Lincoln Landis refuted allegations in a recent Associated Press report that his uncle Kenesaw Mountain Landis was racist.
Lincoln Landis, 97, is the only living relative of Kenesaw Mountain Landis who personally knew him.
He was 22 when his uncle Kenesaw passed away in 1944 and he says he knew him well.
In fact as a 10-year-old he was in the commissioner’s box 60 feet from home plate at Wrigley Field during Babe Ruth’s called shot during Game 3 of the World Series and he has a vivid memory that Ruth did indeed call his shot. He was featured in the New York Times and the television program “This Week in Baseball” just over a decade ago.
When he read The Associated Press story titled “MLB MVPs say time to pull Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ name off plaques” that ran June 30, Lincoln Landis contacted writer Ben Walker, who added Lincoln’s statements in a later story titled “MVP plaque presenters to discuss Landis’ name on MLB trophy” that ran July 2.
Walker included Lincoln Landis’s comments in the later story.
“I would be devastated because my uncle had already started the difficult task of desegregating baseball by pressuring the owners and using his well-known popularity with the fans,” Lincoln Landis said in a statement.
“In my judgment, he would have been totally supportive of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, while seriously concerned about the challenges that Jackie would have faced,” he said. “He would have been convinced that the entry of Blacks in the major leagues promised ‘what’s good for baseball,’ which happened to be his signature requirement for the national pastime.”
Lincoln Landis told the Pharos-Tribune in an interview this week that he knew his uncle Kenesaw as “Uncle Squire.”
“We’re very familiar with the way my uncle looked upon life and his job as the first commissioner of baseball,” Lincoln said. “He previously was a federal judge and then became baseball’s first commissioner in order to rescue Major League Baseball from the scandal that went on in the World Series of 1919.
“That was two or three years before I was born, but I heard about it during my childhood and in visits by Uncle Squire to Logansport which occurred on a number of occasions when he would come to visit my father, Frederick, and our family at 17th and Market.”
In the original AP article, official MLB historian John Thorn said there was “documented racism” in regards to Commissioner Landis.
“That’s the phoniest thing to charge that he was racist. Absolutely not,” Lincoln said.
In 1938 Commissioner Landis suspended New York Yankees outfielder Jake Powell for 10 days after Powell used the N-word in racist comments in an interview with WGN. Powell was later ordered by the Yankees to walk through Harlem as an act of apology, accompanied by noted black aviator Hubert Julian.
Commissioner Landis died two and a half years before Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Lincoln Landis said there was no way in his mind that his uncle would have put a stop to Robinson’s debut.
“I was very much aware in respect to what my uncle’s attitude was for example Blacks in baseball. Unfortunately he was not able to go further because he died in 1944 and it was about two and a half years later that Jackie Robinson succeeded in becoming a player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In my opinion I know that my uncle would have been very happy if he had lived a bit longer and experienced the fact that Jackie Robinson made it to the majors,” Lincoln said.
World War II raged on for nearly one more year following Commissioner Landis’s death.
“There was one concern that I feel having known my uncle very closely at that point in time when he was becoming very ill in 1944, I realized at that time that he would have been very concerned about Jackie Robinson going into baseball before there would have been an opportunity for the United States to have defeated segregation of the forces and make it possible for the Blacks to go into the Major Leagues,” Lincoln said. “He was very worried, and I think he was very accurate, in realizing that if baseball would have been changed by the president of the United States to getting rid of segregation in our country that for Jackie Robinson or any player entering the Major Leagues, he would have been abused severely.
“It turned out that Jackie Robinson was very badly treated, even by, it’s sorry to say, his own teammates because they were a part of American society at the time that Blacks were not given an opportunity for equality at all.
“I happened to have been in the Army at that time and just after the war was over I was assigned as a white officer, a lieutenant, in charge of black troops who had been given jobs in the Army even though there was segregation going on. It was a most unusual time and it showed very clearly that it was not a time when Blacks if allowed to enter the military forces they would have had a very difficult time and there would have been unfortunate cases of racism that would have made world-wide attention.”
Lincoln talked about the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. During World War II, black Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside the army.
“They were not treated fairly but yet they did carry out a wonderful job,” Lincoln said.
The movie “42” about Jackie Robinson well illustrates the time in 1947, which was just 73 years ago. The movie also well illustrates that it took two special individuals, Jackie Robinson and Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, to make racial integration in baseball possible.
Andrew Harner wrote on his website How They Play about Robinson:
“When Jackie Robinson took his position at first base at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, the history of America was changed forever. Becoming the first African-American in Major League Baseball in the 20th century, Robinson faced harsh criticism from fans, other players, and even his own teammates. As the season waned, however, the criticism diminished, and the praise grew.
“In between, though, the Dodgers nearly had an internal uprising led by their Southern players, death threats poured into Robinson’s mail, the Philadelphia Phillies manager and players were warned by baseball’s commissioner for their excessive racial taunts during a game, and the St. Louis Cardinals may have attempted to strike rather than play on the same field as a black man. Still, Robinson managed to fight through these issues to be named Rookie of the Year and helped lead the Dodgers to the World Series by the season’s end.
“Nonetheless, the timing of Robinson’s debut encouraged the criticism of him as post-World War II American society was a society which needed normalcy. Many people looked to baseball to find that normalcy, since the game had been there for more than 50 years, but an African-American player changed that. At the same time, the greater change in society likely eased the criticism, because Americans were accustomed to change, lowering the shock value of Robinson’s debut except for those living in the Jim Crow south. But, if there was one player to overcome it all, that player certainly was Jackie Robinson.”
