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A look at the 10 MLB Commissioners and how the role has changed over time, part 1

Beginning a five-part series on baseball’s titular head.

Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis throws out a first pitch in 1926
Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is a polarizing figure in baseball. While he’s undoubtedly pleased his bosses — team owners — most fans detest him.

I’ve stated here on a number of occasions that I think Manfred doesn’t really like baseball. I want to take the opportunity here to clarify that. Obviously, getting into Manfred’s head about whether he does or doesn’t like the sport is impossible. What I think seems clear is that he doesn’t understand the modern baseball fan. At the news conference he held announcing that some 2022 regular season games would be cancelled, Manfred said:

“The concern about our fans is at the very top of our consideration list.”

I do not believe this to be true and I don’t think anyone does. What appears to be at the top of Manfred’s list is making as much money as possible for team owners. Further, I’m not the only one who has hinted Manfred doesn’t care much for the sport:

In a recent column on Manfred in The Athletic, [Ken] Rosenthal wrote some of the most telling words about the current state of the game: “The owners are so intent on a zero-sum victory, so cavalier about the possibility of missing games, they do not even care how fans might interpret their actions.”

Ditto for Manfred.

And how can we forget Manfred’s bright, shining moment when he called the World Series Trophy — known officially as The Commissioner’s Trophy — a “piece of metal.” Three-time World Series champion Jon Lester responded with fire.

“That’s somebody that has never played our game. You play for a reason, you play for that piece of metal. I’m very proud of the three that I have,” Lester said. “If that’s the way he feels, then he needs to take his name off the trophy.”

Another hint is in this article by Buster Olney, who has often been on ownership’s side:

After the next labor deal is made, he needs to mingle with the players, listen to their feedback and do a better job at connecting with them. There is a strong perception among players that Manfred and those who work on his negotiating team don’t really like baseball, and that they don’t care about the players. As best he can, Manfred needs to hit that head on. He can’t allow his frustration with the union leadership impact his conversations with players. This might mean less golf and more time around the batting cages.

What I propose to do in this series is to take a brief look at the 10 men who have held the position of MLB Commissioner and how that job and role and its perception have changed in the 100+ years since it was created.

First, a quick note on the title “Commissioner.” It seems odd at first. Why not “President”? Just what “commission” is this individual heading?

When the National League and American League made peace in 1903 — before that they were bitter rivals, occasionally poaching players from each other — a three-person National Commission was created to help oversee the leagues and administer things such as fines and suspensions. The three people were the two league presidents and a chairperson. As noted on baseball-reference.com:

The Commission was plagued with problems as many of its members were often club presidents while they held their post on the body. This often raised suspicions of conflicts of interest and that self-interest influenced some of its decisions.

The Commission members were as follows:

August Herrmann (chairperson); 1903 to 1920
Ban Johnson (AL); 1903 to 1920
Harry Pulliam (NL); 1903 to 1909
John Heydler (NL); 1909
Thomas Lynch (NL); 1910 to 1913
John K. Tener (NL); 1913 to 1918
John Heydler (NL); 1918 to 1920

Anyway, that’s the origin of the term “Commissioner,” which is now the official title of the head of not only baseball, but all the North American professional sports.

It wasn’t just the conflicts of interest and similar things that led to the demise of the National Commission; the gambling scandals that peaked with the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 forced MLB owners to realize that they needed one independent-minded person to lead all of baseball. That led to the hiring of (dates in parentheses are the years in office)...

Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1920-44)

Landis was hired to clean up the Black Sox scandal and other gambling issues in baseball, and that led to his ruling that “no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball,” a rule which still is in effect. Landis knew that this had to be done in order to restore baseball’s reputation with the general public.

Then, Landis set to molding the Commissioner’s office in his own image. From Wikipedia, which describes Landis as “an ardent baseball fan”:

The owners had initially assumed that Landis would deal with the Black Sox Scandal and then settle into a comfortable retirement as the titular head of baseball. Instead, Landis ruled baseball with an iron hand for the next 25 years. He established a fiercely independent Commissioner’s Office that would go on to often make both players and owners miserable with decisions that he argued were in the best interests of the game. He worked to clean up the hooliganism that was tarnishing the reputation of players in the 1920s and inserted his office into negotiations with players, where he deemed appropriate, to end a few of the labor practices that had contributed to the players’ discontent. He also personally approved broadcasters for the World Series.

This is the image I think some fans still have of the Commissioner, or at least what he should be: An iron-fisted man who will work only for the “best interests of baseball,” no matter what those are or whose feet he might step on while he’s doing it.

Landis died in November 1944. To this day he’s the longest-serving Commissioner. Incidentally, while Landis was Commissioner the league office was headquartered at 333 N. Michigan Ave. in Chicago.

A. B. “Happy” Chandler, 1945-51

The office of Commissioner was vacant for several months while owners went through several candidates including J. Edgar Hoover (!) and the favorite, then-National League President Ford Frick. Chandler was suggested as a candidate by Yankees co-owner Larry MacPhail and Giants owner Horace Stoneham and was elected in April 1945. Chandler, who had been governor of Kentucky, was then a U.S. senator from Kentucky and remained in the Senate until November of that year.

One of the first key rulings by Chandler was the suspension of Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for the entire 1947 season for associating with gamblers.

And the most important thing that happened under Chandler’s commissionership was the opening of baseball to Black players, first with Jackie Robinson in 1947. Despite it being the right thing to do, this was likely the reason Chandler was not elected to a second term by owners in 1951. Chandler told Dodgers GM Branch Rickey:

I’ve already done a lot of thinking about this whole racial situation in our country. As a member of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, I got to know a lot about our casualties during the war. Plenty of Negro boys were willing to go out and fight and die for this country. Is it right when they came back to tell them they can’t play the national pastime? You know, Branch, I’m going to have to meet my Maker some day. And if He asks me why I didn’t let this boy play, and I say it’s because he’s black, that might not be a satisfactory answer.

If the Lord made some people black, and some white, and some red or yellow, he must have had a pretty good reason. It isn’t my job to decide which colors can play big league baseball. It is my job to see that the game is fairly played and that everybody has an equal chance. I think if I do that, I can face my Maker with a clear conscience.

Chandler was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 and died in 1991.

Tomorrow: Beginning to move into modern times.