From baseball’s humble beginnings prior to the Civil War until 1903, there was really no true governing body to oversee our national pastime’s operations. The war between the American and National leagues was finally settled after two bitter years of disputes and legal issues when the National Agreement was drafted in 1903. The positions of commission chairman and two league presidents were created by the agreement and were appropriately named The National Commission.
For the next 17 years, these three persons were the governing body of baseball and they had two main responsibilities — mediating disputes between the two leagues and presiding over all meetings. For the most part, the commission performed in an acceptable function until 1919 when the “Black Sox” scandal rocked the baseball world and was viewed as a failure of the National Commission. As a result, team owners decided to reform the commission in 1920 and created a membership made up of non-baseball personnel based on the need for a more centralized and powerful office to rule over the sport.
Kennesaw Mountain Landis (1920-1944)
Mostly driven by Charles Comiskey (who’s eight White Sox ballplayers were the culprits in the 1919 World Series scandal), the group of owners appointed former federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis as the first Commissioner of Major League Baseball. For some owners, it wasn’t the most popular decision but Landis was the majority choice since the owners were still reeling from all the accusations that baseball was a crooked sport. Landis was given full reign as sole commissioner with unlimited authority (and a lifetime contract as well) in the hopes of restoring the sport’s integrity.
Landis was considered an iron-handed commissioner and his “my-way-or-the-highway” authoritarianism was soon evidenced when he swiftly dealt a lifetime ban from baseball to the eight accused White Sox ballplayers on such grounds as throwing games and involvement with crooked ballplayers and gamblers. Although the eight men were acquitted in a federal court, Landis reasoned that the need to clean up baseball took all precedence over any legal verdicts.
But, Landis’ harsh judgments over ballplayers did not end with the eight Chicago team members. During his stay in office he banned three Giants players, one of their coaches, and a Phillies pitcher, and in 1943 he banned Phillies owner William D. Cox. He also played a major role in the banishments of Hal Chase and Heinie Zimmerman. Moreover, he continued on the torrid trail of cleaning out the “hooligans” of the game as he often labeled the gamblers and some of the players. He even involved himself and his office in player negotiations in an attempt to put an end to the owner’s unfair labor practices, Comiskey being the biggest culprit in that area.
Despite his efforts to clean up baseball, Landis was oftentimes labeled as a racist and a sexist. It is well documented by different historians that the man perpetuated the color barrier in an effort to prolong segregation in professional baseball. Happy Chandler, Landis’ successor, was quoted as saying that “for twenty-four years Judge Landis wouldn’t let a black man play. I had his records, and I read them, and for twenty-four years Landis consistently blocked any attempts to put blacks and whites together on a big league field.”
Accusations of sexism arose in 1931 when the owner of the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts signed a 17 year old female pitcher named Jackie Mitchell. She was quite the talented thrower and made front page headlines when she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game with the Yankees. Landis revoked Mitchell’s contract the very next day saying that professional baseball was far too strenuous a sport for a woman. Feminists and other supporters of women playing pro baseball were outraged by Landis’ actions calling it a flagrant injustice and a blatant abuse of authority. Some even said that it may have been an attempt “to curb the embarrassment of their [Gehrig and Ruth] bruised male egos.”
Landis even did what he could to thwart the growth of the minor leagues, proving that he had never condoned the genius of Branch Rickey who nurtured and perfected the farm system. He claimed that his actions were a way to protect the lower levels of professional baseball because he viewed the practice of calling up players during pennant races as unfair saying that it tampered with competition at the minor league level. Also, in the 1940’s, the Pacific Coast League had become so powerful that it was threatening to become the third major league. Seeing this about to transpire, Landis stepped in and thwarted the efforts of Pants Rowland (PCL President) from upgrading the league to major league status.
Landis died on November 25th, 1944 while still in office. In a special election, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame that same year. Journalists had named him “the baseball tyrant” and even though his decisions were often praised, they were more frequently criticized as being a flagrant abuse of absolute power. Regardless, the man found satisfaction in personally knowing that he was disliked, feared, and respected all at the same time.
Albert Chandler (1945-1951)
Albert “Happy” Chandler became commissioner on April 24th, 1945 five months after Landis’ death. Prior to his appointment as Landis’ successor, he spent many years on the political stage in Kentucky. He had held the office of state senator, Lieutenant Governor, Governor, and U.S. Senator and was viewed as a career politician. Chandler’s greatest contribution in politics occurred when he established the University of Kentucky Medical Center.
