Today in History: Kenesaw Mountain Landis

As a result of all sports being cancelled for the foreseeable future, I decided to do some research on what happened today in sports history. What I stumbled across was a story about baseball and the first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. In order to get the full picture of this, we have to start at the beginning:

In 1919, the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds met in the World Series, and this was unlike any Fall Classic that we have seen before or will ever see again. Most people know the story of the so called Black Sox intentionally throwing the series, but they may not know the aftermath of the situation.

A year after the infamous 1919 World Series, the President of the National League, John Heydler and a group of executives met and discussed putting someone in control of all baseball that would rule with an iron fist and not allow a scandal like this to take place again. After discussion, a federal judge put in place by Theodore Roosevelt, known for taking on corporations named, Kenesaw Mountain Landis would be appointed the first commissioner of baseball with extraordinary power over all of baseball including team owners. In his first move as the commissioner, he banned the eight, Chicago White Sox players that were alleged to be involved with New York gambler Arnold Rothstein, intentionally throwing the World Series.

1919 Chicago White Sox team who intentionally threw the World Series

This was an unprecedented move in baseball at the time, and it didn’t stop there. He would go on to ban several players throughout the 1920’s for gambling on the sport, and he made it so players feared what would happen if they did gamble or if they knew about someone gambling and did not report it. He helped turn around the image of baseball at the time which was losing fans over the trust and integrity of the players in the game. Over the years he began to try and broaden the game, starting with minor league systems.

On this day, March 23rd in the year of 1938, Commissioner Landis would open an investigation into the St. Louis Cardinals and their minor league system. At the time in the minor leagues, teams were individually owned much like they are today, except for the fact that teams were not yet associated with major league affiliates. These minor league teams consisted of players who were signed to different major league teams. One team, the St. Louis Cardinals and their Vice President, Branch Rickey, who would be coined as the “father of the modern day farm system” found that it would benefit their big league clubs if they had all their contracted players in the minor leagues, playing together on the same teams that way they would build chemistry.

Commissioner Landis and his investigation into the Cardinals found that while they did have their players together, they were blocking them from reaching the major leagues. Players would only be called up when a major league rostered player would retire, essentially causing a jam in the minor leagues. In order to end this, Landis would force the Cardinals minor league teams to release 74 players in the system and he fined the owners of the minor league teams $2,176 each.

In the years after this, Branch Rickey’s idea of a minor league farm system with teams associated with major league clubs would take shape and become what we know it as today. Rickey would also go on to be the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers before becoming a part owner of the team. He would then sign Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier in the MLB in 1947.

Jackie Robinson signing his contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Alongside team owners, Branch Rickey, Walter O'Malley, and John Smith

Kenesaw Mountain Landis would go on to remain the commissioner of baseball until his death in 1944. Before he would pass away, he was credited with some great baseball ideas such as the first All-Star game in 1933 held in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, home of the 1919 Black Sox. He would then go on to open the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. He would be inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1944 just a month before his death.

Without Kenesaw Mountain Landis and his strict rule over baseball in the 1920’s and 30’s, the game may not be what it is today, and with the latest cheating scandal (sign stealing) rampant throughout the league, it almost seems that we need the commissioner of baseball to rule with a similar iron fist as the first man to ever do it.

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