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Kenesaw Mountain Landis

  • Series: 1919 Black Sox Scandal
  • Hall: National Baseball Hall of Fame

Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1866-1944) grew up in an era when a man could become a lawyer before going to law school; go to school later, turn down an ambassadorship, and be appointed to the Federal bench by Teddy Roosevelt all before the age of 40. He would soon vindicate TR’s eye for legal talent by hitting Standard Oil with a huge judgment in the “trust-busting” era. The young jurist thus displayed a boldness to tackle the biggest of business interests in a day when big business was a colossus bestriding America. Small wonder then, that in 1920, when major league owners recognized that their sport had a problem, they looked to Judge Landis to solve it for them.

Landis, named for the Civil War battle where his Ohio father was wounded, would live up to his name as a man who would make a massive impact on America’s Pastime and, since baseball “was America” as so many pundits often said, upon the nation itself. It wasn’t just Landis’ early political and legal accomplishments that foreshadowed his later role as baseball’s first commissioner. As District Judge in Chicago, KML cut a striking figure: “The Judge was always headline news. He was a great showman, theatrical in appearance, with his sharp jaw and shock of white hair, and people always crowded into his courtroom, knowing there would be something going on. There were few dull moments,” per friend and journalist A.L. Sloan.

Landis, a lifelong fan, and ardent White Sox supporter, heard a case brought in the Federal League uprising in which many baseball insiders feared he would rule against the reserve clause. He held hearings in January 1915, but never issued a ruling. KML outlasted the parties who eventually settled the case with reserve clause intact. Nevertheless, Landis was destined for far greater involvement with the game. Gambling and bribery of players had been an open secret for many years and reached a crisis in 1920 in the aftermath of the Runyanesque comedy of errors known as the Black Sox Scandal.

Baseball was ruled then by the “National Commission,” a triumvirate of both league presidents and Reds owner Garry Herrmann. Herrmann stepped aside, leaving a deadlock, and into that void stepped Kenesaw Mountain Landis. “We want a chairman who will rule with an iron hand…” said NL president John Heydler. (Translation: Please save us from ourselves.) The owners went hat in hand to KML’s courtroom and waited for him to finish his docket. They pitched and he caught, accepting the job of first Baseball Commissioner.

  • Landis was an immediate hit with the public when he stepped into a seven-year term while continuing his day job
  • “If I catch any crook in baseball, the rest of his life is going to be a pretty hot one” was KML’s vow and he made good, ousting the eight accused White Sox for life despite their acquittal in court. He forced owners to divorce themselves from horse racing and cracked down on all instances of gambling that he encountered, true to his word
  • Elected to Hall of Fame: 1944