Seeking public acceptance in his new endeavor, Chandler’s first goal was amending the injustices of his predecessor. This was evident in 1947 when he approved the contract for Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers. However he immediately became hated as well as loved by the fans for his approval of the contract. But Chandler continued to face adversity concerning racial issues and as a result he became known as a very courageous commissioner.
His pursuit of integrating baseball coupled with overseeing the establishment of the player’s pension fund earned him the nickname of “the player’s commissioner.” It was felt by many in the sports community that Chandler’s failure to be selected to another term as commissioner was directly the result of his efforts in the area of Civil Rights. Chandler’s last day as commissioner was July 15th, 1951. He passed away from a heart attack on June 15th, 1991 the day after his 93rd birthday.
Ford Frick (1951-1965)
Frick was the first commissioner who didn’t come from a political background. Prior to his appointment as commissioner, he served 17 years as the National League President from 1934-51. Prior to baseball he was an accomplished journalist and worked in the fields of advertising, ghost writing, and teaching. He landed a job with the New York American in 1922 eventually becoming the ghost writer for Babe Ruth. He later went on to become a sports broadcaster with WOR in New York.
Frick was appointed commissioner on September 20th, 1951. During his 14 years in office, he was responsible for changes involving expansion and the reconstruction of baseball. Each league grew from eight to 10 teams, multiple television contracts were created, and a league draft was instituted. He was also responsible for baseball being introduced internationally into Africa, Central America, Holland, Italy, and Japan.
Of all the decisions that Frick made, none provoked more criticism and furor than one he made in 1961. Caving into the sports writing community that he had once been a part of, Frick ruled that since baseball had expanded to a 162 game season, and that Roger Maris had not broken Ruth’s home record in 154 games, it was to be marked with an asterisk to denote it as a separate record. This decision lasted 30 years until the asterisk was eliminated from the record books in 1991, therefore unifying the record and bestowing Maris with the title of home run king. Sadly, Maris had passed away from cancer nearly six years earlier and never saw his record reinstated.
The Veteran’s Committee elected Frick into the Hall of Fame in 1970, and in 1978 the hall created the Ford C. Frick Award to honor broadcasters who made major contributions to baseball.
William Eckert (1965-1968)
Eckert came into baseball from a military background that he had retired from in 1961 shortly after he received the Distinguished Service Medal while serving in the Air Force. After Frick’s retirement in 1965, Eckert was one of over 150 candidates for the position. But he was the clear cut choice and became baseball’s fourth commissioner on November 17th, 1965 by a majority vote of all twenty team owners.
Eckert followed in Frick’s footsteps where the international baseball issue was concerned. He was very active in promoting baseball around the world and poured tireless efforts into building good relationships with various baseball officials in Japan. The whole concept of cross-promotion and trading of ballplayers on the international stage all started in 1966 when Eckert and the LA Dodgers embarked on a goodwill trip to Japan.
Prior to becoming commissioner, Eckert had served as a management consultant in the aviation industry and on numerous boards of directors with several corporations. He applied this business savvy from his past endeavors to streamlining baseball business practices while creating a more efficient front office. He also employed his business savvy to manage the funding and construction of newer, bigger stadiums and negotiated more long-term leases for them.
If there was anything negative that came out of his brief time in office it occurred after the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. when both times he refused to cancel games that took place after these tragic events. Additionally, he incurred the disdain of the owners when he wasn’t forceful enough about business issues. The owners throughout both leagues had steadily lost confidence in his abilities to perform his job, and when they felt that he would be ineffective at averting a pending player’s strike, they demanded his resignation and he had no choice but to respect their wishes and step down. Eckert resigned on November 20th, 1968 three years and three days after becoming baseball’s fourth commissioner.
Bowie Kuhn (1969-1984)
Bowie Kuhn took over as commissioner on February 4th, 1969 after spending 19 years with the New York City law firm of Wilkie, Farr, and Gallagher where he specialized in baseball’s legal affairs. His tenure as commissioner would last over 15 years, the second longest stay in office after Landis. Kuhn proved to be the most controversial commissioner in my eyes. He waged a war against drug abuse while baseball’s attendance factor nearly doubled from 23 to 45.5 million. But I will always remember him for being a commissioner constantly embroiled in conflicts of interest, controversy, and criticism.
