- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005

Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy. … Destroy his faith in its squareness and honesty and you have destroyed something more; you have planted suspicion of all things in his heart.”

Kenesaw Mountain Landis

The group of baseball owners stood in the back of the Chicago courtroom while the judge crankily disposed of one case after another. Finally, with the docket cleared, the jurist adjourned court and motioned for them to join him in chambers.

“We want you to be commissioner of baseball,” the owners’ spokesman said.

The judge frowned. “I must have absolute power.”

“You will have it.”

The judge smiled and stuck out his hand. Thus it was that on Nov. 12, 1920, Kenesaw Mountain Landis became the ruler of America’s national pastime — a role he would fill with authority and arrogance until his death in November 1944.

There have been eight baseball commissioners since, and their combined authority did not begin to equal that of Landis alone. After nearly a quarter-century of being tyrannized by a despot, baseball’s owners would not yield such authority again. But in 1920, they were desperate for someone, anyone, to lead them from the gathering gloom caused by the Black Sox scandal a year earlier.

Before 1920 the game was loosely run by something called the National Commission, an unwieldy triumvirate of American League president Ban Johnson, National League president John Heydler and Cincinnati Reds owner Garry Herrmann. But when the news broke in September 1920 that eight members of the Chicago White Sox had conspired with gamblers to throw the previous year’s World Series, the commission was powerless to act.

For nearly half a century, most fans had considered major league baseball basically honest, but now public faith in the game and its players was falling faster than the stock market would nine years later. As White Sox star Joe Jackson left a courtroom after being indicted by a Cook County, Ill., grand jury, a tearful urchin is supposed to have tugged at his sleeve and said, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” The story probably isn’t true — Jackson always denied it — but nevertheless it reflected the anger and anguish felt by millions.

What to do? Others considered for the role of commissioner included former President William Howard Taft, Gen. George Pershing and Sen. Hiram Johnson. But Landis was known in baseball circles as a big fan and a tough judge who had famously slapped Standard Oil with a $29million fine for antitrust violations in 1907. With his shock of white hair, thundering voice and authoritative manner, he also had the demeanor of an avenging angel. So obvious was the choice that the owners were willing to cede what power they had remaining and trust him to build on it.

No problem. All eight White Sox players were acquitted a year later after much of their testimony mysteriously disappeared — oddly, defendants and jurors celebrated together in an Italian restaurant — but Landis ignored that verdict.

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ballgame; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it will ever play professional baseball [again],” he said in a statement.

And none of the Black Sox did.

Through the years, various pleas for reinstatement were made by or for the players. Two months after Landis became commissioner, third baseman Buck Weaver appealed on the basis that although he was offered a series bribe, he never accepted the money.

Forget it.

Other White Sox also petitioned the commissioner.

Forget it.

Jackson, who was illiterate, had a letter written to Landis in which he swore he had never given anything less than his best in the Series and noted that he batted .375 in the eight-game loss to the Reds.

Forget it.

Often without due process, Landis tossed out so many others suspected of skullduggery that at one time he had 53 names on his “darken my doorstep no more” list. Just a year before his death, he even booted Philadelphia Phillies owner William Cox, who had said publicly he bet on his team at times.

Landis had an unlikely fellow savior in Babe Ruth, whose booming bat also helped erase memories of the Black Sox. As Ruth unloaded 54 home runs in 1920 and 59 in 1921 for the New York Yankees, he became the biggest name in the game — except for one. When Ruth and teammate Bob Meusel defied a Landis edict by barnstorming after the Yankees played in the 1921 World Series, the commissioner suspended them for the first month of the 1922 season.

Thus hindered, the Babe slipped to 35 homers that year. “Jidge,” as Ruth was known by teammates, was no match for the judge.

The commissioner remained despotic long after the Black Sox crisis had passed, terrifying players, owners and executives who aroused his wrath. Though he always said there was no rule barring blacks from the major leagues, there is reason to believe the Ohio native liked the status quo just fine. (He was named, and misnamed, after Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain, where his father lost a leg during the Civil War.)

Clearly, though, Landis was the right man at the right time for baseball — a time when the sport reeled under the heaviest blow in its history. And his influence lingers. In recent decades, the Eliot Asinof book “Eight Men Out” and the Kevin Costner movie “Field of Dreams” have sparked interest in having Joe Jackson reinstated and made eligible for the Hall of Fame posthumously. After all, didn’t the Shoeless one have the third-highest batting average in baseball history (.356)?

Don’t hold your breath.

Shortly before his death in 1951, Jackson told an interviewer, “I am going to meet the greatest umpire of all — and he knows I’m innocent.”

Perhaps, but Kenesaw Mountain Landis didn’t.

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