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Hall of Fame Hypocrisy

This week the Baseball Hall-of-Fame broke new ground by accepting Barry Bonds’ 756th home run ball despite an imprinted asterisk tied to a corporate marketing ploy[1]. Last week they revised documented history by giving Jackie Robinson a brand new Baseball Hall-of-Fame plaque with an updated inscription. Meanwhile, the Hall-of-Fame plaque of Baseball’s first commissioner and ardent segregationist Kenesaw Mountain Landis contains no asterisk at all. Nor are there any formal plans to update the inscription which currently reads “His integrity and leadership established baseball in the respect, esteem, and affection of the American people.”. The irony, of course, is that it was only the death of Landis in 1944 that afforded Jackie Robinson the opportunity to integrate Major League Baseball in 1947. And if Landis were still commissioner today, there would be no “Home Run King” debate between Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds, because that record would still belong to Babe Ruth.

Honoring Jackie Robinson

Reflecting Robinson’s wishes to only be judged as any other baseball player prior to his Hall-of-Fame induction, the original plaque made no mention of Robinson’s social significance of breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier. However, the new plaque reads “Displayed Tremendous Courage and Poise in 1947 When He Integrated the Modern Major Leagues in the Face of Intense Adversity.” In what the New York Times rightfully called “A Fine Piece of Editing”, the change to Robinson’s plaque reflects the social significance. Historians often point to this moment to the precursor and influencer of the Supreme Courts 1955 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that overturned the “separate-but-equal” Jim Crow laws.

What about Kenesaw?

Robinson’s breaking baseball’s color line is directly-related to the historical legacy of Baseball’s first commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He is best known for his handling of the 1919 “Black Sox Scandal” and subsequent banning of eight players including Shoeless Joe Jackson. And while history has been overly kind to Landis about his legacy related to gambling on baseball [2], Landis’ most impactful legacy on the game is preventing baseball’s integration. If the plaque inscription flies in the face of American history, it is probably because Landis was inducted only one month after dying while still commissioner in 1944 — at a time where baseball was still segregated. In 1944, maintaining segregation was probably considered “integrity and leadership” by hall-of-fame voters in that day. But 60 years later, reality must be revisited:

Prior to his death, Landis was confronted by legendary athlete, artist, and activist Paul Robeson about baseball’s integration. Robeson also challenged major league baseball owners:

‘”The time has come when you must change your attitude toward Negroes. . . . Because baseball is a national game, it is up to baseball to see that discrimination does not become an American pattern. And it should do this year.”

But while Landis disingenuously told Robeson “it was up to the owners”, the truth was that Landis was baseball’s single greatest impediment to integration. In the mid-1940s William Benswanger, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, tried to sign Josh Gibson, but Landis turned down the request. Bill Veeck[3] also claimed Landis prevented him from purchasing the Phillies when Landis learned of Veeck’s plan to integrate the team. It was only Landis death in 1944 that integration became possible. Happy Chandler, Landis’ successor as baseball commissioner said:

“For 24 years Judge Landis wouldn’t let a black man play. I had his records, and I read them, and for 24 years Landis consistently blocked any attempts to put blacks and whites together on a big league field …. Now, see, I had known Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige, and, of course, Josh died without having his chance, and I lamented that, because he was one of the greatest players I ever saw … and I thought that was an injustice.”

In retrospect, more than any other inductee — or perhaps non-inductee — Landis perpetuated the greatest stain on baseball history. No, he is not the only one. There are Hall-of-Famers such as Cap Anson and Ty Cobb who played ugly roles in maintaining baseball segregation. However, one could argue that players should ultimately be judged for their on-field record only. However, there is no such ambiguity about Baseball commissioners who are specifically hired to maintain “the integrity of the game”. And when judged by his actual job description — there has been no worse commissioner in baseball history than Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

If history got it right the first time, Landis would never have been inducted into the Hall-of-Fame. Short of correcting history and retracting the Landis plaque, the least that the Hall-of-Fame can do is update the inscription to reflect his true historical reality. By doing so, Kenesaw Mountain Landis could be a teachable moment for all youth who read his plaque… can be a lesson in baseball history… and can start a discussion in American history. But unlike the “Bonds Ball” or the “Robinson Revision”, any removal, inscription changes, or other modifications to the Landis plaque will not likely happen… And until that day occurs, the Baseball Hall of Fame will continue to prove that it doesn’t know its asterisk from its elbow.

CHARLES MODIANO writes for the socially-conscious sports website Sports On My Mind and can be reached at modi@cosellout.com

Notes

[1] This past week fashion designer Mark Ecko donated the 756th home run ball hit by Barry Bonds into the Baseball Hall-of-Fame. The ball was accepted despite the Ecko’s marketing ploy of imprinting an “asterisk” on the ball – the same logo his company uses.

[2] While history gives Landis high praise for addressing the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, it is not commonly known that baseball faced a potentially far greater gambling scandal in 1926. Future Hall-of-Famers Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were accused by Dutch Leonard of betting on fixed games. While Landis in his day made NBA Commissioner David Stern seem like Bambi — there was absolutely no punishment for either from Landis. Cobb later claimed that the attorneys representing him and Speaker had brokered their reinstatement by threatening to expose further scandal in baseball if the two were not cleared. Recommend article: The Cobb-Speaker Scandal: Exonerated, But Probably Guilty

 

 

 

 

 

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