Yesterday, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) announced that group will remove the name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis from the American League and National League Most Valuable Player plaques presented each year to the MVP winners.. Landis has been honored with having the plaques bear his name since 1944, the year of his death. He didn’t do much: he only probably saved the National Pastime at its darkest hour.
It was Landis, a famously tough and uncorruptible federal judge, whom the baseball owners turned to in 1920 in the midst of the Black Sox scandal. The scandal involving the Chicago White Sox throwing the World Series in 1919 under the influence of bribes from gamblers to some key players, including star Shoeless Joe Jackson. Even though the eight accused players were acquitted in their trial, Landis, who remained a judge for two years while serving as Commissioner, banned them all from baseball, laying down a rule that participating in efforts to corrupt the game through gambling or having knowledge of other players doing so and not acting to stop it were grounds for permanent exile. Eighteen players in all, like the infamous Hal Chase, were banned by Landis, who remained commissioner for the rest of his life.
Landis had a memorable career as a judge before coming to baseball’s rescue: in 1907, he thrilled the man who appointed him, Teddy Roosevelt when he fined Standard Oil of Indiana more than $29 million (about $800 million in 2020) for violating federal laws forbidding rebates on railroad freight tariffs.
Why, then, is Landis suddenly the victim of metaphorical statue-toppling? That was a clue: in the wake of the George Floyd Freakout and The Great Stupid, the baseball writers, which are thoroughly infested with self-righteous and semi-ignorant would-be social justice warriors like this guy, blame Landis for not “doing more” to desegregate baseball before Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey finally did the trick, three years after Landis died. In other words, he’s being punished for not seeing clearly what everyone sees almost 80 years later, and not actively fighting for a cause that neither baseball nor American society may have been ready for.
Over the years, Landis has been accused of being complicit in maintaining the color line in baseball, the justification being mostly through rumor and innuendo, in part pushed by misguided advocates of lifting Joe Jackson’s ineligibility for election to the hall of Fame. Some owners used Landis to deflect their own culpability for keeping baseball white: In his 1961 memoir, “Veeck as in Wreck,” rebel owner Bill Veeck said he planned to buy the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942 and stock the team with Negro league stars. Veeck claimed that he told Landis about his intentions, and that the Commissioner moved to block the purchase. Veeck accused Landis of racism, stating in a subsequent interview, “[a]fter all, a man who is named Kenesaw Mountain was not born and raised in the state of Maine.”
Landis was born and raised in Ohio.
When Veeck was asked for proof of his accusations, he stated, “I have no proof of that. I can only surmise.” Baseball historian David Jordan has concluded, “Veeck, nothing if not a storyteller, seems to have added these embellishments, sticking in some guys in black hats, simply to juice up his tale.”
In the same year Veeck claimed he was stopped from integrating baseball, Landis said, in a public statement,
“Negroes are not barred from organized baseball by the commissioner and never have been in the 21 years I have served. There is no rule in organized baseball prohibiting their participation and never has been to my knowledge. If … any other manager, or all of them, want to sign one, or twenty-five Negro players, it is all right with me. That is the business of the managers and the club owners. The business of the commissioner is to interpret the rules of baseball, and to enforce them.”
Never mind. After a motion by sportswriter Ken Rosenthal, the membership of the BBWAA, most of whom have the depth of historical perspective on the Jim Crow era as your average middle school drop-out, voted 89% in favor of removing the name of the judge who saved baseball.
BBWAA president Paul Sullivan said,
“This past summer, two Most Valuable Player award winners, Barry Larkin and Terry Pendleton, spoke of their discomfort with the name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis attached to their awards. Landis, baseball’s first commissioner, served from 1920-44 and notably failed to integrate the game during his tenure. A motion to remove Landis’ name from the MVP award was made in July by longtime member Ken Rosenthal, and after an online discussion of the issue the BBWAA membership voted this week to remove the name, beginning in 2020. Whether the award will be renamed has been tabled until after the 2020 season.”
Ah, yes, those noted historians Barry Larkin and Terry Pendleton. Virtually nobody believes Landis had the power to integrate baseball beyond stating that nothing was stopping the owners from hiring black players.
Baseball’s “official historian”, John Thorn has said. “I absolutely support the movement to remove Confederate monuments, and Landis was pretty damn near Confederate.” Right. Landis was a loyal Republican at a time when the ex-Confederates were almost all Democrats, he was raised in Ohio and spent the bulk of his career in Indiana and Chicago. That’s some historian you have there, MLB!
Landis was a man of his time, and I doubt that any of those who are self-righteously dishonoring him now would have thought or acted any differently than he did at a time when all of America, not just baseball and not just the South, was segregated.
This is one more despicable example of baseball and its culture choosing to virtue-signal and bow to the biases of its players rather than stand up for its founders, champions and others to whom the game owes debts of gratitude.