On April 15, 1997, Robinson’s jersey number, 42, was retired throughout Major League Baseball, the first time any jersey number had been retired throughout one of the four major American sports leagues.
Robinson made his Major League debut at the age of 28 in 1947. Lincoln Landis reiterated his uncle would not have tried to put a stop to his debut.
“My Uncle Squire was a very fair-minded man and exceedingly devoted to what’s best for baseball. That was the driving force in him taking the job of commissioner of baseball,” he said.
In the original AP article, MLB historian Thorn also stated: “Landis is who he is. He was who he was. ... I absolutely support the movement to remove Confederate monuments, and Landis was pretty damn near Confederate.”
That statement was particularly insulting to Lincoln Landis.
“When I read that a historian would mix up the whole idea that my grandpa, Dr. Abraham Landis, who was struck by a cannonball while he was serving as a surgeon in the Union Army, and in this same paragraph a historian of Major League Baseball that my uncle in his mind was a Confederate, a son of a Union surgeon who served honorably and heroically, for a historian to make a mistake like that, I would think he might be looking for another job,” he said.
“You can’t throw descriptions around like that and be taken seriously of someone who doesn’t make so flatly clear the difference between Union and Confederate during the Civil War. It made me feel like he might be fired from the job,” he added.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis was born in 1866 in Millville, Ohio, a year after the Civil War ended. He was the sixth child and fourth son of Abraham and Mary Landis. He would have not been born had his father not survived the war.
“He was struck by a cannonball and he lost the active use of his leg,” Lincoln said of his grandfather. “He came back to his home and continued to act as a surgeon, a country doctor in southwestern Ohio. He moved his family including young Kenesaw, who was about 11 years old at the time, to Logansport and they established a home at 17th and Market.”
Lincoln added the family traveled on a wagon on a dirt road from southwest Ohio to Logansport.
“Kenny,” as he was sometimes known, left school at 15 after an unsuccessful attempt to master algebra. He then worked at the local general store. He left that job for a position as errand boy with the Vandalia Railroad. He applied for a job as a brakeman, but was laughingly dismissed as too small. He then worked for the Logansport Journal and taught himself shorthand reporting, becoming in 1883 official court reporter for the Cass County Circuit Court. In his spare time, he became a prize-winning bicycle racer and played on and managed a baseball team. Offered a professional contract as a ballplayer, he turned it down, stating that he preferred to play for the love of the game.
He later enrolled in Union College and received a law degree, went on to be an anti-trust judge in Chicago before he was named the first commissioner of baseball.
“My Uncle Squire was named a federal judge and he was the youngest federal judge serving at that time and that was in the northern portion of Illinois,” Lincoln said.
Judge Landis was appointed as the first commissioner of baseball on Nov. 12, 1920.
One of his first jobs was to preside over the Black Sox Scandal, which was an MLB game-fixing scandal in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for money from a gambling syndicate led by Arnold Rothstein, Aiden Clayton and Aaron Nelson. Judge Landis had absolute control over the sport to restore its integrity.
Despite acquittals in a public trial in 1921, Judge Landis permanently banned all eight men from professional baseball. The punishment was eventually defined by the Baseball Hall of Fame to include banishment from consideration for the Hall. Despite requests for reinstatement in the decades that followed, particularly in the case of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the ban remains.
The 1988 film “Eight Men Out” detailed the drama.
“I think it was an OK picture,” Lincoln said. “So many cases when Hollywood gets a hold of it, Hollywood will make the most to make it a very popular item. In general in Eight Men Out and others and work that was done on a special program in baseball, they have tended to show Uncle Squire in an unfavorable light because one of the victims in his decision of cleaning up baseball in the beginning of the 1920s after the Black Sox scandal was Shoeless Joe Jackson. It seemed to catch the attention of so many younger Americans because he was a very likable guy, a poor fellow from South Carolina, and he was the best hitter in baseball pretty much at that time. Unfortunately he succumbed to the temptation of taking a bribe from the gangsters, and that of course was the basis of that movie, Eight Men Out.
“There have been a few other movies as well but they have not begun to really understand very much the job he was doing as the first commissioner of baseball in order to get the fans to have faith the game was still an honest game. That was one of the main things we were so aware of with my uncle was that he was doing for baseball everything he could to bring back the reputation of it as being an honest game.”
Two weeks after his death, Commissioner Landis was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by a special committee vote. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America renamed its Most Valuable Player Awards after Landis, which is now being taken under consideration.
Lincoln Landis now lives near Fredericksburg, Virginia, about an hour away from Washington D.C.
He is a 1940 Logansport High School grad. He delivered Pharos-Tribune newspapers from 1935-36 on Market Street and one year he and his brother won an award for most subscriptions sold which was a Monark bicycle.
His local contacts are good friends Alan and Edie Hildebrandt of Logansport. He said the last time he visited his hometown was when Kenesaw Mountain Landis Elementary School was dedicated in 1991.
“I’m aware there have been those who are trying to make the case of changing the name of the school,” Lincoln said. “Of course I would be very unhappy to see that take place. My family was very prominent in Logansport. My father was a congressman from Logansport in the U.S. Congress (from 1903-07). He also was an editor of the Pharos-Tribune about 1926 through 1932.”
Lincoln added his father gave the welcoming speech to the Berries and the Berry Bowl fans when Logansport won the boys basketball state championship in 1934. He died in November later that year.
Lincoln said his uncle deserves to be remembered for the positive impacts he made in life and in baseball.
“He was all for the fans of Chicago and for baseball and trying to make them believe in baseball again,” he said. “He never had any inclination at all to be a racist.”