By Glen Sparks
Goodbye, Judge. Hello, Happy.
On this date in 1945, Baseball owners voted for Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler to take over as the game’s second-ever commissioner. The first, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a former federal judge, died on Nov. 20, 1944.
Landis, famous for his thick set of wavy white hair and near-absolute authority, served the game for nearly a quarter century. Owners appointed him in 1920 to fix baseball’s ills following the Black Sox scandal. The Chicago White Sox (or, the Black Sox) threw the 1919 Series for money. Landis kicked the dirty players out of baseball.
The Judge, as people called him (Some called him the Squire.), cracked down on gambling, fought with Babe Ruth and kept baseball going even after the U.S. went to war on Dec. 7, 1941. “We’ll play as long as we can put nine men on the field,” Landis said as spring training began.
Landis’ death at age 78 left a void. His biographer, J.G. Taylor Spink, wrote that “[Landis] may have been arbitrary, self-willed and even unfair, but he ‘called ’em as he saw ’em.’”
Enter Happy Chandler. Or, as he was known as at the time of the owner’s vote, U.S. Sen. Chandler, D-Ky., formerly the governor of that commonwealth. The Chandler name, though. did not appear on the initial voting ballot. (Candidates included National League President Ford Frick, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and several others.)
No candidate could get the needed two/thirds vote. Finally, the owners added Chandler’s name to the mix and quickly found the next head of major league baseball. (Many owners liked Happy’s D.C. connections.) And, the controversies began almost right away. Chandler stayed in the Senate for several months, supposedly so he could vote on some important impending bills. He didn’t really take over as commissioner until Nov. 1, missing out on the World Series.
Writers and other sophisticates also didn’t care for Chandler’s folksy manner. He liked to tell country stories and sing My Old Kentucky Home in front of audiences big and small. Chandler was a “Kentucky windbag,” some said.
But, in the spring of 1947, Chandler did the right thing. He did something the powerful Judge Landis could never do. Landis said during his tenure that “signing black players is all right with me.” But, it never happened. Some critics still blame Landis for keeping the majors an all-white league for nearly half the 20th century.
Branch Rickey formally signed Jackie Robinson on Nov. 1, 1945, about six months into Chandler’s tenure and nearly one year after Landis’ death. Rickey signed the future No. 42 to a big-league contract just before the 1947 season. Chandler could have voided the contract; it was within his power. Instead, he supported the integration of baseball.
Chandler’s tenure as commissioner lasted just one term, about six years. He later ran for and won a second term as Kentucky governor from 1955-59. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, he died June 15, 1991, age 92.
Don Newcombe, one of the early African-American players, explained the legacy of Happy Chandler. The commissioner from Kentucky, Newcombe said in an article about Chandler on the Hall of Fame web site, cared about black players “when it wasn’t fashionable.”