What Cricket can Learn from Base­ball Com­mis­sion­ers

As with BCCI to­day, an out­sider was tasked with clean­ing up base­ball in 1920

The Economic Times - - Front Page - Vikram.Doc­tor @times­group.com

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).


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-


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

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