The death of the Reserve Clause, labor strikes, owner disenchantment, and prime time broadcasts of World Series games are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his tour of duty. Kuhn basically took many stances against what he perceived to be activities that were “not in the best interests of baseball.” He suspended Denny McLain for involvement in bookmaking activities, and then banned Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays from the Hall of Fame for what he claimed were gambling affiliations when both players were involved in promotional campaigns for casinos. Fortunately for baseball, Peter Ueberroth would reverse Kuhn’s decision and reinstate them the next year as one of his first acts as commissioner.
High on my list of Kuhn’s negative performance as a commissioner were three issues — Kuhn’s refusal to back Curt Flood in his fight against the Reserve Clause, his denying Charles Finley to perform like a business owner, and his disrespect of Hank Aaron’s pursuit of the home run record.
Kuhn went toe to toe with Curt Flood over Flood’s refusing to be traded to the Phillies based on the poor record of the Phillies, the fact that they played in a ball park that had seen its better days, and that he felt that the fans were too belligerent and even racist. When Flood approached Kuhn to aid him in his case, he basically slapped Flood in the face with the Reserve Clause.
Flood then filed his now famous lawsuit against Kuhn and Major League Baseball stating that the grounds of the case were the violation of anti-trust laws. Flood’s statement that the Reserve Clause was the same thing as slavery was a controversial analogy even among other ballplayers that were against it as well. The case went to the Supreme Court with Flood’s attorney claiming that the Reserve Clause limited all ballplayers to playing for only one team for life. In addition to this, his attorney also claimed that it was depressing salaries and earnings. But the court still ruled in favor of Major League Baseball.
Turmoil involving Kuhn would develop again when he blocked Charles Finley from selling three of his star ballplayers for a reported $3.5 million stating that it wasn’t in the best interest of the sport. This drove a wedge between the owners and Kuhn, and eventually that wedge would involve the players who went on strike for 57 days in 1981. My attitude towards Kuhn wasn’t that great to begin with, but it really soured over the way he flaunted his authority on this issue. What really angered me was that Charles Finley, whether or not he was devious and shrewd in his business ethics, was still one of the sharpest businessmen that baseball had ever seen. And Kuhn denied Finley one of his rights as a businessman and owner, namely buying and selling product to make a profit.
With all of the above, even though I’m not following a timeline as much as I am the gravity of the offense, comes the one issue that really sent me over the edge, turning me forever against Bowie Kuhn. In 1974 when Hank Aaron was on the heels of Babe Ruth’s home run record, Kuhn once again flaunted authority by telling Braves’ management how they could or couldn’t play Aaron. Braves’ management had decided for the benefit of the home crowd who supported Aaron, that he would not play in the seasoning opening series that was in Cincinnati, therefore making it possible for him to break the record in Atlanta. Kuhn, in his “infinite wisdom” ruled that Aaron had to play in two of the three games against the Reds, where he did hit the home run that tied the record.
I could go on a real rant here, but instead I will list the six reasons why I will always disrespect Kuhn as being the worst commissioner the game has ever had (other than possibly what we are tolerating now):
1) Kuhn’s decision to put the plaques of all Negro League players in a “separate” wing in the Hall of Fame
reeks of blatant racism.
2) Kuhn attended the game in Cincinnati when Aaron tied Ruth’s record, but could not attend the game
in Atlanta when the record was broken because he couldn’t break a “prior engagement”.
3) In 1983, Kuhn personally added Carl Yastrzemski to the All-Star roster because it was Yaz’s final year,
but the previous year, he didn’t do the same thing for Willie Stargell. (Can you spell R-A-C-I-S-M?)
4) When Thurman Munson died from a plane crash, Kuhn threatened Steinbrenner with forfeiture of the
game that was scheduled the same day of Munson’s funeral in Ohio should they be late returning.
5) When the players struck in 1981 Kuhn never ordered them to return and play. Instead he created a
different set of playoffs to be held at the end of the season. The two NL teams with the best record
(Cardinals and Reds) were omitted from the playoff picture completely because of Kuhn’s decision.
6) Sports Illustrated attacked Kuhn for banning Mantle and Mays on the grounds that they were involved
with gambling due to promotional efforts that they were part of with casinos, and yet he did nothing
to George Steinbrenner who was the owner of a racetrack.
In closing, understand that this article is my own personal opinion, however, I do respect the fact that my opinion may not be the consensus of all those who read it. Stay tuned for my follow-up article on the next four commissioners of baseball — Ueberroth through Selig.