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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 324

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This is the grave of Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Born in 1866 in Millvale, Ohio to a doctor, Landis was named after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, where his father had been wounded a couple of years before. The spelling of that place was contested at the time and thus the difference between the battle and the boy’s name. They moved to Indiana soon after. Landis grew up there, became a bicycle racer and a baseball manager while working for the railroad. He entered Republican politics at a young age, supporting his friend when he ran for Secretary of State for Indiana in 1886. When he won, Landis got a civil service job. He decided to become an attorney at that time, which was easy to do in Indiana–you pretty much said that’s what you were, that you had good moral character, and proved that you were 21. Realizing that he needed an actual education to succeed after opening a practice that attracted no clients, he went to law school in the late 1880s at the YMCA Law School in Cincinnati, which is now part of Northern Kentucky University’s epic law school, which is clearly necessary for survival of the legal profession in this country. He got out of that quickly enough and transferred to Union Law (now part of Northwestern) and graduated from there in 1891. He practiced in Illinois and made lots of rich friends, figuring that the debt that required would pay off. And indeed it did.

In 1893, Grover Cleveland made Walter Gresham his Secretary of State. Gresham was a Republican, but they were close and he had supported Cleveland in 1892. Given that Cleveland is the ultimate DINO, this wasn’t too surprising. Anyway, Gresham had a young protege named Kennesaw Mountain Landis and the latter became the former’s personal secretary in Washington. Cleveland actually hated Landis and accused him of leaking that he wouldn’t annex Hawaii, demanding that Gresham fire him. But Gresham refused and said that Landis hadn’t done it. That was true, Cleveland felt bad, and in 1895, offered Landis the position as ambassador to Venezuela. He was still only 29 years old. But Landis turned it down and returned to Chicago to make money in the law. He did that well and then in 1905, Theodore Roosevelt named him to a district court seat.

Landis was a notorious showoff and blowhard as a judge, known for cheap theatrics over serious analysis. Yet, despite his corporate hack background, he began routinely ruling against corporate power, including in the legendary case against Standard Oil’s rebates that helped make Roosevelt’s trust-buster name. Landis fined the company the maximum of $29 million, the largest fine ever against a corporation at that time. John D. Rockefeller didn’t care one whit, knowing the Lochner-era Supreme Court would never accept this, which was correct. Nonetheless, this only added to Landis’ growing reputation.

That reputation grew even more during World War I when Landis was part and parcel of the crackdown against any sort of resistance to the war effort. He wanted to be sent to France, despite being 50 years old. That didn’t work out. He was the judge in many cases against war resisters and radicals. He tried 120 radicals from Peoria for resisting the draft and ordered 37 of them deported and the rest imprisoned. When trying Big Bill Haywood and other IWW members, Landis worked hard enough to create a fair trial for them that it even impressed Haywood, but the jury still found them guilty, which is what led Haywood to flee to the Soviet Union. As soon as those guilty verdicts were given, Landis ended that civility and sentenced them to up to 20 years in prison. In the aftermath, Landis called Haywood and other defendants “scum.” Landis also lobbied for Kaiser Wilhelm to be deported to the United States so he could personally be the judge ruling in a case for a dead American on the Lusitania. Finally, he continued through through the Red Scare, convicting Victor Berger, the socialist who was just elected to Congress, of violating the Espionage Act and sentencing him to 20 years. Landis was really mad when the Supreme Court threw this out in 1921 as the Red Scare subsided. And then when the Chicago building trades and construction companies couldn’t agree on a wage rate and went before Landis as an arbitrator, he ruled entirely in favor of the companies and ordered a 12.5% wage cut.

What Landis is of course really known for is his involvement in baseball. He always had a strong hostility to thinking about baseball players as labor. He was the judge in the 1915 case against the Federal League, which made AL and NL owners fearful of the fate of their beloved reserve clause that tied players to teams. Landis was completely dismissive of players’ arguments, but just delayed his ruling until the leagues could basically drive the Federal League out of existence. In 1919, as a result of the Black Sox scandal, the owners decided they needed a commissioner to discipline players and be a public face of the compromised game. Landis agreed–for a high salary and the inability of the owners to fire him or criticize him publicly. Basically, Landis made himself king of baseball. And of course, his first major act was banning the White Sox players for life, despite the widespread gambling throughout the game. He did continue to crack down on that, forcing John McGraw and Giants owner Charles Stoneham to sell a horse racing track in Havana he bought or be kicked out of baseball. Over the years, Landis banned 18 players for gambling. And as late as 1943, he banned the owner of the Phillies from the game for life for betting on his own team.

Landis also stopped Babe Ruth from engaging in barmstorming tours in the offseason, which many major leaguers did to make money since they made so little playing. Ruth did anyway after the 1921 season, but he was only suspended for about a month. Even Landis had his limits I guess. Like everything, Landis had a highly inconsistent record on race in baseball. He was seen by African-American newspapers as generally not terrible on race and they defended him in his controversies, but it’s pretty clear that Landis was not going to allow the desegregation of baseball on his watch. Overall, as hard as it is to pin down someone who acted on his whims like Landis, he was probably a pretty typical white guy of his era, which means pretty racist, although perhaps not Pitchfork Ben Tillman.

All of this led to a lot of criticism of Landis in the halls of power. In February 1921 Benjamin Welty, a congressman from Ohio, called for impeachment proceedings against him for being both an active judge and baseball commissioner. While the vile Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer didn’t support this (after all, both loved imprisoning commies), the House Judiciary Committee voted 24-1 to investigate him. While nothing really came of it, Landis’ continued showboating and controversial decisions, this time a case where Landis let a bank teller who admitted embezzling nearly $100,000 off scot free because he thought the bank should have paid him more, led Landis to be censured by the American Bar Association. Landis could have easily used this logic for Shoeless Joe Jackson, but of course he did not. In short, Landis was moved primarily by publicity and whatever he felt at the time rather than any particularly ideology. He liked power and he liked himself. Finally, he resigned from being a judge in 1922.

In 1944, Landis received another 7-year term as commissioner from the owners. But he then died almost immediately, which makes sense as he was 78 years old.

Kennesaw Mountain Landis is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit some of the people Landis banned from baseball, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Shoeless Joe Jackson is in Greenville, South Carolina and Eddie Cicotte is in Livonia, Michigan. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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