Judge Landis: The colorful, controversial Chicagoan who saved baseball

August 22, 2011

He might be the most famous Chicago judge ever. And he was certainly the only one named after a mountain.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis was born in small-town Ohio in 1866, and grew up in small-town Indiana. His unique name came from the place in Georgia where his father lost a leg in a Civil War battle.

Our man Landis never finished high school, but managed to earn a law degree--scholastic requirements were looser then. In 1891, he opened a corporate practice in Chicago.

Time marched on. Landis married, started raising a family, made some money and made some connections in Republican politics. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt named him to the federal bench.

The new judge saw himself as a progressive reformer of the Roosevelt school. So when Standard Oil was found guilty of shady practices, Landis hit the company with a $29 million fine--the equivalent of $600 million today. The fine was later tossed out.

The Standard Oil case neatly sums up Landis as a judge. He didn't always follow accepted procedures, and was often over-ruled. At the same time, he made a lot of noise and got a lot of publicity.

He could be completely arbitrary. On one occasion, Landis freed an 18-year-old messenger who'd stolen $750,000 in bonds. The judge said the men who trusted a teenager with so much money should be the ones sent to jail.

Yet another time, he couldn't decide on how long a jail term to give a convicted swindler. Glancing up, Landis noticed that the clock read 4:30. "Court sentences the defendant to four-and-a-half years," he decreed.

Baseball's First Czar

In 1920, news of the Black Sox scandal rocked the nation. Eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series - and baseball club owners needed to do something to restore public trust.

Bringing in an outsider to clean house seemed the best solution. Landis was a household name and had a reputation for flinty integrity. Besides, he was a baseball fan. The owners offered him a job as the sport's first Commissioner.

Landis accepted - on condition he have total, "czar-like" authority. The owners agreed.

He spent his first years marking his turf. The Black Sox players went on trial in criminal court and were acquitted. Landis banned them from baseball anyway. When Babe Ruth made an unsanctioned exhibition tour, the Commissioner gave baseball's biggest star a six-week suspension.

Landis also exiled other, lesser-known players. He voided contracts he didn't like. He did many high-handed things that he couldn't get away with today.

But the public supported Landis. With his white hair and craggy face, he looked like a prophet come down from the mountain--perhaps the mountain called Kenesaw--carrying the Tablets of the Law. The crisis passed. The public again trusted baseball.

And Landis had saved the game.

In 1920, when he took over, only one pro sport rivaled baseball in popularity: boxing. Since then, boxing has continued to suffer scandals, and is now dismissed by much of the public. Without Landis, the same thing might have happened to baseball.

The one thing a modern fan seems to know about Landis is that he supposedly kept black players out of the major leagues. This is based on stories later told by two prominent baseball men--after Landis was dead, and couldn't refute them. If Landis really was guilty as charged, no smoking gun has yet been found.

He carried baseball through depression and world war. During these years, Landis lived in a suite at the Ambassador East. Early in 1944, he moved out of the hotel and bought a house in Glencoe, near his adult children.

That fall Landis entered St. Luke's Hospital. The public was told he had a severe cold. But he'd also had a heart attack, and his condition deteriorated.

He died on November 25, 1944. Landis was not a religious man, and his body was immediately cremated without ceremony. Today his ashes rest at Oak Woods Cemetery.