The commissioner’s office of baseball has been held by some memorable people over the years. Not all of them have been universally liked (looking at you Bud Selig), but more times than not, they’ve been memorable. Of course, most of today’s baseball fans are unfamiliar with the man who started it all: Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Not only does Landis have arguably the coolest name in the history of baseball, but he was also the game’s first commissioner, setting a strong example for the nine commissioners who have followed him.
The need for a commissioner grew out of one of the darkest moments in baseball history. The infamous Black Sox scandal during the 1919 World Series shined a light on the corruption in baseball at the time. It had become a sport with no integrity, and without proper leadership at the top, things would have gotten worse, not better.
“We want a man as chairman who will rule with an iron hand. Baseball has lacked a hand like that for years. It needs it now worse than ever. Therefore, it is our object to appoint a big man to lead the new commission.”
John Heydler, former National League President
In Landis, baseball executives found exactly what they were looking for. In 1905, Landis was appointed as a federal judge by President Teddy Roosevelt. In more than 15 years on the bench of U.S. District Court in northern Illinois, Landis earned a reputation for going after large corporations that tried to skirt the rules for their own benefit. He was also known stepping out of his courthouse on occasion in order to watch Chicago’s two baseball teams, the Cubs and White Sox.
Upon being named baseball’s first commissioner in 1920, Landis quickly made his mark on baseball while also showcasing the no-nonsense philosophy that got him appointed to the position. He handed down lifetime bans to the eight players involved in the Black Sox scandal, most notably Shoeless Joe Jackson. Even amidst criticism that the punishment was too harsh, Landis never wavered and stood firm on his decision, a precedent that undoubtedly remains relevant with regard to Pete Rose and his efforts to be reinstated from his lifetime ban.
“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball.”
Kenesaw Mountain Landis
The Black Sox scandal was the first issue Landis addressed as commissioner of baseball, but it would not be the last in his 24 years, holding the office until the day of his death in 1944. Landis went on to ban 18 more players who were connected to gambling. He helped forge a connection between the major leagues and baseball’s minor league system, giving young players the opportunity to work their way up to the big leagues. Landis was also the commissioner who helped create baseball’s first all-star game in 1933 and oversaw the first night game in 1935.
“Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy; it is his training field for life work. Destroy his faith in its squareness and honesty and you have destroyed something more; you have planted suspicion of all things in his ear.”
Kenesaw Mountain Landis
Of course, Landis was not perfect by any stretch. Many have criticized him for not doing enough to promote the racial integration of baseball. Some have suggested that he even tried to block the integration of the game. It wasn’t until after Landis died that Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier in 1947.
Nevertheless, Landis did incredible things for baseball while serving as its first ever commissioner. Had he not cleaned up the game when he did, the history of baseball may have been completely different. For that, he deserves a great deal of credit for making baseball as great as it is today. It also doesn’t hurt that Kenesaw Mountain Landis is one of the coolest names of all time.