Since the founding of the American League in 1901, Byron “Ban” Johnson had ruled with an iron fist.
The game in theory was run by a national commission of presidents of the National and American leagues, and another owner or team executive, but by all accounts, Johnson, a former sportswriter from Cincinnati, was the brains of the outfit.
But Kennesaw Mountain Landis’ appointment as commissioner – the sole ruler of Major League Baseball – spelled the beginning of the end for Johnson’s reign. By the time he had retired as American League president in 1927, he had a shadow of his former authority. The league presidents had become subservient to Landis, who by all accounts ruled with an iron fist.
Tigers president Frank Navin served as interim president, but the owners looked to Cleveland to find a successor to Johnson, electing Indians president Ernest Bernard – the capstone achievement for a man who had spent the past 25 years in baseball.
Ernest Bernard was born July 17, 1874, in West Columbia, W.Va. His family moved to Delaware, Ohio, and he attended Otterbein College, where he later served as football and baseball coach. In fact, he was the first paid football coach at Otterbein, and is regarded as the father of athletics at his alma mater. In 1900, he became sports editor of the Columbus Dispatch.
Charles Somers, owner of the Cleveland Blues, hired Bernard to serve as traveling secretary in 1903, and elevated him to team vice president in 1908. Barnard was regarded as a diligent workhorse. He was in his office at League Park as Addie Joss was throwing a perfect game on Oct. 2, 1908. Barnard was called to watch the game, but declined, saying, “There’s work to be done!” Three years later, after Joss died suddenly of meningitis, Barnard organized an all-star exhibition for the benefit of Joss’ family.
Barnard was able to convince Somers to maintain working agreements with and own parts of several minor league teams, a generation before Branch Rickey was able to implement a farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals.
But Somers had cash flow problems, which culminated in his selling of the Indians in 1916 to construction millionaire James Dunn. One of Dunn’s first acts as general manager was to fire Barnard, a move met with shock and eventually derision. After a year, Dunn realized the error of his ways, and brought Barnard back on board as team vice president.
Dunn, the free-spending owner who promised a world championship to Cleveland and delivered it in 1920, died in 1922. Barnard became the team president after Dunn’s death, and served in that role until he was elected American League president. One of his last roles as Indians president was to facilitate the sale of the team to a syndicate headed by Alva Bradley, including a veritable who’s-who of Cleveland moneyed interests. Barnard also was an advocate for the construction of Municipal Stadium, and settled disagreements between major league and minor league clubs, allowing for the creation of a farm system.
In 1930, American League owners were pleased enough with Barnard’s service to elect him to a five-year term as president, but in March 1931, he was feeling ill while touring spring training sites, and went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. While talking to his wife prior to an examination on March 27, 1931, Barnard died of an apparent heart attack. Ironically, Ban Johnson died a few hours later in St. Louis.
Barnard’s death was met with shock, and eulogies poured in from across the sport. John McGraw, not known for being the kindest person, said, “I always found him to be a man of noble character and a true friend of baseball.” His pallbearers for his burial in Knollwood Cemetery in Mayfield Heights were Judge Landis and the owners of the other American League teams.
American League owners bandied about several names as Barnard’s successor, including former New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, former U.S. Senator George W. Pepper and Indians general manager and former umpire Billy Evans. Ultimately, Barnard was succeeded as president by Will Harridge, who had served as the league’s secretary under Barnard. Harridge spent 28 years as American League President – even longer than Johnson.