Kenesaw Mountain Landis, first baseball commissioner, faces impeachment

Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, started with a mountain of work.

When team owners hired him to run the sport in 1920, Landis was a federal judge in Chicago. He decided to accept the new position without leaving the bench, which resulted in a impeachment effort in Congress and a censure from the American Bar Association.

“What prevents [baseball owners] to go to the Supreme Court now and hire all the members of the judiciary? fumed Representative Benjamin Welty (D-Ohio) at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in 1921. “I think it affects the very soul of this government.”

Among other allegations, Welty’s impeachment resolution accused Landis of neglecting his official duties for outside gainful employment. Welty continued with the impeachment effort even though Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had concluded, in an opinion requested by Welty, that Landis was within the law in holding both positions.

Landis continued double duty for about 14 months before resigning as a judge under political pressure in 1922. The saga led directly to the first-ever code of judicial conduct, which continues to govern the professional behavior of judges to this day. .

A century later, some members of Congress are again seeking to strengthen judicial ethics – this time urging Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to commit to adopting a “binding code of conduct” for the Supreme Court. The campaign stems from Washington Post reporting on efforts by conservative activist Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to pressure White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to attempt to cancel the 2020 elections.

With a mop of white hair, Landis was just 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. But “he was a towering figure in the federal bench,” Shirley Povich wrote in a 1940 Washington Post profile, “the nation’s most spectacular legal light, his integrity unchallenged, his searing Americanism unchallenged.”

Appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, Landis was a Republican trustbuster in the mold of Roosevelt. In 1907, the judge fined John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. $29.2 million for accepting illegal discounts from the Chicago & Alton Railroad – the largest fine in history at the era. The decision was overturned on appeal.

But when the Federal League, a short-lived baseball league that sought to challenge MLB, sued the majors for monopolizing baseball in 1914 and the case ended up before Landis — six years before he became commissioner – the judge seemed reluctant to extend his antitrust zeal to baseball. He said from the bench that “any blow to … baseball would be considered by this court to be a blow to a national institution.” The case was settled before Landis could make a decision.

In November 1920, a group of baseball owners entered Landis’ Chicago courtroom during a corruption trial, intent on offering him the best job in the sport. The judge stared at them and brought down his gavel. “There will be less noise in this courtroom!” he barked.

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When the judge learned of the purpose of their visit, he had the owners escorted to his office, where he made them wait 45 minutes.

Landis’ impertinence did not cost him the gig. The baseball owners offered him $50,000 a year, or about $735,000 in today’s dollars. At Landis’ request, they reduced that salary from the $7,500 he earned as a judge.

The big leagues turned to Landis because they were desperate for an iron-fisted leader to clean up the sport after the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, in which White Sox players were accused of starting the World Series in exchange for bribes. Landis ended up banning eight players for life, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, even though they had just been acquitted in a trial in Chicago.

“Landis appointed dictator”, the The New York Times screamed in a front-page headline on November 13, 1920. After Landis initially expressed reluctance to quit his judgeship, the owners suggested he do both jobs, meaning “the eminent jurist will also continue to sow terror in the hearts of criminals by retaining his position as a federal judge,” the Times reported.

He told his friend Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, “Grif, we have to keep baseball high for the sake of young people – that’s why I took the job, because I want to help. “

But some on Capitol Hill didn’t view Landis’ motives so purely, and his moonlighting for MLB wasn’t their only objection. His handling of a 1921 case involving a 19-year-old bank teller who stole $96,000 from his employer just months after becoming commissioner also angered them.

In that case, Landis – who was known to question witnesses – asked the young scofflaw, Francis Carey, what his salary had been. Ninety dollars a month, Carey replied.

“It’s a shame,” Landis said. “I don’t know how the directors of a bank expect their employees to remain honest when they pay them such low salaries. You can go home and stay there until I send for you.

On February 14, 1921, Senator Nathaniel Dial (DS.C.) called Landis’ comment “the most Bolshevik doctrine I have ever heard.” On the same day, Welty submitted his impeachment resolution. Dial supported the impeachment, deriding Landis as a “monster” and a “crank”.

“If his mind is on baseball, he can’t serve as a judge,” Dial said. “It’s below the dignity of the court. It brings discredit to the courts.

The impeachment resolution implied that holding both jobs could present a conflict of interest, as “the impression will prevail that gambling and other illegal acts in baseball will not be punished in public as in other places.” other cases”.

Landis took the attacks in stride.

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“Let the boys soap up nicely,” he said, insisting he wasn’t worried about the impeachment effort. “Why, I’m not more interested in that than the bellhop meeting at that hotel across the street.”

The House Judiciary Committee abandoned the impeachment effort in April, but a few months later, in September 1921, the ABA adopted a resolution concluding that Landis’ decision to accept private employment as a judge “responds to our unqualified condemnation as conduct unbecoming of the office of judge, derogatory to the dignity of the judiciary and undermining public confidence in the independence of the judiciary”.

Landis continued to dig. “I can give up, but I won’t give up under fire,” he said.

Finally, on February 18, 1922, Landis announced he was resigning from the benchfrom March 1.

“There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to deal with the courtroom and the various other jobs I’ve had,” he told reporters. “I will devote my attention in the future entirely to baseball.” He complained of having to get up at 5 a.m. every day and often skipping lunch.

“His resignation removes from the federal bench one of the most feared and at the same time one of the most respected judges in the country,” concluded the New York Times.

Driven by the Landis case, the ABA in 1922 appointed a judicial ethics committee, chaired by Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the former president, to draft a code of judicial ethics. In 1924, the ABA adopted its first such code, directing judges not to hold positions that would interfere with their judicial duties.

Although Landis had to give up his coveted spot on the federal bench, he never lost the title. Until his death in 1944, newspaper headlines across the country often referred to him as “Judge Landis”, in keeping with his unyielding style as a commissioner.


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