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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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It was time for lunch. Happy Chandler, who is five years older than the World Series, suggested the barbecue at Scotty's Pink Pig over in Frankfort, which is Kentucky's capital and where he arrived as a state senator going on 60 years ago, making $10 a day when the legislature was in session. Mama is playing bridge today at the famous Bluegrass blue-blood hangout, the Idle Hour, which the Governor describes as "the flooziest country club in the commonwealth." Happy himself does not play bridge, inasmuch as "there are too many cards for one hand to hold," but then he has never played poker, either, or bet the thoroughbreds or partaken of any other games of chance. Notwithstanding, one of his very best friends in Washington was Cactus Jack Garner, FDR's first vice-president, who, during his years in Congress before ascending to that high office, spent enough of his time at poker to make $100,000 at that noble pursuit, which came in handy when he went back home and bought downtown Uvalde, Texas.

So, understand: The Governor certainly has nothing personal against cardplayers, or against folks who drink whiskey, either, even though John Barleycorn has never touched his own lips. This is largely on account of his grandfather, a second sergeant in Morgan's cavalry during what Happy refers to as the War Between the States (as southern people of his generation and perhaps the next still do), because Grandfather Chandler frittered away the Chandler money while manfully attempting "to drink up all the whiskey in the world." As a consequence, Happy's father and Happy himself never drank, which helps explain why the elder teetotaling Chandler lived to 90 and why Happy was 89 this Bastille Day. The bourbon-guzzling Grandfather Chandler paid dearly for a life of excess, of course; he bought the farm when he was a tipsy 93.

It would appear, then, that Happy, who is older than the Boy Scouts, has one year left sober—or four if he gets down to some serious drinking. The Governor is so old that he calls Ted Williams, who's old enough to be on Social Security now, "a nice boy" and refers to Barry Bingham, the patriarch of the famous Kentucky newspaper family, as "a lovely youngster." Bingham is 81. Most people know of the wife of John Y. Brown, another former governor. Happy knew his grandparents. Happy ran for office through so many generations, he developed a slogan: Be like your pappy, vote for Happy! Happy knows most everybody, living or dead. When people say, "Governor, do you know so-and-so?" Happy usually replies, "I knew his parents before he was born." Happy is older than the Rotary, Southern Methodist University and jazz. He is two years older than the Ayatollah Khomeini.

He gets to kiss a lot of pretty women, regardless of their age. At Scotty's Pink Pig, for example, Clayton Bradley, proprietress of that establishment and president of the Democratic Women's Club of Kentucky, gives him a big kiss when he arrives. As does Clayton's daughter. As do various and sundry female customers. Many good-looking women tell the Governor that he is the only man, save their husbands, allowed to take such liberties. He calls these shameless hussies either "honey" or "baby" and much enjoys this physical gratuity. If Mama, who married him a scant 62 years ago, wants to go over to the flooziest country club in the commonwealth and waste her time playing bridge with the girls, then that's her own tough luck. "Governor, my, aren't you looking well," says one of his female fans at the Pink Pig. "There's three stages of life," Happy replies, winking. "Youth, maturity and my-aren't-you-looking-well."

Often, though, he is so damned proud of such compliments that he holds up his arm and makes a muscle. It's solid, too. And Happy is five years older than airplanes.

Also, apart from Muhammad Ali and maybe Man o' War, the Governor is the most famous Kentuckian of the 20th century. And he has outlived just about everybody. John Stennis is the only one left in the United States Senate from Happy's days there, and Alf Landon must surely be the only governor still living from back when Happy first ran the commonwealth 52 years ago. Colonel Matt Winn is long gone from Churchill Downs, and Alben Barkley, the Veep, from Washington; Adolph Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass, is spinning in his grave about something or other, and Colonel Sanders has some white wings now, to match his suit. But Happy's still just fine.

Be lucky, go Happy! was his first campaign slogan. His baby blues twinkle, and that's a bounty. When he was a younger fellow, Happy Chandler's eyebrows were so black and full—a surrey with the fringe on top—that they dominated his face, and his crinkly little eyes got lost in the shadows. But now those eyebrows are thin and white, and people—those who kiss him and those who don't—can see how pretty his eyes have been all these years.

"Let me get my stick over there, pardner," he says. The cane is his only evident concession to age. He puts on his blue Kentucky Wildcat cap, to go with his white Kentucky Wildcat sport shirt, and starts moving through the house at 191 Elm, where he and Mama have lived for 54 years, raising their four children and manifold laughs and memories. "Gonna take you down to the basement later, Pardner," Happy says. "Want you to see the natural stone foundation. This is the best-built house in the commonwealth." But first there is another sight to visit on the property.

The Governor leads the way out the backdoor and down the path past the tomato plants to his cabin, which is made of walnut logs. The walls inside are lined with his lawbooks and the mounted sailfish he has caught. "I'm just showing you this because you can't see it anywhere else," he explains. And then he takes his place at his desk and points to the chair next to it, where the Mahatma sat and puffed on his big cigar one winter's day 40 years ago. Two other people the Governor has outlived are Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson.

If Happy Chandler had been a slightly better football coach, which is all in the world he wanted to be, he never would have become baseball commissioner. He played quarterback (and some linebacker) at Transylvania College in Lexington after arriving there in 1917 from Henderson County with barely five bucks in his pocket. His father was a postman, and his mother had run off when he was four, leaving little Happy to help out the best he could for a quarter a day, planting tobacco. He was Albert then (as christened) or, occasionally, Irish, but once he was tagged with Happy at Transylvania, it never left him.

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