We're here because baseball's Hall of Fame finally got around to bringing in Happy Chandler, who is an enchanting piece of history but who, at almost 84, may need an introduction to youngsters under 65.
Happy Chandler was mighty good at getting votes in this part of heaven. Kentucky twice elected him governor, in 1935 and '56 ("I left 'em with cash in the bank"), and twice elected him to the U.S. Senate. He wanted to run for president ("Stevenson couldn't beat Tom Thumb with a broadax, let alone Eisenhower"), and he got votes from seven states, which ain't bad for a guy who was baseball commissioner in Bowie Kuhn's adolescence.
If you ask after Chandler's health, the old war horse says, "I got all my marbles," and then makes a fist, tightening his biceps . "Feel that, podnuh," he says. Somebody once said all Happy needed to be president was to meet every voter, because if he didn't invent the smile, he damn well perfected it.
"Solid as Louisville Sluggers," a visitor says of the proffered biceps, and Happy says he owes it to good stock and a weekly round of golf in which he chops down half the grass in the state. "Also, no whiskey, no cigarettes and no riotous living." After which, a smile that lit up the Bluegrass.
About when Chandler figured being dead would help him get in the Hall of Fame, last month he made it by vote of the old-timers' committee. If Chandler's election is a mystery to some who think only Kenesaw Mountain Landis ever amounted to anything as commissioner, students of the Jackie Robinson story know better.
"Rickey sat right there," Chandler said, tugging a chair close to his desk in a log cabin that has been his decision-making retreat for 50 years. Branch Rickey, in 1947, ran the Brooklyn Dodgers and wanted to bring up from Montreal a terrific player named Jackie Robinson, who was born ineligible for major league baseball.
"I sat right here," Chandler said, "and we talked about what ought to be done."
The barons of baseball were much worried, they said, that they would destroy the black leagues by taking in Robinson. It was, see, in the black players' interest that the major leagues kept them out.
"If you were black, you didn't play in the major leagues," Chandler said. "Landis is glorified now as the greatest, but the club owners didn't want blacks to play and Landis did what they wanted. Landis said no. He went further, too, and said blacks couldn't barnstorm with whites. Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson had barnstormed with major league all-star teams. The old man wouldn't even let them do that."
Chandler presided over an owners' 1947 meeting on Robinson. Reports of that meeting include a 15-1 vote, but what the owners voted on is debated. Some say the vote was on establishing a committee to study the effects of Robinson joining the Dodgers.
Chandler insists the vote was specific.
"It was very simply whether or not Robinson could play in the major leagues, and the vote was 15-1 against, with Rickey being the only vote for him," Chandler said. "I remember one of the reasons or excuses for a vote being, 'The Polo Grounds is in Harlem, there'll be a riot and they'll burn it down.' "
Chandler said he returned to Versailles, where Rickey came alone.
"Rickey said that in the face of that vote, he couldn't bring Robinson up unless he was assured of my support," Chandler said. "The fact is, if I as commissioner didn't approve it, Robinson couldn't have played no matter who Rickey wanted. If Landis had been commissioner, Robinson wouldn't have played."
A minor league player himself, once a manager, Chandler recognized talent. He also recognized his conscience.
"I'll meet my maker someday," Happy said, "and he'd ask me why I didn't let Jackie Robinson play ball. If I had to say, 'Because he's black,' I don't know if that would be a satisfactory answer."
So Chandler told Rickey it didn't seem right that a fellow can go through World War II and agree to fight and die for his country, but when he comes home he can't play major league baseball. When Rickey left the cabin, the deal had been made.
Chandler's term (which ended in 1951 when the owners lost patience with a boss who bossed) was significant also for his creation of the players' pension fund. That fund is recognized as the source of today's powerful players' union.
Chandler was once asked if he lost sleep over suspending Manager Leo Durocher for a year (Leo had been a naughty boy on several fronts). The former governor said, "I signed 36 death warrants . . . Why would I lose any sleep over Durocher?"
Anyway, as he says when someone asks how he'd like to be remembered, "I was sober, and I meant to do every damn thing I did. You can't say that about many politicians, can you?" Such a smile right then.