Major League Baseball is thinking of renaming its most prestigious award — the Most Valuable Player award — because the name on the trophy is that of a racist who kept blacks out of baseball until after he died. That name — Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was named after a Civil War battle — is one of the most iconic in baseball history.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis was professional baseball’s very first commissioner. For nearly 25 years, from 1920-1944, Landis oversaw the tremendous growth of the sport in the public mind. He also rid the game of the gamblers and chiselers who made every outcome suspect. He expelled eight Chicago White Sox players for taking money from a gambler to deliberately lose the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. While the evidence showed they took money (and grand jury statements by some players incriminated themselves) there was never any evidence that any of the players actively worked to lose the games.
Nevertheless, one of Landis’s first acts as commissioner was to ban the players for life. He rejected several appeals to reinstate some of the players, which some see as his most important contribution to the game of pro ball.
But Landis was a racist who kept blacks out of the game, despite the obvious talent in the Negro leagues. There was no formal rule that established a color line, but everyone — owners, players, coaches — silently assented. Landis insisted until his death that blacks could play if owners would sign them.
Negroes are not barred from organized baseball by the commissioner and never have been in the 21 years I have served. There is no rule in organized baseball prohibiting their participation and never has been to my knowledge. If Durocher, or if any other manager, or all of them, want to sign one, or twenty-five Negro players, it is all right with me. That is the business of the managers and the club owners. The business of the commissioner is to interpret the rules of baseball, and to enforce them.
The owners feared a backlash from white fans and were scared of signing black players. Some players were quoted as saying they would never take the field or share a locker room with a black man.
But Landis could have changed that. He could have forced the issue and didn’t. That’s a black mark on his 25-year record. But does he deserve to be demoted like this?
To some MVPs, it’s time for that 75-year run to end.
“If you’re looking to expose individuals in baseball’s history who promoted racism by continuing to close baseball’s doors to men of color, Kenesaw Landis would be a candidate,” three-time NL MVP Mike Schmidt of Philadelphia said.
“Looking back to baseball in the early 1900s, this was the norm. It doesn’t make it right, though,” said the Hall of Famer, who is white. “Removing his name from the MVP trophy would expose the injustice of that era. I’d gladly replace the engraving on my trophies.”
Added 1991 NL MVP Terry Pendleton of Atlanta, who is Black: “This is 2020 now and things have changed all around the world. It can change for the better.”
“Statues are coming down, people are looking at monuments and memorials,” he said. “We need to get to the bottom of things, to do what’s right. Yes, maybe it is time to change the name.”
If racism be the only thing upon which we judge a man’s life, there will be no statues, no portraits, no honors, no mentions of anything about anybody ever. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a man of his time. That he should have known his thinking was morally wrong is a ludicrous argument born of prejudice and ignorance. It is simple hysteria and a need to destroy that’s driving this movement. Tradition doesn’t matter. The law doesn’t matter. Common sense doesn’t matter. Realism doesn’t matter. It’s mindless barbarism, most of it. And it’s got to stop before a backlash comes that will make the previous couple of months look like a picnic in the park.