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Kenesaw Mountain Landis was born in Ohio in 1866, and named after a Civil War battle in which his father had been wounded. By the early 20th century, Landis had become an influential district court judge; in 1920, in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal that sullied baseball’s reputation and intertwined it with mobsters and gamblers, he became the first-ever commissioner of Major League Baseball. It was Landis’ job to restore the reputation of the game, and in so doing, he was gifted was a tremendous amount of power to determine the future of what was then America’s most popular spectator sport.
A century after his appointment as commissioner, Landis’ legacy is rife with complexities and contradictions. He was rightfully skeptical of gamblers, who he believed were in danger of getting “their slimy fingers around baseball,” and his iron hand helped clean up the sport. He lived in upscale hotels but chewed tobacco and “swore like a sailor,” according to Bruce Watson’s Smithsonian magazine profile. Given broad powers by baseball’s owners, he essentially ruled the sport like a dictator for more than two decades. And part of that rule involved—through a “gentleman’s agreement” that dated back to the late 1800s—denying black athletes any real opportunity to play Major League Baseball.
By most historical accounts, Landis was not an overt racist. When the Yankees’ Jake Powell told a radio interviewer that he worked as a cop in the offseason and stayed in shape by beating “n——s over the head with a blackjack,” Landis suspended him for ten days amid the ensuing uproar. But as author Chris Lamb suggests, even as the Powell incident pushed baseball closer to integration, Landis appears to have been part of a larger conspiracy to keep blacks out of the sport for as long as possible. Starting the in 1930s, a coalition of progressive organizations began a campaign to integrate the sport as part of a larger campaign. They picketed outside stadiums, held rallies, and gathered more than a million signatures on petitions. Those petitions were ignored. So were the voices of black journalists; when Cubs manager Leo Durocher was quoted by Communist newspaper the Daily Worker that he wouldn’t have a problem signing black players, Landis ordered Durocher to deny that he’d said it. When maverick owner Bill Veeck threatened to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and stock them with Negro League stars in the years before World War II, he blamed Landis—fairly or unfairly—for blocking the purchase.
In 1943, the athlete, actor and activist Paul Robeson addressed an owners’ meeting to advocate for the cause. (This incensed at least one prominent black sportswriter, Sam Lacy, because Robeson was also an avowed Communist, and he feared Robeson’s appearance would allow Landis and a group of politically conservative owners to dismiss the push toward integration as part of a Communist front.) With African-Americans fighting in a world war and contributing to the war effort, the social pressure was mounting on baseball to integrate. But under instructions from Landis, the owners declined to ask Robeson a single question, and Landis and the owners issued a statement that served as a smokescreen for their ongoing gentleman’s agreement:
Over the past four years, we’ve lived through an era studded with lies. Those lies have come in a variety of shapes and forms, both carefully worded and stunningly blatant, and they culminated in a big lie that nearly tore our democracy to shreds. Three months after the capitol riot, the effects of that big lie have now spilled over into policy, into a series of voter laws in Georgia that are designed to address a problem that doesn’t really exist. It is such an obvious lie piled atop a lie that even major corporations in Georgia, from Delta to Coca-Cola, have taken a stand against it. And so, too, has Major League Baseball, whose commissioner, Rob Manfred, moved the All-Star game out of Atlanta in protest of Georgia’s new voter laws.
This came as something of a shock, because baseball, as a collective entity, has never been particularly progressive. It took years of agitation for Jackie Robinson to break through to the big leagues in 1947; in the decades since, baseball’s fan base has become increasingly white and increasingly conservative. For baseball, as an entity, to make a statement against Georgia’s voter laws feels like yet another turning point in these strange times, even if it reinforces what many of us already know: That these laws’ unstated purpose—to disenfranchise voters of color—is the kind of tacit institutional racism we’re no longer willing to tolerate. It is a lie based on a lie, and after a while, the con becomes so repetitive that we can see through it.
In response to Major League Baseball’s decision, the people who fomented these lies have responded in utterly predictable fashion: They’ve doubled down on those lies. One particularly insidious member of the former president’s administration issued a sanctimonious response that equated baseball to some kind of sacred offering which should never be sullied by political concerns. This is, of course, utterly ridiculous. Baseball’s history cannot be unraveled from America’s history, and any attempt to do so is pure denialism. That’s why Major League Baseball agreed to remove Landis’ name from its MVP trophies under pressure from former MVPs last year: Because over time, it became clear that even if Landis did not actively campaign against integration in baseball, he sure as hell didn’t do much to speed it along.
Maybe Landis was kowtowing to the owners’ inherent racism; maybe even if Landis hadn’t died in 1944, ESPN’s Rob Neyer wrote, he still wouldn’t have prevented Robinson’s ascension to the major leagues in 1947. But if Landis had his fingers wrapped so tightly around the game, why couldn’t he have fought harder to defy the owners’ will? Why, as Chris Lamb writes, did he adhere to a conspiracy of silence? If a person or corporate entity has the power to enact meaningful social change, and they don’t use that power, wouldn’t they deserve at least some of the blame for doing nothing?
“It’s what he didn’t say and didn’t do that made him a racist,” Lamb writes, and at this moment in this country, as we attempt to unravel the consequences of an era’s worth of lies, it is notable that even the commissioner of Major League Baseball is no longer willing to do nothing and say nothing.
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