MLB Commissioners: Where Are They Now (Besides Dead), Part 1


As I was babbling my way through a guest post on 85 Percent Sports that was supposed to be about the usage of instant replay but really became more about making as many “old people hate technology” jokes as I could come up with, I realized something.  I’m always realizing things.  It’s a great way to lead-in a blog post.  If it weren’t for spontaneous realizations, I’d probably just be sitting here starting posts in the middle, with no idea how I got there and even less of an idea of how to conclude things.

I am totally unfamiliar with the office of the Baseball Commissioner.  I know who it is, and I know what he’s accomplished, but I know close to nothing about past commissioners, what it is they do, and how large of a scepter they get to carry around.

So, with the end of the season crawling toward us like a zombie missing its legs, and Bud Selig swearing that he’s finally relinquishing command of the league after 2010, I wanted to open history a crack and see who else was in that MLB Commissioner hole before ‘ol Allan Huber.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis: 1920-1944

Until I read that name just now, I assumed Jason “Adenolith” Heyward was the epitome of having giant imagery for a middle name.  Although the origin of his first name (Kenesaw Mountain was where his father had his leg shot off in the Civil War) sort of eclipses “Mountain” in the realm of bad-assery.  He once fined Babe Ruth–Babe Ruth, the first baseball player’s name a lot of us ever heard–$5000, which in those days was the equivalent of around$163 million (based on my own approximations).  Saying of, again, the fining of Babe Effing Ruth, Landis was quoted:

"“In this [commissioner’s] office he’s just another ballplayer.”"

And that marked the only time in the history of planet earth that Ruth was referred to as “just another ballplayer.”  What’s even cooler about Landis was that he was put in charge because of his unaffiliation to baseball as a player or coach.  His “layman” status is what got him the job, as they wanted somebody to repair the image of baseball after the Black Sox Scandal.  Or, they wanted it to look like they wanted somebody to do that.  Ideally, Landis would just lean back in his chair and whistle “Camptown Races” for the entire workday (the 1920’s equivalent of getting stoned and dicking around on the internet).

He didn’t though.  He demanded total control of the league, got it, and went to work banning the christ out of people.  Look at that list.  It’s more than twice the size of all the other commissioners.  Landis was a forceful, demanding behemoth, who saw problems and grabbed them by the throat.

He refused to let black men into the game, though.  That’s pretty awful.

Happy Chandler: (1945-1951)

Happy is a strange case, because he originally seems like a big ‘ol stick-in-the-mud (The 1940s equivalent of a “douche.”  No, I like this gag, so I will not stop making jokes like this).  He sure didn’t like Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, especially when Durocher stole Laraine Day away from her first husband.  Why this concerned Happy I have no idea, unless he was her first husband.  Let me check.

[Later] He wasn’t.

But, regardless of who Laraine Day’s first husband was, Happy pulled a “Kenesaw Mountain Landis” (get ready for that phraseology to catch on like wild fire) and banned Durocher for the entirety of the 1947 season.  The Dodgers responded by getting to the World Series anyway.

But Happy’s biggest contribution was allowing Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball.  When you consider how heavily the owners were against the idea–they voted 15-1 against it in a secret vote, but were unable to submit this vote as any sort of authoritative decision because it was so secret–it seems amazing that the commissioner was all for it.  And partially thanks to Happy, in 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black player in professional baseball.

Four years later, Happy stopped being the commissioner of baseball.  You know how forgiving crazy, bigoted old white dudes can be.

Ford Frick (1951-1965)

As the National League president, Ford took the “suspension gun” that was originally unholstered by Kenesaw Mountain Landis and menaced several members of the St. Louis Cardinals with it.  They were hoping to protest Jackie Robinson’s debut by boycotting the game, but Ford managed to shut them the hell up.  This indicated to the owners and managers that he was able to run the whole league, so when Happy Chandler was shoved out, Ford took over and began immediately favoring the NL.

Oh, god forbid the NL gets some love for the first time in history.  If Ford had been not a corpse for the National League’s historic series of suckage in the All-Star Game he probably would have submitted some rule that the NL gets to start every mid-summer classic with five bonus runs and half the AL lineup has to come from who is currently on the disabled list.

Ford helped invent the Hall of Fame.  Then he tried to change history with an asterisk.  Then he left.

William Eckert (1965-1968)

Eckert was enjoying some tropical tennis in the warm glow of the Bahamas in 1971 when he fell over and died.

Before that, he was one of the most hated commissioners in baseball history.  The selection of the position has always reflected what sort of issues MLB happens to be facing at the time.  In 1965, it was business problems and Eckert, who had not personally witnessed a baseball game in about a decade, possessed the business sense the owners were looking for.

It seems hard to believe that there was no better common ground from which to find a candidate.  Especially since Eckert was chosen from a list of 150.  There seriously wasn’t a guy on that list who had similar knowledge of business practices, and had been to a baseball game in the last ten years?  That person didn’t exist in 1965?  A time when sitting at home and watching DVR or playing nine straight hours of Knights of the Old Republic wasn’t an option?

But Eckert had that shiny degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, and he was the youngest three-star officer in the Air Force. What could possibly go wro–well, just keep reading.

At least he was dedicated to getting baseball played, as no high profile murder seemed to stop him from allowing it, not Robert Kennedy’s, not Martin Luther King’s, not anybody’s.  Needless to say, Eckert was all but universally despised, and faced further disfavor when he was fairly lackadaisical about stopping a player’s strike.  He paraded the Dodgers through Japan in ’66 to increase international exposure, and did in fact create a solid business base for the game, but none of that stopped him from getting the axe in 1968.

Eckert’s career should be defined by his ability to be called out in a Peanuts cartoon.

TOMORROW: 1969 to the present–incompetence, cheating scandals, and tragedy; or, everything that makes baseball great.

You can track Justin down on That Balls Outta Here, Sports Talk Soup, or even Philthy Blog, but he’s a slippery character.  You can stay current on all the Call to the Pen content and news by following us on Twitter, Facebook, or by way of our RSS feed.