The Judge Who Ruled Baseball

For nearly 25 years, Kenesaw Mountain Landis imposed his iron will on every facet of the game

Back when baseball was widely considered a pastime and not a business, when fans wore fedoras instead of baseball caps and players had nicknames like Lefty and Pepper, the game’s integrity came to rest with a single man. Hired off the federal bench to be baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis would become the court of last resort, from the seasons of a young Babe Ruth to the days of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. By 1920, the club owners who hired Landis — Comiskey, Ebbets and Griffith, to name a few — were desperate to clean up the national game, which for years had been plagued with gambling scandals and sagging attendance.

They picked the right man. Landis loved baseball. "It is a great game this baseball — a great game," he declared. And he hated gamblers. They were bent on getting "their slimy fingers around baseball," he said. "But by God, so long as I have anything to do with this game, they’ll never get another hold on it." Landis demanded and got absolute power from the owners. He could not be fired, docked in pay or criticized in public. He had the authority to investigate anything "suspected to be detrimental to the interests of the national game," and he never hesitated to use that authority.

"The judge," as he was known to fans and players alike, lived in elite hotels, dining from room service, yet he chewed tobacco like a slugger and swore like a sailor. With his perpetual scowl and bold shock of white hair, he looked like "God in a three-piece suit," according to author Bruce Watson. He was baseball’s first commissioner, but he was also the last to enjoy so much power and authority that some still refer to him as "the only successful dictator in American history."