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Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Kennesaw Mountain Landis and the Monument Moment (Updated)

Kenesaw_Mountain_Landis_(ca._1922)Northwestern-Pritzker School of Law (where, full disclosure, I attended law school) displays a portrait of Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a Northwestern grad, former federal judge, and, of course, long-serving first baseball commissioner. As monuments began falling and law schools contemplated their anti-racist steps, I wondered whether that portrait would come down. Now come reports that a move is afoot among former baseball MVPs (black and white) to have Landis' name and image removed from those awards. Update: The Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA), which presents, the MVP awards, announced they will discuss the issue.

The standard history is that Landis actively opposed integration in his 20+ years as commissioner, during which no team signed an African-American player (Landis died in 1944; Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers in 1946 and made his MLB debut on April 15, 1947). That is the story Robinson told and was reflected in the authoritative Robinson biography and in a 2016 Ken Burns documentary about Robinson. MLB historian John Thorn presents that history as canon in the above-linked articles, describing Landis as "pretty damn near Confederate" with a history of documented racism.

That standard view had been questioned over the past two decades, through an award-winning 1998 Landis biography and a 2009 article in SABR's Baseball Research Journal. Neither study found evidence of Landis saying or doing anything racist, holding racist views (at least relative to the times), or preventing or even dissuading owners from signing African-American players. Landis made two public statements--in 1942 and 1943--that MLB had no formal or informal rule prohibiting signing African-American players and that he did not and would not oppose any owners who signed an African-American player. MLB owners and executives maintained segregation, not Landis. Landis did not advocate integration, as opposed to announcing a lack of opposition, and it does not appear that he attempted to force, cajole, lobby, or convince owners to integrate. (Whether he could have done so and whether his failure to do so destroys his legacy depends on whether Landis enjoyed unique commissioner powers or whether, like other commissioners, he worked for the owners).

I do not know whether the counter-narrative has been discredited as erroneous. The linked stories quote Thorn, but do not mention the counter or acknowledge that historical sources disagree, although this one does. I have not seen interviews with Landis' biographer or other critics on the subject.

But it may not matter. Part of the current reckoning is that silence in the face of racism is a form of action perpetuating that racism. Sitting by not only does not promote progress, it adds to the problem. By placing the onus on the owners to sign African-American players knowing they would not, the argument goes, Landis ensured that segregation endured. And thus he loses any claim to a continued place of honor in the game of baseball (or on the walls of a law school).

Is that how it should be? That seems to be the point that MLB and NUPLS must resolve with Landis.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 1, 2020 at 08:53 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


Who's next? That noted racist Ty Cobb?

Posted by: hmonrdick | Jul 4, 2020 4:27:51 PM

Dan: I did not mention that I am an alum because I believed it was common knowledge among readers of the blog. But you are right that it lends context and I have amended the OP.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 4, 2020 8:46:52 AM

i appreciate Howard, a Northwestern Law alum (as I wish he had disclosed, just to give the full context), posting this. I agree this reckoning is important, both by MLB and our law school. In light of the reflections that we are rightly engaged in this new period where systemic racism must be confronted more thoroughly by all of us, I believe that the matter of the photograph, portrait, and any other honorific emblem should be dealt with comprehensively, and with input from community members. These examinations and reckonings by universities, law schools, and other institutions will continue, as they should.

Posted by: dan rodriguez | Jul 1, 2020 1:13:58 PM

I can't believe that educated people are trying to push the "with us or against us" false dichotomy.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Jul 1, 2020 11:20:26 AM

Anti-racism is the new religious dogma. Agnosticism, heresy, or any deviation from fealty to this doctrine will be banished from all public places. Tolerance of dissenting views will not be tolerated.

Age discrimination, however, seems to be back in vogue. I strongly suspect poor Mr. Landis, having the bad fortune of being born at the wrong time, will lose his place.

Posted by: First Amendment Lawyer | Jul 1, 2020 9:48:04 AM

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