Following years of war and with rapidly changing political ideologies and technologies, Americans find themselves desperate for integrity in their institutions. With so much change occurring many seek hope and place their faith in those things that are quintessentially American. Instead they receive scandal and corruption and the entire institution appears ready to collapse under the weight of public mistrust and its own hubris. This is not a vague description of modern government but rather a non-descript rundown of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.
This event might not be widely known today but a century ago it was a scandal that rocked the nation. The heavily favored Chicago White Sox were expected to defeat the Cincinnati Reds but the Reds shocked the sporting world by upsetting the White Sox five games to three (from 1919 to 1921 the World Series was a best of nine series). Immediately, speculation began to swirl in gambling circles that the White Sox threw the series. It wasn’t until a year later when rumors of a fixed game between the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Athletics (long before the A’s eventual move to Oakland) led to the empanelment of a grand jury to investigate gambling in baseball. White Sox stars Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte were called before the jury and gave statements incriminating themselves and six other teammates. Lefty Williams and Happy Flesch were then called and incriminated themselves and their teammates further. The eight players as well as five gamblers were indicted leading to a chaotic trial where evidence, including signed confessions by Cicotte and Jackson, went missing, and ultimately led to a jury finding the accused not guilty. Regardless of the individual outcome of the trial the entire affair was a nationwide scandal that threatened the credibility of the game of baseball.
The Chicago Black Sox
That final fact was what prompted the major league owners to seek out changes to how the game was to be governed. Until that point, baseball was overseen by a National Commission consisting of the presidents of the American and National Leagues as well as the owner of the Cincinnati Reds. Before the Black Sox scandal had even hit, the Commission was in deadlock with the resignation of the Reds owner. After it hit, wholesale change was sought. National League president John Heydler stated “We want a man as chairman who will rule with an iron hand … Baseball has lacked a hand like that for years. It needs it now worse than ever. Therefore, it is our object to appoint a big man to lead the new commission.” This desire for change led the owners to set to their sights on a flamboyant federal judge in Chicago named Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Enter The Mountain
Landis was born in Ohio in 1866 and named after the Civil War battle in which his father was wounded. After bouncing around Indiana for many years he attended Union College of Law and subsequently opened a legal practice in Chicago. His connections in politics landed him a position with the Secretary of State’s office and he was offered an ambassadorship which he ultimately refused in order to return to Chicago and the practice of law. After ten years of private practice, Landis was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to be the judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Landis’ chaotic court and personality quickly brought him national attention. He fined Standard Oil of Indiana an incredible $29 million in 1907 and presided over several trials of World War I draft dodgers and socialists that captured front page stories across the country. In helping to determine his sentence against Standard Oil, Landis subpoenaed John D. Rockefeller to his court. U.S. marshals had to conduct a veritable nationwide search to serve notice to the tycoon and the day Rockefeller came to testify mobs pressed into the courtroom and one of the richest men in the country was forced to wait through several cases before his turn to testify. When Landis laid down the maximum sentence against Standard Oil the judge was declared a national hero and President Roosevelt is reported to have stated “That’s Bully!” Landis came onto major league baseball’s radar in 1915 when he presided over an anti-trust lawsuit brought by the new Federal League against the National and American Leagues. After trial, Landis withheld ruling for nearly a year forcing the parties to settle and the Federal League to eventually disband. Many believe had Landis provided a ruling he would have sided with the Federal League.
Court sketch of Judge Landis on the bench while the wealthiest man in America gave testimony.
Landis’ public name and previous dealings with baseball brought the major league owners to his court to offer him the position of sole and ultimate commissioner of baseball. The owners were forced to wait 45 minutes in the back of Landis’ courtroom while he completed his docket before he met with them in his chambers. After some convincing, and with assurances that he could keep his position on the bench, he took the job with extensive powers over the game and an agreement by the owners that they could not remove him, lower his pay, or even criticize him in public.
The Judge Throws The Book
Landis took over the commissionership as the problem-plagued criminal trial for the White Sox Eight was taking place. When “not guilty” verdicts were returned for all the players they partied into the night expecting their baseball careers to resume without issue. On August 3, 1921 the new commissioner issued a statement:
“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball. Of course, I don’t know that any of these men will apply for reinstatement, but if they do, the above are at least a few of the rules that will be enforced. Just keep in mind that, regardless of the verdict of juries, baseball is competent to protect itself against crooks, both inside and outside the game.”
To Landis, the simple fact that the men met and discussed throwing the series, even if a court of law found that they were not guilty of such act, was enough for banishment. The ban for all eight White Sox players stands to this very day.
To repair the damage of the Black Sox scandal, Landis could not focus on the players alone, he had to maintain the image that baseball took cleaning itself up seriously. In 1921 the owner and manager of the New York Giants purchased a horse racing track in Cuba. Landis told them they could be involved in baseball or horse racing but not both causing them to quickly sell the track. Several other attempts by players to collude and throw games results in more banishments. Before long, Landis’ reputation and the lingering reality that the White Sox eight were not returning to baseball anytime soon led to players snitching on others that proposed gambling. Even late into his years, in 1943, he banned William Cox, an owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, for betting on his own team. Cox was forced to sell his stake in the team. To this day Landis’ fierce protection of the integrity of the game is still seen. Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader, remains banned from baseball for betting on Reds games as a manager. Numerous baseball stars from the 1990’s and 2000’s are effectively shut out of the Hall of Fame for alleged steroids use.
