Judge Landis and Twenty-Five Years of Baseball
by J. G. Spink
One of the mythical untruths about baseball (propagated in this book) is that it was invented in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York by Abner Doubleday. About a century ago, sporting goods magnate Albert Spaulding set up a “fact-finding” committee to establish the origins of Baseball (overlooking documentation of pre-1939 baseball in Southern Ontario). Rather than being any more objective than many government fact-finding committees, Spaulding’s committee had a hidden agenda of “proving” Baseball was an American game rather than a derivative of British rounders, or town ball, or whatever. The best they could come up with was a letter (written decades after the fact) that some guy in Colorado was taught to play baseball in Cooperstown, NY in 1839 by Abner Doubleday. This myth was officially accepted and repeated for decades, until baseball historians started uncovering uncomfortable facts, like there being no mention of anything resembling baseball in Doubleday’s own memoirs (which have been preserved because he was a Civil War General for the winning side).
Another myth of baseball that is propagated in Spink’s 1947 book is that when the Chicago Black Sox of 1919 were caught in a gambling fix of the World Series, the owners brought in the incorruptible Judge Landis to exercise authority over Baseball and protect its integrity. This Landis myth seems as much an Orwellian Big Lie as the Doubleday myth.
In my decades as a baseball historian, I am not aware of another book on Landis, and Spink’s is the one that is frequently cited as the historical reference. Most of what the book says on the surface supports the myth that Landis was an anti-gambling guy who cleaned up baseball after the Black Sox. Reading between the lines, I have considerable disbelief in the Landis myth.
Let’s consider where Spink is coming from, and how that might be part of a corrupt revisionist history. The Spink family started publishing The Sporting News in the 19th Century, in combination with theatrical news (show biz being an activity with high profits and connections with politics, gambling, and organized crime in much the same ways that sports biz has had similar ties). As Leonard Koppett points out in Sports Illusion Sports Reality, there’s an incestuous relationship between big business sports (amateur as well as professional) and mass media, in which sportsbiz needs media support for favorable publicity to create public interest, while mass media needs favorable interest in sports to help sell newspapers and commercials. Neither side of this relationship wants to turn fans off by making an issue of the inherent corruption of professional sports run by owners who might not be in honest competition.
Spink made a big deal of Landis having a big obsession against people with gambling interests being associated with Baseball, but how much of that was selective (with its own corrupt internal politics) and intended to deflect public attention away from more important interests that remained entrenched with the protection of Landis (and whatever interests he represented)? Landis made a big deal of kicking an owner of the Phillies out of Baseball for his gambling connections, but was that a selective revenge against some horse race we don’t know about being fixed the wrong way, double-crossing other Baseball-related interests?
A big deal was made in Spink’s book about Landis allegedly being so anti-gambling that he was so seemingly-silly as to protect the public against beloved actor Bing Crosby being a part owner of the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, presumably with the message to the public that Landis was protecting the public more than it wants to be. Like the Spaulding-Doubleday myth, this deserves more consideration. For starters, purging the Pirates of Bing facilitated decades of ownership of the Pirates (and other teams, including Steinbrenner’s) by people who also wallow in the potential corruption of racetrack ownership. Moreover, the beloved Bing worked in the movie industry, which has had a history of corrupt entanglements with organized crime, mass media, and political corruption. About the time that Landis made his unpopular rulings against Bing, the other most popular figure in showbiz was Frank Sinatra, and interested readers are encouraged to read Kitty Kelly’s books about Sinatra and Nancy Reagan (along with Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA, and the Mob by Dan Moldea), if they’d like to read farther between the lines.
So was Landis really there to create an illusion that baseball was being protected against corrupt influences by someone who was really there to protect those interests? Nothing explicitly written by Spink (whose own origins suggest corrupt bias) would encourage such a fantasy, but it’s an idea worth considering because there’s so much between the lines to suggest that Kennesaw Mountain Landis was a corrupt front man in a position of public trust that he abused to protect interests that seem (still more) likely to be corrupting American (and multinational) sports, entertainment, and politics more than half a century after Landis’s death.
Although Spink gives it as evidence of a distinguished family, the fact that Landis had two brothers who were US Congressmen seems suggestive of a family history of political deal-makers, and that Landis’s appointment as a Federal Judge in Chicago may have been based on criteria other than judicial objectivity and honesty. Well before Mayor Richard Daley or Al Capone, political appointments in Chicago had a history of being corrupt. As a Federal Judge (and later Baseball Commissioner), Landis had a history of being inconsistent, sometimes coming down with excessive severity, and at other times letting parties off easily when they seemed flagrantly guilty. Spink attempted to spin doctor this into evidence of Landis being impartial and humane, but it seems to me like evidence of corruption and court-chamber deals.
The myth that Judge Landis was an incorruptible jurist who saved baseball seems as indefensible as the legend that General Abner Doubleday invented baseball. Landis was a political appointee to the in Federal Court in Chicago, a hotbed of political corruption, where he had a history of erratic court decisions that is suggestive of using criteria other than objective judicial evidence. His two most famous cases where when he got a lot of publicity for deciding against Standard Oil in a decision that was overturned by higher courts (and maybe set up to happen that way) and in a court case against the Federal League. The Federal League was an early competitor against the oligopoly of Major League Baseball (like the earlier Player’s League and others). Its court case was brought before Judge Landis, and would have challenged the Reserve Clause and other monopolistic practices of the business of Baseball, which remained effectively unchallenged for more than the next half century because Judge Landis allowed the case to remain unheard on his docket until economic pressures from World War I and box offices caused the Federal League to go under and settle out of court (to the detriment of fans, players, and competitive Free Enterprise).
Rather than being an incorruptible outsider who protected the public and Integrity of Baseball against greedy owners of dubious ethics, it seems more likely that Landis got his job as payback for his earlier judicial decision to protect the Lords of Baseball from competition, and that his grandstanding actions to purge baseball of corruption were intended to generate a lot of publicity at the expense of underlings like Shoeless Joe Jackson, while leaving untouched the more fundamental corrupting influences of having the National Pastime run for the benefit of greedhead owners with hidden agendas. --Tony Formo