Of course Happy must have rather liked Happy, otherwise he could have left it behind without a trace when he went off to Harvard Law. There he served as the local behind-the-lines scout for the Centre College Praying Colonels in 1921, when that unknown team from Kentucky beat Harvard in what is still one of the great upsets in the history of college football. Bo McMillin scored the only touchdown, and Uncle Charley Moran was the coach. Happy sat on the bench and, afterward, in the madness, McMillin deputized him to carry the sacred game ball back from Cambridge to the team's hotel in Boston. Even more significant, before the game, Uncle Charley had bidden Happy come into the Praying Colonels' locker room and sing Down The Road To Home Sweet Home. There was, the Governor recalls, not a dry eye in the house.
Young Happy was also a fine basketball player. For much of his first two years at Transylvania he was "back guard," but sometime during his sophomore season "they let me shoot," and he went for 14 in a 25-14 shellacking of Louisville. In baseball he was a pitcher with a sneaky curve, good enough to let him play in the Red River League up in North Dakota, where he pitched a no-hitter. Was that Organized Baseball, Governor? "It was a league," he says. After failing a tryout in Saskatoon, he returned to Kentucky. There, in the Bluegrass League, playing for Lexington, he hit a grand slam. He coached high school football in his new hometown of Versailles (pronounced ver-SALES), women's college basketball at the University of Kentucky and freshman football at Centre. When Uncle Charley left and Happy was passed over for the head job, he was so devastated that he gave up sports for politics, started singing My Old Kentucky Home instead of Down The Road To Home Sweet Home and began making speeches to anybody. "One year," he says, "I made 890 speeches, Pardner, only a friend told me I made one speech 890 times."
His big chance came in 1935 when he was "the boy lieutenant governor" and his boss left the state to visit Washington in quest of federal funds. As soon as the governor's train crossed the West Virginia line, a secretary called Happy. "You're governor, Happy," he said. Immediately, Acting Governor Chandler began appointing Kentucky Colonels and ordered an emergency session of the legislature, which changed the election laws and, providently, helped speed Happy into the governor's mansion in 1935. Then, when one of Kentucky's senators died, the Governor resigned so that his successor could appoint him to the Senate. In a special election in 1940 and again in 1942 the Kentucky voters returned him to the Senate, where, among other accomplishments, he became one of five members to be dispatched around the world to examine World War II battlefields.
When Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had served baseball as its first and only commissioner for a quarter of a century, died in 1944, baseball asked Senator Chandler if he might be interested. Larry MacPhail of the New York Yankees was the Governor's baseball patron. The salary was, for openers, $50,000. As a senator, Happy was making $10,000 and what few more bucks he could scrape out of his 15 acres of tobacco in Versailles. "Mama," he asked, "how long has this been going on?"
Early in his tenure, which began in 1945, Happy said, "As baseball commissioner, I'm compelled to spend the winters in Florida and attend baseball games during the summer. If there's a better job than this, I don't know what it is." Then he got to know his constituents, the owners. "There were a lot of common suckers," he says. "I wouldn't have let some of 'em in my house."
Many of them didn't like it that the new commissioner acted as bossy as the old. Happy tossed Leo Durocher, then managing the Dodgers, out for a whole year; he angered the owners by denying them the right to sign kids before they graduated from high school; he prevented them from keeping prospects unfairly bottled up in the minors; he denied them Sunday night ball; he warned them that they had better change their ways or antitrust would catch up with them. He dealt with a short-lived challenge from the Mexican League, and he instituted the players' retirement plan, which the Governor still thinks may have irritated the owners more than anything. "It touched their pocketbooks," he explained, "but then, I've always been pension-minded—I also got 'em for the troopers, the schoolteachers, the state employees."
In 1951, a year before his expected reelection, Happy was blindsided by an owners' cabal, and though he carried the vote 9-7, he lacked the necessary three-fourths majority. "If Jesus was commissioner for six years and did a fair job, he couldn't get 75 percent of the votes," the Governor says, and he quotes an old politician: "When people decide to vote against you, they do it for a good reason, for a bad reason or for no reason at all."
His successor, Ford Frick, would raise sycophancy to an art and ride it all the way to the Hall of Fame. "After I left, they had a vacancy for the job of commissioner and decided to keep it," is the way Happy explains what happened. Happy returned to politics and was elected governor again in 1955, but he never stopped seeking wider horizons. He once wistfully envisioned a 1960 Democratic ticket that would have had him on the top and a young senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, running as vice-president. By 1968, the Governor was ready to settle for the second spot on George Wallace's ticket and, indeed, it wasn't until the last moment that he was bumped for Curtis LeMay. But commissioner of baseball would remain his only national office. And apart from the owners, it was good duty, too.
"Give the kids a ball and a bat and a corner lot, and you don't have to worry about juvenile delinquency in that neighborhood," he declared. Happy still keeps autographed balls about his house and a framed autograph of Christy Mathew-son on the wall. "I'm only going to show you this because you won't see it anywhere else," he explains. He has numerous mementos of Ty Cobb. Happy has always adored Ty Cobb. "I have total recall," the Governor says, and his most impressive mnemonic feat used to be keeping track of precisely how many more at bats Pete Rose had than the Georgia Peach. Happy also remembers his World War I service number, which is 5311754, and unfaded opinions are likewise provided upon request:
Judge Landis: "He was a lot like my friend Rupp. He didn't like much of anybody, and nobody much liked him, either."