It was a hundred years ago this month that the 16 men who’d watched their sport, baseball, teeter on the brink of criminal extinction decided to create the commissioner’s office and hire a man named Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
From the start, Landis’ life had been a curious and quintessentially American tale. He was named for the Civil War battlefield in Cobb County, Ga. — which actually had a second “n” in the name — where his father had lost a leg in 1864, fighting for the Union.
He was appointed to the federal bench by President Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow Republican progressive, and though many of his higher profile verdicts were overturned on appeal, he was definitely colorful. Once, an elderly defendant pleaded with Landis that he would never live long enough to serve out the five-year prison term Landis had handed him.
“Do the best you can,” Landis replied.
As much as anything, what Landis brought to the job was one of the great scowls ever. It is rare to see a picture of Landis from those days in which he didn’t look like he was suffering from a terrible case of constipation. He could have been sitting on a sandy beach somewhere, sun on his face, feet in the ocean, cold beer in his hand, and he would wear a look like he had to ponder the meaning of life while eating gruel. This was one miserable-looking, one angry, one scowling cur of a man.
Which is just what baseball needed in November 1920. A season that had been ribboned with speculation about the White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series had culminated with eight Sox players being indicted by a Chicago grand jury (though they never were convicted of anything). Public confidence in the sport was at an all-time low. Gamblers, and gambling, had long been intertwined with the game, but folks had long been willing to look the other way — but not now.
Now a World Series had been lost on purpose.
Baseball needed a man with a scowl.
So it turned to Landis. The owners handed him the store and he took it, ruling absolutely for the next quarter century. He wasn’t always a model of righteousness — notably, he spent his entire commissionership enabling the “gentleman’s agreement” that kept the sport lily white until after his death. He picked needless fights with his own stars, trying to impede Babe Ruth — the game’s top drawing card and the main reason his sport was resuscitated from the darkness — from taking lucrative postseason barnstorming trips. He ruled with an iron fist. He held grudges.
But the sport has never been more unified, for better or worse. It probably wasn’t only the Scowl. But the Scowl didn’t hurt. Folks were damn intimidated by the scowl.
Rob Manfred doesn’t have a scowl. I’m not sure he’s terribly proficient at knock-knock jokes, either, but he surely does not exude the same vibe his hundred-year antecedent did. But in some ways he occupies the office at a similar moment of truth as the one when Landis took over.
The nature of the game has changed. The office isn’t nearly what it used to be. The last commissioner to hold absolute power was Peter Ueberroth, and he lasted only one term. Fay Vincent tried to rule that way and never even made it to the end of his term.
The commissioner is hired by the owners — as Landis was — but he also must answer to them, as Landis never had to. But the issues that threaten the game — while not as immediately ruinous as gambling in 1920 — need answers and resolutions, the kind a good commissioner should be able to solve.
Landis certainly would have handled the Astros situation a little … um, differently. He never could have imagined arm wrestling with a strong players union. And as we’ve mentioned, he wasn’t exactly a social-justice pioneer. As it happens, he is usually looked at as the best commissioner in the first 100 years of the office, and if any honor was ever given by default, that one was for sure. So as amazing as it sounds, the title is there for Manfred, if he wants it, if he can seize it. Baseball could really use a commissioner about whom, 50 years from now, people could look back and say: Thank goodness he was the man in charge.
Manfred has the job. And now he has the challenge. The first few chapters haven’t been great, but they don’t have to define him. Can he grow into what baseball needs from a leader?
For baseball’s sake it is the only way to root.
Not that there’s ever a bad reason to go back and read (or read for the very first time!) Adrian Wojnarowski’s “The Miracle of St. Anthony,” but if you’d like to get an understanding of Darren Erman, the Knicks’ new assistant coach, you’ll find it all in the pages of that timeless book.
Some more worthwhile holiday reading: “The Captain,” David Wright’s memoir written alongside Anthony DiComo, which is a wonderful reminder of a good man and a great career that was shortened by some cruel twists of fate. Excellent stuff.
Mike McCarthy’s name was floated for both the Jets and Giants jobs the past two years. Jets fans probably figure: would’ve been a push. Giants fans must feel like they ducked out of the way of a piano falling out of a window.
Look, I’m not going to be That Guy who says one of the greatest songs ever written isn’t a great song. It is. It is a great song. But “Yesterday” isn’t the best Beatles song, which is where it landed on the SiriusXM Beatles Channel countdown this weekend. It just isn’t. There are no wrong answers, of course, but my usual rotation of nominees for the top slot are “In My Life,” “Hey Jude” and “Let it Be.”
Whack Back at Vac
Ken Grabowski: Absolutely, you got it right, The Yankees are the Big Kahuna in New York City until they ain’t the Big Kahuna in New York City (Thanks for the help, Yogi).
Vac: They remain the Kahuna-est until further notice, for sure.
Christopher Quinn: Despite outspending every team in MLB over last 10 years , the Yankees have not won a World Series. They have used their financial advantage to win over the years, and now there is someone in MLB and NYC with more money than the Yankees. Let’s see who fares better over the next decade.
Vac: It is SO on … and this is going to be such a cool time to be a baseball fan in New York.
@brianmoran: I like the idea of the “We win/you lose” signings of Marcell Ozuna and JT Realmuto. Mets gain and the Braves/Phillies lose. The NL East will be the best, and toughest, division in MLB next year.
@MikeVacc: I suspect you like even better being able to ponder such a scenario with a straight face.
Alan Hirschberg: The Knicks are signing so many ex-CAA guys, I hear they just offered four years to Jed Lowrie.
Vac: That joke was out there for all of us to jump on, like one of those crazy fumbles that nobody can quite secure. Bravo Alan!
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