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Happy Days
Frank Deford
July 20, 1987
In the 90th baseball season of his life, former commissioner Happy Chandler is still at the top of his game
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July 20, 1987

Happy Days

In the 90th baseball season of his life, former commissioner Happy Chandler is still at the top of his game

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Only one man could approve major league contracts: the commissioner. Rickey had it all worked out, point by point. Robinson would be kept on the minor league Montreal roster for all of spring training, most of which would be spent in the Caribbean and Panama, away from Jim Crow Florida. He even had Robinson moved to first base so he wouldn't be challenging the popular second baseman, Eddie Stanky, and he set up discreet meetings with various black leaders, urging them to help restrain black enthusiasm. Every stone was ready to be laid in place.

But none of it would mean a thing unless the commissioner went along. So Rickey called Happy. It was not long before the opening of spring training in 947 when the Mahatma arrived in Versailles, at 9 Elm Street. The two men went out to the walnut log cabin, and the Governor sat at his desk just as he sits there this day. He had Rickey sit to his left, in the same chair that's there in the same place. Then Rickey told him his plans, and said, "Governor, I can't do this unless I have your full assurance of support."

Happy told him that's exactly what he had. And nobody on God's green earth was going to change his mind. The Mahatma took a puff on his cigar. Effectively, from that moment on, baseball—American sport—was integrated.

Forty years later, the Governor leans back in his chair. He is older than Oklahoma, the forward pass and Vitamin C. He is three years older than adrenaline.

"On my mission for the Senate to the battlegrounds, Pardner, I saw white men, red men, black men and yellow men all fighting on the same atoll to make this world safe for all mankind," he says. "Now, I wasn't present when the Lord gave out colors, and it occurred to me that when I had to meet my Maker, and he asked me why I didn't let that fellow Robinson play baseball, and I said it was because of his color—well, it occurred to me that that just might not be a satisfactory answer."

Among the things that the Governor shows you because you can't see them anywhere else are an autographed holy book from Ben-Gurion and an autographed picture of the real mahatma, Gandhi. They are in his bedroom. Many plaques are on the walls here and there, and photographs, and two huge portraits of himself and Mama that were painted by his famous distant cousin, Howard Chandler Christy. "That's my girl," Happy says, looking at a portrait of Mama painted in 937. She had come out of Virginia 4 years earlier to teach in an Episcopalian girls' school. The house is full of family, Kentucky, Democrats and baseball.

"I was always sober, so I meant to do everything I did," Happy explains, walking along without his cane now. "I wouldn't change a jot or a tittle."

Baseball and politics?

"Look, Pardner, you can't ever get everyone's love. When I became governor I said only that I wanted the respect of the respectable people of the commonwealth—and the same could be said in baseball. You've got to be just, temperate and decent...or what's the point?"

The Governor pads down the hall to his clothes closets and pulls out an autographed baseball. It was signed by the late Honus Wagner and the late Ty Cobb. Happy went to see the late Babe Ruth in the hospital when he was dying and everybody else in baseball was avoiding him out of guilt because they hadn't given him a job. "It's a terrible thing to have such shabby people in a thing like baseball," the Governor says. "But a lot of those boys...."

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