What Cricket can Learn from Baseball Commissioners
As with BCCI today, an outsider was tasked with cleaning up baseball in 1920
Mumbai: The Supreme Court’s announcement earlier this week appointing a team of four ‘outsiders’ to run the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was greeted with surprise and amusement on Twitter with jokes about what a bureaucrat (Vinod Rai), a historian (Ramachandra Guha) and an accountant (Vikram Limaye) could contribute to cricket.
That the fourth member, Diana Edulji, drew much less comment despite being the one actual excricketer, is probably a reflection on how marginal women’s cricket, of which she was a champion, is to the game in In- dia. That in itself would make her appointment worthwhile and affirm how, sometimes, the Supreme Court can make an imaginatively ideal leap.
But this is not the first time that judges have directly intervened to save a sport. There is no way of knowing if our judges knew of this, but a parallel of sorts exists with another batand-ball sport, also redeemed from a period of scandal and disrepute by an ‘outsider’, himself a judge, with a deep love for the game.
This was baseball in the US in the early 20th century. The sport had grown rapidly with the growing economy, with a number of professional teams organised into two leagues. But regulation was weak and abuses common. Owners were allpowerful and paid their often poorly educated players a pittance. In an era where gambling and its control by gangsters was growing, this was asking for a scandal.
This duly arrived in 1919 with the so-called Black Sox scandal. Several members of one of the leading teams, the Chicago White Sox, were accused of being paid to throw their World Series match against the Cincinnati Reds. Under the scrutiny of the very vocal American press, this built into a scandal that threatened to undermine public faith in baseball altogether.
The team owners first attempted, as BCCI did, to deal with the issue from within. But one of the owners, Albert Lasker, realised this would lack credibility. Apart from owning the Chicago Cubs team, Lasker was one of the pioneers of modern advertising, running the Lord & Thomas agency where he helped build iconic brands like Pepsodent, Palmolive and Sunkist orange juice.
Lasker realised that for the baseball brand to survive, stakeholders have to show they are serious about reform and this could be done by bringing highly credible outsiders to run it. He suggested names including former US President William Howard Taft and General John Pershing, the American commander in World War I. But in the end it came down to one name, a federal judge with the curious name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis (his father had fought in the US Civil War on the Union side till he was wounded, and hence possibly had his life saved, at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864).
A JUDICIAL STAR
Landis was known for being an independent, dramatic judge. He was one of the first to realise the platform the courtroom gave him in a time of rapid media growth. The telegraph had made rapid news dissemination a reality and trials were always good theatre. Landis, with his distinctive sharp features, shock of white hair and peremptory manner soon became a judicial star.
He built on this by taking on the trusts — the quasi-monopolistic corporations that had come to control large chunks of the American economy. Leading them was Standard Oil, run by John D Rockefeller, one of the richest men in the world. But Landis had no compunction in calling him to his courtroom to testify and finally levying the highest fine possible against the company.
Landis agreed to take on the role, but not as head of a commission. He was to be solely in charge, as the independent Commissioner of Baseball, and the owners had to accept whatever he said, without contesting or going to court over it. In agreeing on this unprecedented role, the owners were essentially electing Landis as supreme tyrant of their sport.
Landis served from 1920 till his death in 1944. He was unashamedly autocratic, even willing, as only a judge could, to disregard a trial verdict. When the eight accused players from the White Sox were tried and acquitted, Landis simply disregarded it, saying: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.” None of the eight ever played baseball again.
There were casualties in all this. The most famous of the eight was Joe Jackson, one of the best players baseball has ever seen. Jack- son had grown up in great poverty and remained illiterate all his life. The extent of his involvement in the scandal has been hugely debated, but it’s usually agreed that, even if he did know of the rigging, he didn’t participate, but was sucked in by his general inarticulacy. But Landis refused to consider any extenuating circumstances, and banned Jackson for life, making him the great tragic hero of American sports.
Another charge against Landis is that he didn’t do enough to push racial integration in baseball. The main leagues were white only, with black players, despite many having evident talent, relega-
ON SPORTS POLICING
ted to a separate, resource-starved Negro League. Landis denied publicly that baseball was segregated, but said it was up to each team to integrate – and in that era none did. Ultimately, his successor Happy Chandler would oversee integration of the sport. The one thing Landis had been brought for, to clear the taint of gambling, he did in full. A team owner was forced to sell a horse racing track he had invested in as Landis decreed that even ownership of an operation, in entirely another sport, that allowed gambling was unacceptable. Another owner who was found betting on baseball was forced to sell his team. During his tenure, Landis banned 18 players from baseball, even handing out a temporary ban on Babe Ruth, perhaps the most famous of them all.
Landis’ success can be seen not just in the restored reputation of baseball, but in the fact that other American sports like football, basketball and hockey copied its example, instituting commissioners of their own. Inevitably they were set up with more circumscribed powers, and even in baseball no commissioner has enjoyed the sort of power or unchallenged tenure that Landis did. Over the years, their powers have been challenged in courts and diluted by changes in the nature of the game.
Yet the office has endured as commissioners have had to deal with different issues – players taking drugs, for example. While originally set up by the owners, commissioners have leveraged their public image to act as independents, able to mediate between players, owners and other parties. They have taken tough calls, for example, in 1989, banning Pete Rose, the highest hitter in major league baseball, the Tendulkar of his times, because of gambling – Landis would have approved.
Outside the US, the concept of a single-person commissioner hasn’t really taken off. Sports have left it to associations to do their policing – but as the long drama of BCCI has shown, this may not really work, especially when significant money and power is involved. Perhaps it is time to try the American system. Vinod Rai, the leader of the new group in charge of BCCI, has stated that he hopes to finish with the job as soon as possible. But there may well be a case for him, and other such truly independent, yet sports-loving, notables to consider being commissioned for a longer role.
Legendary baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis