I n 1919, Major League Baseball was in dire straits.
In a stunning upset, the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Chicago White Sox in 8 games to win the 1919 World Series.*
There was only one small problem…there was massive evidence that members of the White Sox had actually lost the Series on purpose in exchange for payments from a conglomerate of shady characters led by New York gangster, racketeer and all-around good guy Arnold Rothstein.
The White Sox played the 1920 season dogged by rumors that the prior season’s World Series had been fixed. Baseball was the national pasttime – it was the only game in town. In an era when Christy Mathewson could be reached by writing the number 6 on an envelope and dropping it in the mail, a thrown World Series was only slightly less of a national event than shots being fired on Fort Sumter.
In late 1920, a grand jury convened and charged eight of the White Sox players with conspiracy to defraud the public, conspiracy to commit a confidence game and conspiracy to injure the business of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. On September 28, players “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and Eddie Cicotte signed confessions. When the 1921 season began, the eight players were placed on an “ineligible list” while they stood trial. However, before the trial began, key evidence – including the confessions – disappeared.
On August 2, 1921, the players were acquitted by a jury and were able to continue on as if nothing had ever happened.
Or were they?
Prior to 1920, organized baseball was governed by the National Commission – a three-man committee consisting of the American League president, the National League president and a Commission chairman who in 1919, coincidentally, was Garry Herrman, owner of the Cincinnati Reds. After the Black Sox Scandal, the owners decided to name a person not associated with the game as chairman and their efforts pointed to Federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Landis had made his name with the public by standing up to Standard Oil and fining the company the maximum allowed amount under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. While the fine was eventually overturned, Landis’ reputation as a arbitrator was sealed.
While the owners wanted Landis, Landis had stipulations: there would be no National Commision, he alone would have authority over baseball and, while they hired him, the owners would not be able to fire him.
Since Landis was being sought to clean up the game and since the owners were desperate to clear baseball’s reputation, the owners agreed to Landis’ request. The National Commission was disbanded in exchange for one Commissioner with total authority.
Thus, on November 12, 1920, Kenesaw Mountain Landis became the first commissioner of a major sports league.
After the White Sox were acquitted, Landis quickly dropped the hammer.
Despite being acquitted in court, Judge Landis had all of the evidence he needed. On August 3 – just one day after the trial ended – the eight players – Cicotte, Jackson, “Happy” Felsch, “Chick” Gandil, Fred McMullin, “Swede” Risberg, “Buck” Weaver and “Lefty” Williams – were banned for life from organized baseball. Landis stated that, “No player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers 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.”
None of the eight ever played “organized” baseball again, while Landis ruled with an iron sceptre until 1944*.
The office of the commissioner had existed in professional sports for over 70 years when labor unrest and stalled expansion finally brought things to a head in the National Hockey League.
Unlike Major League Baseball, the NHL made it until 1993 without a commissioner. Finally, on February 1, 1993, the NHL’s Board of Governors created the position of Commissioner and appointed NBA Senior Vice President Gary Bettman to the office.
Like baseball, the NHL was determined to have an outsider in the position. So determined, in fact, that it was written into the NHL Constitution, under section 6.2, “The Commissioner shall be a person of unquestioned intergrity and shall have no financial interest, direct or indirect, in any professional sport.”
While Bettman was not given the absolute power that baseball gave Landis, he was given quite a bit of it.
He was made responsible for the “general supervision and direction of all business and affairs of the League”. In addition, he was given authority over such matters as dispute resolution, interpretation of rules, creation of policies and procedures, contracting (including collective bargaining), discipline, scheduling and selection of officials. The Constitution also protects the Commissioner from indemnification in the event of a lawsuit as long as he was acting in good faith and in the interests of the NHL. The Constitution also allows for the NHL’s Board of Governors to determine the Commissioner’s rate of pay and the length of his term, but does not provide any procedures on a forcible removal. In other words, it would take quite a bit for the Board of Governors to actually remove a Commissioner from office.
While buried in the Constitution, it was widely believed that the primary reason that Bettman was named NHL head was due to due to recent labor unrest. In 1992, the players briefly went on strike and there was impending labor action coming again. Many believe that Bettman was brought in to prevent another work stoppage.
Instead, the league has locked out three times during his tenure.
*In the early days of the World Series, the number of games was determined in an agreement between the ownership of the two teams. In the case of the 1919 World Series, the Reds and the White Sox agreed to play a best-of-9 in order to maximize the box office take.
*Until 2000, the American League and National League operated as separate legal entities.
*While he earned a reputation for cleaning the game up, he also earned another far less honorable distinction. For years, Landis fought integration in baseball. It wasn’t until 1947 that his successor, Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler, allowed Jackie Robinson to cross baseball’s color line.