Baseball’s First Commissioner Led a Conspiracy of Silence to Keep the Sport Segregated

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The Baseball Writers’ Association of America recent­ly announced that it would remove former Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ name from the plaques award­ed to the American and National League MVPs.

The deci­sion came after a number of former MVPs, includ­ing Black award win­ners Barry Larkin and Terry Pendleton, voiced their dis­plea­sure with their plaques being named for Landis, who kept the game segregated during the 24 years he served as commissioner from 1920 until his death in 1944. The Brooklyn Dodgers ended the color line when they signed Jackie Robinson to a con­tract in October 1945, less than a year after Landis’ death.

Landis has had his defend­ers over the years. In the past, essay­ist David Kaiser, base­ball his­to­ri­an Norman Macht, Landis biog­ra­ph­er David Pietrusza and the commissioner’s nephew, Lincoln Landis, have claimed that there is no evi­dence that Landis said or did any­thing racist.

But in my view, it’s what he didn’t say and didn’t do that made him a racist.

In my book “Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball,” I argue that baseball’s color line exist­ed as long as it did because the nation’s white main­stream sports­writ­ers remained silent about it, even as Black and pro­gres­sive activists cam­paigned for inte­gra­tion.

However those who ran the league pos­sessed far more power than sports­writ­ers. Landis, along with the owners, knew that there were Black play­ers good enough to play in the big leagues. If he wanted to inte­grate Major League Baseball, he could have.

Instead, he did all he could to pre­vent the rest of America from know­ing just how tal­ent­ed Black base­ball play­ers were.

Petitions go ignored

By the time Landis became com­mis­sion­er in 1920, base­ball had been seg­re­gat­ed ever since a so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” took place among team owners in the 1880s.

However, it was common prac­tice in the 1920s for Major League teams to earn extra money in the off-season by play­ing Black teams in exhi­bi­tion games. Landis put a halt to these games because he wanted to end the embar­rass­ment of the Black teams’ win­ning so often.

It is worth noting that Black ath­letes com­pet­ed with white ones in other sports in the 1920s and 1930s, includ­ing boxing, col­lege tennis, col­lege foot­ball and, for sev­er­al years, the National Football League. Black ath­letes also represented the United States in the Olympics.

During the 1930s, Black sports­writ­ers like Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy, along with white sports­writ­ers for the Communist news­pa­per The Daily Worker, intense­ly campaigned for the integration of baseball.

In their editorials and articles, Worker sports­writ­ers chron­i­cled the accom­plish­ments of Negro League stars and told read­ers that strug­gling Major League teams could improve their chances by sign­ing Black play­ers. Meanwhile, Communist activists orga­nized protests and cir­cu­lat­ed peti­tion drives out­side the ball­parks of New York’s three Major League teams – the Yankees, Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers – demand­ing that teams sign Black play­ers.

The peti­tions, which had, accord­ing to one esti­mate, a million signatures, were then sent off to the commissioner’s office. They were ignored. The Daily Worker reg­u­lar­ly focused on Landis as the person respon­si­ble for the color line, while the Black press deri­sive­ly called him “the Great White Father.”

Don’t ask, don’t tell

Landis’ defend­ers say that he could not possibly have been a bigot because he sus­pend­ed Yankees outfielder Jake Powell for making a racist com­ment during a 1938 radio inter­view.

Landis sus­pend­ed Powell not because the ballplay­er used a slur, but because it was heard by fans, and Black activists pres­sured the com­mis­sion­er to do some­thing. While Landis ended up pun­ish­ing a racist player, he did nothing to end racial dis­crim­i­na­tion against Black play­ers.

Furthermore, Landis refused to allow play­ers and man­agers to speak on the issue. When Brooklyn man­ag­er Leo Durocher was quoted in a 1942 Daily Worker arti­cle saying he would sign Black play­ers if he were allowed to, Landis ordered Durocher to deny that he made the state­ment.

The fol­low­ing year, Landis again sub­vert­ed the cam­paign to end seg­re­ga­tion in the sport.

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Sam Lacy, who was then work­ing for the Chicago Defender, repeat­ed­ly asked Landis for a meet­ing to talk about the color line. When Landis final­ly agreed, Lacy asked the com­mis­sion­er if he could make the case for inte­gra­tion at baseball’s annual meet­ing.

Landis, with­out telling Lacy, invit­ed the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association. Also invit­ed to speak was Paul Robeson, the one­time col­lege foot­ball star who had become an actor, singer, writer – and avowed Communist. Lacy was incensed that Robeson would be asked to address the con­ser­v­a­tive white owners about the sen­si­tive issue of inte­gra­tion.

To Lacy, the pres­ence of Robeson meant that Landis could plant seeds of sus­pi­cion with white owners and sports­writ­ers that the cam­paign to inte­grate base­ball was a Communist front.

Lacy wrote in a column that Landis reminded him of a cartoon he had seen of a man extend­ing his right hand in a ges­ture of friend­ship while clench­ing a long knife that was hidden in his left hand.

Landis died in December 1944, and Lacy final­ly got a chance to address team exec­u­tives in March of the fol­low­ing year. Brooklyn Dodgers exec­u­tive Branch Rickey ended up signing Jackie Robinson to a con­tract sev­er­al months later, thus ending seg­re­ga­tion in base­ball.

Lee Lowenfish, Rickey’s biog­ra­ph­er, was con­vinced that Landis would have tried to stop the Brooklyn exec­u­tive from signing Robinson.

I believe it is no coin­ci­dence that base­ball remained seg­re­gat­ed during Landis’ reign as com­mis­sion­er – or that it became inte­grat­ed only after he died.

The Conversation

Chris Lamb, Professor of Journalism, IUPUI

This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: Wikimedia

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