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His Own Biggest Fan
Ron Fimrite
July 19, 1993
Baseball's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was part hero, all ego
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July 19, 1993

His Own Biggest Fan

Baseball's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was part hero, all ego

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In retrospect he seems like baseball's George Washington, a wise and all-powerful figure who, assuming an office no one had ever held before, kept a floundering enterprise together, cleansing it of corruption and divisiveness. Even his name, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, suggests grandeur, lofty ideals, high-mindedness. And the man had been a federal judge, no less. Who better to determine right from wrong? Compared with the milquetoasts who have succeeded him as commissioner of baseball, old Kenesaw Mountain stands as a tower of strength, a rock of integrity.

In truth Judge Landis was a most peculiar duck. With his long white hair, severe mien and fragile physique he looked, said one critic, "like Whistler's Mother in slacks." During his tenure on the federal bench in Chicago he was known more as a shameless publicity seeker than as a dispenser of justice. In fact, many of Landis's most famous courtroom decisions were overturned in higher courts. No amount of theatrics from the bench—and his were abundant—could disguise this high school dropout's shallow grasp of the law. "His career," wrote columnist Heywood Broun in the New York World, "typifies the heights to which dramatic talent may carry a man in America if only he has the foresight not to go on the stage."

Appointed baseball's first commissioner in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Landis was granted extraordinary power to "safeguard the interests of the national game of baseball." And he used that power arbitrarily, sometimes even whimsically. Mostly he enjoyed exercising power over his employers, fancying himself the final court of appeal for players and fans. In the view of the team owners who had hired Landis, far too many of his decisions were at their expense.

Landis was an ardent moralist, a staunch prohibitionist, but no prude. He could swear like a sailor. Once, while helping his wife, Winifred, out of a taxi onto a slippery Chicago sidewalk, he advised her, "Be careful, dear, or you'll break your goddam neck." But for all of his preaching about the evils of drink, late hours and, especially, gambling, Landis, perhaps more than any other figure in baseball, was responsible for a grievous sin: the exclusion of blacks and other minorities from a pastime that, under his rule, was national in name only.

Landis's father, Abraham H. Landis, was a surgeon attached to the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment that marched through Georgia with General William Tecumseh Sherman in the climactic battles of the Civil War. But that inexorable advance by Union troops was momentarily slowed just outside Atlanta on June 27, 1864, by Confederate soldiers stationed atop an isolated 1,809-foot-high promontory in Cobb County. Sherman, in a failure of strategy, lost 3,000 men there and was forced to retreat and regroup before resuming his devastating campaign. Abraham Landis was performing an amputation during this battle when a nearly spent Rebel cannonball ricocheted off a nearby tree and into Landis's leg. The limp he would have for the rest of his life left him with an indelible impression of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.

And so, when the sixth of his seven children was born, on Nov. 20, 1866, in Millville, Ohio, Landis decided to name the boy, over the fervent objections of the rest of his family, after that battleground—though he misspelled Kennesaw in the process. "Thus," wrote biographer Henry Fowles Pringle, "was the blunder of General Sherman immortalized."

When Kenesaw Mountain was a lad of eight, the Landis family moved to the Indiana town of Logansport, where the boy learned to play baseball. He never did learn algebra, though, and after flunking that subject in his first year at Logansport High, he dropped out of school, working for the next few years at various jobs until he finally settled in as a court reporter in South Bend. Inspired as much by the theatricality of life in the courtroom as by the jurisprudence that took place there, Kennie, as he was called, undertook the study of law and, in 1891, graduated from the Union College of Law in Chicago.

After making good use of family connections in Washington, D.C., Landis, in 1905 at the age of 39, was appointed a judge of the U.S. District Court of Northern Illinois by President Theodore Roosevelt. Landis quickly established himself as a Rooseveltian trust-buster of unusual flamboyance. By slapping Standard Oil in 1907 with a record $29,240,000 fine for accepting rebates from a railroad, and summoning old John D. Rockefeller himself from New York to testify in Chicago, Landis received worldwide publicity. No matter that his decision was reversed a year later by the Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Judge, as Landis liked to be called, was a fierce patriot, famous for throwing the book at alleged seditionists during World War I. After Congressman Victor L. Berger, a member of the National Socialist Party who was convicted of "impeding the war effort," was sentenced by Landis to the maximum penalty, the Judge remarked, "It was my great disappointment to give Berger only 20 years in Leavenworth. I believe the law should have enabled me to have had him lined up against a wall and shot." Berger's sentence was also overturned in a higher court.

But what made Landis attractive to major league baseball owners was a decision he never made. When the renegade Federal League took the established baseball big leagues to court in a 1915 antitrust action, Landis delayed his ruling long enough that the frustrated Federal League officials—after 11 months of waiting—submitted to a buyout. And so, when it was discovered in 1920 that eight members of the American League-champion Chicago White Sox had conspired with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series, panicky team owners, fearful of losing the confidence of their paying customers, sought out a strong man to rescue their disgraced game. Landis had all the credentials. He was a fan, a rabid backer of the Chicago Cubs. He was well known. He had a reputation, largely self-promoted, for integrity and decisiveness. And by staving off the Federal League, he had already saved the owners a pot of money.

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