The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baseball’s first commissioner faced impeachment for taking the job

Judge and baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1924. (Library of Congress)
7 min

Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, started off with a mountain of a workload.

When team owners tapped him to lead the sport in 1920, Landis was a federal judge in Chicago. He decided to accept the new position without stepping down from the bench, leading to an impeachment effort in Congress and a censure from the American Bar Association.

“What is to prevent [baseball owners] from going into the Supreme Court now and hiring every member on the bench?” fumed Rep. Benjamin Welty (D-Ohio) at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in 1921. “I think it affects the very soul of this government.”

Among other claims, Welty’s impeachment resolution charged Landis with neglecting his official duties for outside gainful employment. Welty pushed forward with the impeachment effort even though Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had concluded, in an opinion requested by Welty, that Landis was within the law in holding both posts.

Landis continued the double duty for about 14 months before resigning as judge under political pressure in 1922. The saga led directly to the first-ever judicial code of conduct, which continues to govern judges’ professional behavior to this day.

A century later, some members of Congress are once again looking to fortify judicial ethics — this time urging Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to commit to a “binding Code of Conduct” for the Supreme Court. The campaign stems from The Washington Post’s reporting on efforts by conservative activist Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to pressure White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to try to overturn the 2020 election.

With a shock of white hair, Landis stood just 5 feet 6 inches and weighed 130 pounds. But “he was a towering figure on the federal bench,” Shirley Povich wrote in a 1940 Washington Post profile, “the most spectacular legal light in the land, his integrity unquestioned, his burning Americanism unchallenged.”

Nominated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, Landis was a Republican trustbuster in Roosevelt’s mold. In 1907, the judge fined John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. $29.2 million for taking illegal rebates from the Chicago & Alton Railroad — the largest corporate fine in history at that time. The ruling was overturned on appeal.

But when the Federal League, a short-lived baseball league that sought to challenge MLB, sued the major leagues for monopolizing baseball in 1914 and the case wound up in front of Landis — six years before he became commissioner — the judge sounded reluctant to extend his antitrust zeal to baseball. He said from the bench that “any blows at … baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution.” The case was settled before Landis could issue a ruling.

In November 1920, a group of baseball owners entered Landis’s Chicago courtroom during a bribery trial, with the intention of offering him the sport’s top job. The judge stared at them and banged his gavel down. “There will be less noise in this courtroom!” he barked.

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When the judge learned the purpose of their visit, he had the owners escorted to his chambers, where he kept them waiting for 45 minutes.

Landis’s impertinence didn’t cost him the gig. Baseball owners offered him $50,000 a year — about $735,000 in today’s dollars. At Landis’s request, they reduced that salary by the $7,500 he made as a judge.

The big leagues turned to Landis because they were desperate for an iron-fisted leader to clean up the sport following the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, in which White Sox players were accused of throwing the World Series in exchange for bribes. Landis wound up banning eight players for life, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, even though they had just been acquitted in a Chicago trial.

“Landis named dictator,” the New York Times blared in a front-page headline on Nov. 13, 1920. After Landis initially expressed reluctance to quit his judgeship, the owners suggested he do both jobs — meaning “the eminent jurist will also continue to strike terror into the hearts of criminals by retaining his position as a federal judge,” the Times reported.

He told his friend Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, “Grif, we’ve got to keep baseball on a high standard for the sake of the youngsters — that’s why I took the job, because I want to help.”

But some on Capitol Hill didn’t view Landis’s motives quite as purely, and his moonlighting for MLB wasn’t their only objection. His handling of a 1921 case involving a 19-year-old bank teller who had stolen $96,000 from his employer, just months after becoming commissioner, also provoked their ire.

In that case, Landis — who was known to pepper witnesses with questions — asked the young scofflaw, Francis Carey, what his salary had been. Ninety dollars a month, Carey replied.

“That’s a shame,” Landis said. “I don’t know how directors of a bank expect their employees to stay honest when they pay them such low wages. You can go home and stay there until I send for you.”

On Feb. 14, 1921, Sen. Nathaniel Dial (D-S.C.) called Landis’s comment “the most Bolshevik doctrine I ever heard.” On the same day, Welty introduced his impeachment resolution. Dial backed impeachment, mocking Landis as a “freak” and a “crank.”

“If his mind is on baseball, he cannot perform the duties of a judge,” Dial said. “It is beneath the dignity of the court. It brings the courts into disrepute.”

The impeachment resolution implied that holding both jobs could present a conflict of interest, since “the impression will prevail that gambling and other illegal acts in baseball will not be punished in the open forum as in other cases.”

Landis took the attacks in stride.

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“Let the boys lather themselves good,” he said, insisting he wasn’t worried about the impeachment effort. “Why, I’m no more interested in this than I am in the appointment of the bellhop in that hotel across the street.”

The House Judiciary Committee dropped the impeachment effort in April, but a few months later, in September 1921, the ABA adopted a resolution concluding that Landis’s decision to accept private employment as a judge “meets with our unqualified condemnation as conduct unworthy of the office of judge, derogatory to the dignity of the bench and undermining public confidence in the independence of the judiciary.”

Landis continued to dig in. “I may quit, but I won’t quit under fire,” he said.

Finally, on Feb. 18, 1922, Landis announced he was resigning from the bench, effective March 1.

“There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to handle the courtroom and the various other jobs I have taken on,” he told reporters. “I am going to devote my attention in the future entirely to baseball.” He complained about having to get up at 5 a.m. every day and often skipping lunch.

“His resignation takes from the federal bench one of the most feared and at the same time one of the most respected judges in the country,” the New York Times concluded.

Prompted by the Landis case, the ABA in 1922 appointed a commission on judicial ethics, chaired by Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the former president, to draft a code of judicial conduct. In 1924, the ABA adopted its first such code, instructing judges not to hold positions that would interfere with their judicial duties.

Although Landis had to give up his coveted spot on the federal bench, he never lost the title. Until his death in 1944, headline writers in newspapers across the nation often called him “Judge Landis,” in keeping with his unyielding style as commissioner.