SI Vault
Frank Deford
September 30, 1974
The commissioners of major sports are men of rectitude and imperturbable mien. Now, in relaxed and occasionally irreverent conversation, the four bare a few of their secrets
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September 30, 1974

Heirs Of Judge Landis

The commissioners of major sports are men of rectitude and imperturbable mien. Now, in relaxed and occasionally irreverent conversation, the four bare a few of their secrets

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Commissioner has quite an un-American ring to it, a medieval or even Bolshevik flavor—one thinks immediately of off-with-his-head—but ever since 1921, when Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was ordained commissioner (of baseball), the title and the men who assume it have become another fine orthodoxy of our American games. For a long time the leader of the National Basketball Association was designated "president," but since the term commissioner had become so utterly ingrained in the national consciousness, the title had to be formally changed in order to conform with the public misunderstanding.

The National Hockey League remains a semantic holdout in these affairs, but the man who is technically the NHL's "president and treasurer" is recognized by everyone else as its commissioner (as he will be here). Commissioners rule sports. Not just baseball and the National Football League and the NBA and the NHL, but college conferences, Roller Derbies and Little Leagues. For years men with nothing better to do wrote the headline: DOES BOXING NEED A COMMISSIONER? Nowadays, any shaky new professional league feels obliged to appoint a commissioner.

Actually commissioners are limited in what they can accomplish and are even more circumscribed by misconceptions of their roles. The wizened ghost of Judge Landis looms o'er all and diminishes, by heroic comparison, any achievement. Whether or not the Judge was as wise and as bold and as fearsome as his legend assures us, commissioners these days are raised up against that impossible standard.

There are parallels between the sports commissioners and the church. Just as archbishops tend to be more comfortable with the clergy than the laity, commissioners tend to be more at ease with team owners than with the sporting laity—the players and fans. And not surprisingly. Bowie Kuhn once was a league counsel, Pete Rozelle a team general manager, Walter Kennedy a former PR man and Clarence Campbell, of all things, a referee. They were elevated to their current positions by the owners and, quite naturally, come home to roost among them on most issues.

And not to be cynical, but archbishop and commissioner are not your high-turnover positions. Although it has been 53 years since the vocation cum sainthood was created for Judge Landis, only 13 men have served as commissioners of the four major leagues. The time when well-known generals and politicians could be selected to preside amiably over a national pastime is gone.

In the future relative unknowns like Kuhn will be chosen to head up a sport, to give it the peak years of their professional lives as they try to untie Gordian knots in public for large amounts of money and abuse.

Probably never again will we have commissioners as time-tested, if not exactly as venerable, as the current four. Kuhn, five years in office, is way junior among these survivors; Kennedy has lasted 11 years, Rozelle 14, Campbell 28. Now quickly, before the colors fade, before Kennedy and Campbell are replaced by passing functionaries, it is worth meeting them and learning how they perceive their jobs and, after a fashion, themselves. It will never again be this way with commissioners.

The offices of the National Hockey League, alone among the big four, are located outside Manhattan. They are in Montreal in Suite 920 of the Sun Life Building, a cold marble edifice on Dominion Square, where the NHL has made its headquarters since 1933. Clarence Campbell came there in 1946, returning from the war, a 41-year-old bachelor, and took over the six-team league.

The NHL offices are lively and cluttered in a way none of the commissioners' quarters in New York are. They are rather like a clubhouse. The reception room has a round white rug inlaid with the orange-and-black league shield, and on the wall behind the receptionist are shields of all the teams, arranged by division. The reading material for visitors consists almost entirely of copies of Hockey News, plus the odd SPORTS ILLUSTRATED or Sport that featured a hockey cover.

"I think it would be a total repudiation of the game if they shifted the office to New York," Campbell says. He is a lean six feet, the only one of the commissioners with a rugged aspect. He does not mind his Christian name. "When I got it, the Prince of Wales had it too," he says. (How do we account for the fact that our four sports commissioners are named Clarence, Alvin, Walter and Bowie?) Clarence wears pleated blue suit pants, a plain white shirt and a blue-black regimental stripe tie with a pearl tie tack. His clear blue eyes have the appearance of binoculars, accented as they are by dark eyebrows under white swept-back hair. He has his glasses off and is twirling them as he talks in an even voice:

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