Cold Mountain

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis has been in the Hall of Fame since 1944. For all the Hall's other problems, this says a lot.
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It was a small thing, really. In a column at MLB.com explaining his still-inexplicable Jack Morris And Only Jack Morris Hall of Fame ballot, veteran baseball writer Marty Noble couched his vague cynicism with a light joke. "I'm not comfortable with the suspicions I have," Noble wrote. "So I'm voting for only Morris and hoping for a bolt of wisdom from Kenesaw Mountain Landis."

Again, it isn't a big deal. A ridiculous ballot is an enjoyable enough thing to get angry about, but also not worth the energy. Noble's invocation of Landis, the game's first commissioner and one of its most memorable names, seems just as harmless on the surface. But Noble's punchline reveals a lot about how and why the Baseball Hall of Fame now bears less resemblance to a museum and more to a litter-strewn moral battleground.

According to the third rule of MLB Hall of Fame voting, electors are to consider "General character, disposition, loyalty and effort" in weighing their votes. After some 70 years of hanging in the back of voters' minds, the rule is finally finding use—misplaced or sanctimonious use, perhaps, but use nonetheless—as the stars of the steroid era seek enshrinement.

This is the clause the 500-some strong contingent of BBWAA Hall of Fame voters will use to decide if the stars of the previous two decades are worthy of a plaque in the same halls as the game's forefathers. This is the clause that will determine which players have the right to stand next to those we must assume are not just the best players, but the moral giants of the Great Game of Baseball. And yet this clause is elastic enough, and maybe meaningless enough, to have allowed a Hall of Fame berth to Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the game's first commissioner.

***

Landis was already a snarling wisp of a man when he took up the post in 1920. We remember his title as commissioner, but from the official agreement establishing his post, "the title of Judge Landis, because of his increased powers, is raised to 'Director-General of Baseball.'" The agreement was for 25 years, and Landis was already 54 years old. As such, a proper title would have been Dictator For Life. Landis convinced the world to call him “commissioner.” Director-General, he thought, was “too high-falutin.”

The baseball media of the 1920s, '30s and '40s went with Czar. "Club Owners To Face Big Czar Of Baseball," was how the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph put on a 1927 headline. "RULES BASEBALL WITH IRON HAND—Kenesaw Mountain Landis Undisputed Czar of Game At 72," The Rock Hill (South Carolina) Herald declared in 1939. There were a great many opportunities to write headlines about Landis, who served 24 seasons as Dictator-Czar-Director-Commissioner-General For Life. During that period, some 1,705 different men brought a bat to the plate and another 1,497 toed the pitching rubber. Of these 3,202 men, zero were black. This was not a coincidence.

During these same two-and-a-half decades, Josh Gibson was crushing home runs clear out of Yankee Stadium. Satchel Paige was pitching shutout after shutout in the Negro Leagues. Cool Papa Bell was setting basepaths on fire across America. Buck Leonard, Frank Grant, Ray Dandridge—29 Negro League stars have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Surely many more—likely hundreds—were robbed of chances to play baseball at its highest professional level, all because of baseball's unwritten color line.

It's tough to ascribe authorship to something unwritten, but Landis was at the very least the foremost literary executor of baseball's most shameful unwritten rule. Landis never went on record declaring baseball as a game for whites and only whites, nor did he ever establish an official rule barring black players from the game. But his inaction and silence speak eloquently to his priorities.

Landis had the power to force the issue, and the power to enforce the color line. He opted for the second, without ever quite admitting to the choice. Instead, when pressed by Daily Worker reporter Conrad Komorowski in 1942, Landis repeatedly answered "No comment" to questions about the color line. As we see in Chris Lamb's Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball, Landis passed the buck:

"Why do you refuse to comment?" Komorowski asked.
"You fellows say I'm responsible," Landis said.
"Aren't you?" Komorowski responded.
"You fellows say I am," Landis answered.
"If you are not, why don't you defend yourself?" Komorowski said.

Landis's answer is the most damning of all. "There is no man living," Landis said, "who wants the friendship of the Negro people more than I."

If that were so, Komorowski persisted, why did he not end the color line? Landis responded by saying, "No comment."

***

Landis's inaction—or perhaps impotence—regarding the color line is more than enough to indict him in the eyes of history. But it was just the most egregious manifestation of a genuinely unpleasant, irritating man he was. Jack Lait, editor of New York's Daily Mirror, was a reporter in Landis's court before he moved on to baseball. He saw the real Landis on a daily basis. After Landis's death, Lait wrote, “He regarded his courtroom as his personal private preserve and even extended his autocracy to the corridors beyond.”

The representative tale from Lait, as retold in J.G. Taylor Spink's Judge Landis and twenty-five years of baseball, shows the lack of respect Landis showed for his fellow humans and the zeal with which he would abused his power:

“One extremely hot night, a group of reporters were awaiting a jury verdict in the famous Beef Trust trial. The court was not in session, and Landis was out getting a sandwich. The reporters sat down in the marble hallway, the nearest thing to a cool spot they could find. Landis came back and brusquely ordered the men off the floor. Lait didn't jump up, which exasperated the Judge. 'I told him that court wasn't in session, and that he was off base,' recalled Jack. 'What's more I told him I liked it where I was. Landis couldn't do anything about it at the time; he fumed and fussed, and next day he called up my boss and demanded I be fired.'”

Landis didn't limit these absurd breaches of power and overbearing intimidation tactics to private interactions with fellow court workers. He extended them to ordinary citizens, those whom his court was supposed to protect. “I have seen Landis send a federal marshal out to bring in the wife and children and minister of a witness and line them up and lecture them," Lait wrote. "He did not subpoena them, mind you. That would have been illegal. He merely 'sent for' them. What he said to them he kept off the record. They stood there, terrorized, in tears—simple people who had probably never been in a courtroom before—while he harangued them and the witness."

This was Landis's character as Judge. This was the character he brought to the Commissioner's Office in 1920. Landis embodied the smallest kind of greatness, the most blinkered and cowardly—and, most of all, fake—type of toughness. Landis died in 1944, and was elected to the Hall that very year.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis spent 24 bitter years standing at baseball's gates, with each passing day telling the greats of the Negro Leagues "You do not belong." True to form, he never quite said it aloud. Anyway, the quote on Landis' page at the Hall's website undermines it utterly. That quote reads: "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 head."

The destruction of the color line could have been Landis's great achievement. Instead, it remains the legacy of the racism of baseball's first commissioner, a man who thought that his lifelong defense of the indefensible preserved the game's sacred squareness and honesty. If there's a lesson in this for present-day Hall of Fame voters, it's that not every status quo deserves a vigorous defense. That and maybe that the Hall isn't nearly as sacred as they suspect. It's worth wondering what a bolt from such a being could have told Marty Noble, or any other Hall of Fame voter. Probably, "No comment."


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