Judge Landis presided over the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and the game of baseball.
Ultimately Landis’ brilliant logic was that no player was greater than the game. In order to save the institution of baseball the focus of the game had to be on the game itself. No one, not Shoeless Joe Jackson, the owners, or even Babe Ruth, could be stronger than the game in order for the game to recover and maintain its integrity. This must be true of our political institutions as well. No president, no legislator, no executive, agency head, corporate executive, or small time citizen can be bigger than the institution in order for it to survive and thrive.
Unfortunately, a Landisian solution to modern political problems leads to a situation where it cannot matter if your name is Honest Abe Lincoln or Tricky Dick Nixon. Any and all politicians must be scrutinized under strict scrutiny because of the era in which they live, no different than the stars of the 1910’s played in an era of collusion and gambling or the stars of the 1990’s played in the steroids era. For every Craig Biggio and Ken Griffey Jr, who are generally considered clean players from their era, there is a Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds whose alleged steroid use defines the era and taints the integrity of the game. Unfortunately for today’s politicians who are clean and wish to make a difference, public outcry for this period is so great that this political period will be defined by corruption and sclerotic operation.
Applying a zero tolerance policy regarding any sense of impropriety to the political class would be no different than similar policies applied by private companies and public education. Unlike such policies in schools which often fail due to their lack of nuance, the lack of nuance would serve a greater good in returning integrity to governance the same way it helped baseball. Surely there would be innocent casualties as there are among student bodies and even were in the Black Sox Scandal in the form of Buck Weaver. Weaver attended the meeting where throwing the series was discussed but that was the extent of his involvement and much debate has occurred in the succeeding century about the actual involvement of the rest of the players. At the end of the day, allowing an inch of empathy and nuance for the benefit of the individual would have ended up damaging the reputation of the whole. Landis didn’t banish the White Sox eight from the game because he was cruel, he did it because even the perception that these men were a cancer would be enough to erode public trust in baseball. It didn’t matter if the crime was true or not, what mattered was the public perception in trust in the institution. Unlike a zero tolerance policy in a public school, an institution designed to benefit the individuals, in politics and governance the institution matters more than the individuals. Ultimately baseball is bigger than the players. The goal for our government should be that its integrity is more important than the elected officials individually. Our political system must be more important than the individuals in it.
Of course in any criminal cases the individual should be entitled to full due process and presumed innocent to be proven guilty. Elected positions are not entitled rights but privileges that are designed for turnover. There is also the question of what is improper and what constitutes an allegation. Would any Democrat be able to allege a Republican politician took a bribe and they lose their position? This creates an untenable system where any allegation is met with disproportionate force. At the same time much of what appears to a layperson to be bribery or corruption is actually perfectly legal. American tax, banking and campaign finance laws are so pockmarked and convoluted that a wholesale system rebuild is about the only true fix left that could solve the problems at hand. It should come as a shock to no one that such a rebuild is effectively impossible. To take an example from this election cycle, the appearance of Donald Trump giving well-timed donations to various state attorney general races while the attorneys general debate whether or not to bring indictments or continue investigations into Trump University, and then the attorneys general backing off shortly thereafter, screams impropriety. This goes hand in hand with all of the pay-to-play allegation surrounding the Clinton Foundation. In the realm of common sense, these actions and many others that have been reported over the recent years, are prima facie improper. However, they are legal and this constitutes a major problem. Enacting a wholesale rebuild is a political impossibility at this time but perhaps lawmakers and elected officials could subscribe to the same standard other professionals must adhere to. It is often far easier for a licensed professional to have their license revoked and be suspended or expelled from a profession for an ethics violation than it is for them to commit a crime so egregious that it results in jail time. This is a standard that already exists for lobbyists and some elected professionals but enforcement and consistency of rules leaves much to be desired.
Lastly, there is the reality that much of why baseball was able to be cleaned up was because of Landis himself and his ultimate power. Landis obtaining 100 percent control from the owners is very similar to citizenry charging a single individual with ultimate political control. This is often why dictators and tyrants take control in periods of chaos and lack of public trust in their institutions. Dictators do not take control despite massive public opposition, they are often ushered into control on the shoulders of a public desperate for change and leadership. Landis was a dictator for the game of baseball but ultimately this was a good thing because he ruled effectively, relatively fairly, and, at the end of the day, baseball is just a game.
Charging another individual with the same capacity that Landis had to oversee a rebuilding of American government is no different than ushering in a dictator to power. The problem is the United States is not a game. Zero tolerance policies and imposition of ethical boundaries would do wonders for restoring integrity and trust to the government, but enforcement and implementation are big question marks. In baseball those questions were answered with Landis. They will not be so easily answered from a national perspective.