerful Commissioner of Baseball was also the first one.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Bird Takes Flight: 1976, the Season of Mark Fidrych; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; May 6, 2014.

Crash Landing: The 1969 Seattle Pilots; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; March 5, 2014.