On January 15, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt penned the famous “green light” letter to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. In the letter, President Roosevelt addressed Commissioner Landis’s query about playing baseball in the wake of the Second World War. FDR believed that playing the sport would be good for Americans, and he encouraged baseball owners to hold more night games in order to allow workers to attend games.
This short video from the Baseball Hall of Fame is a few years old, but I love the fact that it includes brief snippets from the opening ceremony in June 1939. In the video, you’ll hear a few words from1939 inductee Eddie Collins as well as from Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, 1937 inductee Cy Young, and 1936 inductee Babe Ruth. Videos of many induction speeches from those early years have proven hard to find, so coming across this video feels like a positive step in the right direction.
U.S. District Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis accepted the offer to become baseball’s first commissioner on November 12, 1920. The decision to hire a commissioner came in the wake of the 1919 World Series scandal, which involved eight White Sox players who were paid off by gamblers to throw the Series against Cincinnati. Landis would officially begin his new role in January 1921.
After the bankrupt team had been taken over by the National League, William D. Cox purchased the Philadelphia Phillies from the NL on February 18, 1943. At the age of 33, this made Cox the youngest owner in the league. However, evidence surfaced later that year that Cox had placed some bets on his own team. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis launched an investigation, and Cox eventually admitted to making some “sentimental” bets on the Phillies. Landis responded by banning Cox from baseball on November 23, 1943.
Joseph Michael Medwick was born on November 24, 1911 in Cateret, New Jersey. His parents, John and Elizabeth Medwick, were Hungarian immigrants, having immigrated to the United States in 1893.
He attended Cateret High School, where he was a star athlete in track, baseball, basketball, and football. In fact, Medwick was offered scholarships to play football at the college level. He turned down the scholarships, however, in favor of pursuing a career in baseball, signing with the St. Louis Cardinals.
After spending a few seasons in the minor leagues, Medwick made his Major League debut on September 2, 1932 at the age of twenty. He had an unusual waddle, earning himself the nickname “Ducky” or “Ducky Wucky,” though Medwick (understandably) preferred his other nickname, “Muscles.” With the Cardinals, he earned a reputation as a hard-nosed and mean-spirited player. Fortunately for Medwick, he also proved to be an excellent hitter, producing a batting average of .300 or better for most of the seasons he played as a major leaguer, finishing with a lifetime average of .324.
During the early 1930s, the St. Louis Cardinals became known as the “Gas House Gang,” a nickname that reflected not only their enjoyment in playing baseball, but also the aggressive style with which they played. Their uniforms, always dirty, came to resemble the grease-stained clothing worn by car mechanics — hence the nickname. Besides Joe Medwick, prominent members of the Gas House Gang included Frankie Frisch, Ripper Collins, Leo Durocher, Pepper Martin, and brothers Dizzy Dean and Paul Dean.
Joe Medwick was perhaps the most aggressive of the aggressive Gas House Gang members, not hesitating to brawl even with his own teammates. He was known to punch his own teammates for infractions such as scolding him for a lack of hustle (Ed Heusser) or walking in front of him too many times while being photographed (Tex Carlton). Pitcher Dizzy Dean once commented, “Dawgonnit. That Medwick don’t fight fair at all. You argue with him for a bit and then he beats you before you’ve even had a chance to speak your piece.”
The most infamous display of Medwick’s demeanor came during the 1934 World Series between the Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers — a Series that went into Game Seven. In the sixth inning of that deciding game, Medwick hit a triple into centerfield, sliding into third base with his spikes high. Medwick then proceeded to start kicking at Tiger third baseman Marv Owen, resulting in punches being thrown. Umpire Bill Klem broke up the scuffle, though neither player was ejected. However, when Medwick jogged out to left field in the bottom of the inning, Detroit fans made their feelings known by throwing fruit and pop bottles in Medwick’s direction. From his box at the ballpark, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis called a meeting with the umpires, the two managers, and Medwick. When it became evident that Medwick felt no remorse for his actions, Landis decided to remove Medwick from the game. The Cardinals went on to win the game, and the Series, 11-0, but the incident did nothing good for Medwick’s reputation.
In June 1940, Medwick was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers in a multiplayer deal, as the Cardinals were no longer willing to tolerate Medwick’s temper. Just days after the trade, the Dodgers and the Cardinals faced off against one another, and St. Louis pitcher Bob Bowman beaned Medwick in the temple. Brooklyn players rushed the field, believing the beaning to be intentional, as Bowman and Medwick had exchanged words in the hotel elevator just that morning. Bowman ended up being escorted from the game by policemen. Medwick, meanwhile, was carried away on a stretcher.
Medwick was found to have a concussion as a result of the beaning, though he stubbornly made his way back into the Dodger lineup just four days later. The beaning, however, would reignite interest throughout the league in the use of batting helmets, and Spalding Sporting Goods took advantage of the incident to start advertising a batting helmet with ear flaps.
For the rest of the career following the beaning, Medwick displayed a noticeable drop in power at the plate, though he did continue to rack up multiple seasons with a .300 or better batting average. He bounced around between teams, including the Dodgers, the New York Giants, and the Boston Braves, before finishing his major league career where he started, with the St. Louis Cardinals. Medwick played his final Major League game on July 25, 1948, though he continued to play minor league baseball until 1951.
