75th Anniversary of the Commissioner's Office

After three years of Acting-Commissioner-for-Life Bud Selig, fans may have forgotten that Major League Baseball once had an elected Commissioner with broad theoretical authority. The owners of major league franchises would like to forget that those Commissioners once had broad practical authority, sometimes acting in "the best interest of baseball" even when that didn't coincide with their employers' immediate desires. With many Congressmen suggesting that baseball's continued antitrust exemption may hinge on the appointment of an independent commissioner, it's worth reviewing how the Commissioner's Office came into existence.

Since the AL-NL peace treaty of 1903, MLB had been governed by a National Commission consisting of AL President Ban Johnson, Cincinnati Reds President Garry Herrmann, who served as Chairman of the Commission, and a succession of ineffectual NL Presidents. Although as a National Leaguer, Herrmann might have been expected to favor teams in his own league, his years as Ban Johnson's drinking buddy often swayed him toward the junior circuit. But the National Commission functioned with little controversy until a series of decisions from 1915-19 threatened to blow the majors apart.

First, Herrmann's 1915 vote to award future Hall of Famer George Sisler to the St. Louis Browns over the Pittsburgh Pirates caused Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss to demand that Herrmann be replaced by an independent, neutral Chairman. Dreyfuss continued his campaign over the ensuing years, noting the problems inherent in allowing an executive of one club to rule on matters affecting its competitors. Tensions rose in 1918, when after the Commission awarded pitcher Scott Perry to the Braves over the Athletics, Philadelphia obtained an injunction to block the transfer. Many National League owners blamed Johnson for encouraging the lawsuit, and National League president John Tener resigned from the Commission in disgust, but with the American League backing Johnson, the 1918-19 off-season produced an uneasy truce. At the January 16, 1919 winter meetings, the National League voted 6-2 for a one-man Commission headed by a neutral party, while the American League voted 6-2 to continue the existing Commission. As a result, the two leagues agreed to search for a new Chairman while Herrmann remained in the position on an interim basis.

The truce was shattered in the middle of the 1919 season. After Red Sox pitcher Carl Mays jumped the team on July 13, the Red Sox traded him to the Yankees for two lesser pitchers and $40,000. Johnson reacted by suspending Mays indefinitely for contract jumping; the Yankees responded with an injunction requiring Johnson to let him play. The Yankees and Red Sox became Johnson's sworn enemies, joining White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who had previously fallen out with Johnson. Since by quirk of the league's rotating governance, these teams then controlled three of the four seats on the American League's Board of Directors, the Board was in revolt against both the league president and a majority of AL teams.

At the January, 1920 winter meetings, the National League forced Herrmann off the National Commission by forcing him to choose between the Commission and the Reds. AL owners resolved their own dispute at Ban Johnson's expense, ordering Mays reinstated and appointing Jake Ruppert of the Yankees and Clark Griffith of the Senators to review all penalties and suspensions of more than 10 days. But the two leagues could not agree on Herrmann's replacement as Chairman of the National Commission. Their five finalists included Judge Landis, already a favorite of Organized Baseball for stalling the Federal League's antitrust suit long enough for the league to fold; his fellow Chicagoan Harvey Woodruff, sports editor of the Chicago Tribune; as well as New Yorkers William H. Edwards, NL attorney J. Conway Toole and State Senator (later Mayor) James J. Walker. As a result of the stalemate, the National Commission had only two members when the greatest scandal in baseball history erupted.

Rumors that the 1919 World Series was fixed were circulating even before the Series began. The National Commission's response, or lack thereof, underscored its deficiencies. White Sox owner Comiskey refused to take his suspicions to his enemy Ban Johnson, who initially dismissed them as "the yelp of a beaten cur." He couldn't bring them to chairman Herrmann, the president of the opposing club. The only available Commissioner, NL president John Heydler lacked the incentive or jurisdiction to pursue charges involving an American League team. When the Black Sox scandal exploded onto the front pages in the closing days of the 1920 season, Organized Baseball at last realized that something had to be done, and soon.

But what? The National League unified behind the "Lasker Plan," proposed by a Chicago advertising executive who held a small stake in the Cubs. The Lasker Plan would replace the National Commission with a three-man board of eminent citizens with no prior connection to baseball. This board would have total authority over every aspect of Organized Baseball: players, managers, umpires and even clubowners. The October 21, 1920 Sporting News identified the front-runners for this three-man board as Judge Landis, General John J. Pershing, and Senator Hiram Johnson of California. A majority of American League teams rejected the Lasker Plan, citing the folly of putting their entire industry under the control of men with no experience in the field, but the three anti-Johnson owners embraced it as a means to free themselves from Johnson's yoke.

On November 8, 1920, the Red Sox, Yankees and White Sox declared war on Ban Johnson and their AL colleagues. They joined the eight NL clubs to announce the formation of a new 12-team league under the Lasker Plan, with Judge Landis to serve as chairman of the new governing tribunal. The new National-American League promised to allow the minor leagues to nominate one of the two remaining members of the new Commission. Forced to choose between loyalty to Ban Johnson and a potentially ruinous civil war, the "Loyal Five" AL owners cast Johnson aside, voting on November 12 to accept Landis as Commissioner. Landis accepted the job later that day, then spent the next two months dictating his own job description to the owners.

When Landis formally assumed the Commissionership on January 12, 1921, the three-person Commission had been scrapped. The owners allowed -- indeed encouraged -- Landis to remain on the federal bench while serving as Commissioner, deducting his $7,500 judge's salary from the Commissioner's $50,000 annual stipend. (Landis ultimately resigned the bench in early 1922, bowing to withering criticism from the bar and the press, as well as the threat of impeachment.) Key provisions of the new Agreement:

Landis ruled Organized Baseball with an iron fist until his death in December 1944. Five months later Senator Albert B. "Happy" Chandler was named to a seven-year term. But the owners changed the rules to require a three-fourths majority to elect a Commissioner: after only a 9-7 majority of owners voted to renew his contract, Chandler resigned effective July 15, 1951. According to the 1952 Sporting News Guide, the five finalists to replace Chandler were NL president Ford Frick, Reds president Warren Giles, Penn State president and future First Brother Milton Eisenhower, Gov. Frank Lausche of Ohio (a former minor league player) and General Douglas MacArthur. As MacArthur had just been relieved of command in Korea for refusing to follow direct orders from President Truman, the mind reels to imagine his reaction to accepting dictation from the owners -- but fortunately for their blood pressure, they opted for career yes-man Ford Frick. Except for the Ueberroth era, when the owners again sought someone to save them from themselves, the Commissioners since Frick have largely been independent in name only.

Copyright © 1995 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the Fall 1995 issue of Outside the Lines, the SABR Business of Baseball Committee newsletter.

Back to Doug's Outside the Lines feature index

Back to Doug's Business of Baseball menu

To roadsidephotos.sabr.org home page