Over the course of his career, Medwick was named to the National League All-Star team ten times. In 1936, he set a National League record with 64 doubles. In 1937, won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award, as well as the Triple Crown.
Tris Speaker resigned as Indians manager on November 29, 1926, after a scandal broke in which pitcher Dutch Leonard claimed that Speaker and Ty Cobb fixed at least one game between Cleveland and the Detroit Tigers. Umpire Billy Evans called these accusations “purely a matter of personal revenge” for Leonard, who is reported to have been upset with Cobb and Speaker after a trade ended with Leonard in the minor leagues. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis cleared both Speaker and Cobb of any wrongdoing when Leonard did not show up at a hearing to discuss his accusations.
To replace the three-man National Commission, formerly governed by league presidents Ban Johnson and John Heydler and Reds owner Garry Herrmann, Kenesaw Mountain Landis became baseball’s first commissioner on January 21, 1921. After expressing initial reluctance, Landis accepted the job in November 1920 for seven years at a salary of $50,000, on condition he could remain on the federal bench.
Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy; it is his training field for life work. Destroy his faith in its squareness and honesty and you have destroyed something more; you have planted suspicion of all things in his heart.
~Kenesaw Mountain Landis
At the age of seventeen, Chattanooga Lookouts pitcher Jackie Mitchell struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game on April 2, 1931. After taking a ball, Ruth swung and missed at the next two pitches, and then Mitchell’s fourth pitch to Ruth was a called third strike. Gehrig then swung through the first three pitches to strike out.
Mitchell was one of the first female pitchers in professional baseball history. Shortly after the exhibition game, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her contract and forbid the signing of women.
I finished reading Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out this past week, the latest book assignment in my baseball literature class. It proved itself an eye-opening book. While I possessed a working familiarity with the Black Sox scandal of 1919, Eight Men Out goes into great detail regarding the various individuals involved in the scandal and how the whole thing might have gone down.
Charles Comiskey’s Chicago White Sox were already a divided team going into the 1919 season. Half the team was uneducated, from relatively poor backgrounds, while the other half came from more affluent families, with the ability to afford the luxury of an education. Thus the division in the team formed.
As a whole, the White Sox players did not get paid as they felt they should have been paid, as Comiskey was a notorious tightwad. Granted, all baseball owners during this time did not give ballplayers their due, thanks to the reserve clause. But considering that he owned what was arguably the best team in baseball, Comiskey was the worst offender of all. He even went so far as to refuse to pay for the laundering of team uniforms.
According to Asinof, it was Chick Gandil, the White Sox first baseman, who first approached his gambling friend Sport Sullivan with the idea for the fix. Thus the labyrinth of mistrust, ill intentions, and back-stabbing began, and it continued to grow as more players and more gamblers became involved in this get-rich-quick scheme that involved the manipulation of the American pastime’s championship series. Asinof chronicles the games of the Series, describing sketchy plays and performances. He also details what I can only presume are his perceptions on the thoughts of the players and gamblers involved, including the growing uneasiness of Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, as well as the concerns of Eddie Cicotte and Chick Gandil that they would be double-crossed by the gamblers. The White Sox lost the World Series five games to three to the Cincinnati Reds, and the players involved in the fix never received the full amount of money they had been promised.
In spite of the large number of people involved in the fix, and even in spite of an awareness by Kid Gleason (the White Sox manager) and Charles Comiskey himself that something was not quite right about the Series, nothing happened for almost a year. Finally, however, in the wake of a fix between the Cubs and the Phillies, the 1919 World Series came into the national spotlight.
Signed confessions were given by Lefty Williams, Joe Jackson, and Eddie Cicotte. The eight players involved in the fix — Williams, Jackson, Cicotte, Gandil, Swede Risberg, Happy Felsch, Fred McMullin, and Buck Weaver — were put on trial before a Grand Jury. Interestingly, however, none of the gamblers were tried. The players were found not guilty of conspiring to defraud the public. In spite of this, the new Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banished all eight men from baseball for life.
I thoroughly enjoyed Asinof’s account of the Black Sox scandal. It is rich with detail and eloquently written, making it highly readable by the layman. It reads more like a narrative than a history text — and really, I hesitate to use the word “history” with regards to this particular book.
One thing I learned in our discussions about the book is that not all the details included are necessarily accurate. For example, Asinof describes a threat that was laid on pitcher Lefty Williams and his family if he did not carry out his part in the fix. However, Asinof later admitted that he invented this particular anecdote as a way of being able to tell if anyone was using his material. More importantly, Asinof does not cite his sources in the book. There are no footnotes, no bibliography. As I previously mentioned, his accounts of the thought processes of the players and gamblers appear to be largely speculation, as we cannot determine his sources for these descriptions.
In class, the professor challenged us to think about who is to blame for the 1919 World Series fix. Charles Comiskey? The players? The gamblers? The media? But really, there is no hard and fast answer to this question. While it does seem that Comiskey deserves the largest part of the burden, Asinof’s book clearly shows that there is nothing clear about this scandal. Charles Comiskey was not the only team owner who underpaid his players, the gamblers and the players all knew the immorality of their conspiracy to throw the Series, and the media hesitated to break the story even when they suspected something was going on. At the end of the day, the Black Sox scandal shows us that no one is immune to the temptations that easy money presents. It is a tragedy, no doubt — a devastating blow to the game of baseball and to the American public.