Chandler Elected Commissioner in Cleveland – With Indians Owner’s Help

There was a lot going on in the world when MLB owners met at the Hotel Cleveland (now the Renaissance) downtown this week in 1945.

President Franklin Roosevelt had just died, and the world of Major League Baseball paid tribute to him for his continued support of the National Pastime, most famously in his “Green Light Letter” that proclaimed it vital to national morale. There was even a movement afoot to get him enshrined in the new Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Allied forces were pushing their way toward Berlin, and the end of the war in Europe appeared within sight (German dictator Adolf Hitler would kill himself at the month’s end, and V-E Day would come May 8), which made it feasible that the major league players like Bob Feller, Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg that were serving in the armed forces could soon return to the baseball diamond.

But the owners’ main order of business was to find a successor to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the game’s first commissioner, who’d died the previous November. There was no shortage of candidates, including sports journalist turned National League President Ford Frick, Fred Vinson (like Landis a federal judge, and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (!).

Baseball lifer Larry MacPhail, who by then was an executive and part owner of the Yankees, said there were several candidates with a background in Ohio, including two from Cleveland. Former governor John Bricker, who was on the Republican ticket a year earlier as candidate for vice president, was regarded as a potential successor for Landis, as was the man who defeated him in the most recent governor’s race, Cleveland’s Frank Lausche. The other Cleveland candidate was Joseph Hostetler, a lawyer (he founded what is now Baker & Hostetler with former Cleveland Mayor Newton Baker) whose firm helped write the reorganization of the American League in 1928 and had served as its counsel since.

Another candidate was Kentucky Senator Albert B. Chandler, who had played baseball in high school, college and for semi-pro teams before embarking on a career in the law and politics. Chandler was elected governor in 1935, and followed that with election to the U.S. Senate, where he was a vocal advocate for baseball during the war, supporting Roosevelt’s Green Light Letter. The selection committee was called the “Gang of Four,” consisting of Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley, Cardinals owner Sam Breadon, Don Barnes of the Browns and Indians owner Alva Bradley.

Ultimately, Chandler was selected unanimously on April 24, 1945. He was almost a complete opposite to his predecessor. Landis was austere and serious. Chandler was nicknamed “Happy,” a back-slapping, glad-handing pol. He was also an opposite to Landis, who saw no need for the integration of Major League Baseball.

Chandler, a Democrat from Kentucky, became an unlikely ally in Branch Rickey’s quest to integrate the major leagues. As commissioner, he had the power to theoretically void Robinson’s contract, but didn’t. “I didn’t think it was fair to perpetuate this ban,” Chandler said. “If a fellow could fight and die for his country on Guadalcanal and Tarawa, he ought to be able to come home after the war was over and enjoy the games Americans play, especially if he had the ability.”

Chandler tamped down any potential protests when Robinson’s Montreal Royals came to his native Kentucky for the 1946 Little World Series, and did the same thing a year later when players threatened strikes or protests in the National League.

“Some of the things he did for Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe when he was commissioner of baseball,” Newcombe said years later, “Those are the kinds of things we never forget.” Newcombe noted that Chandler cared about blacks in baseball “when it wasn’t fashionable.” (As governor in the 1950s, he called out troops to enforce integration of the schools following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.)

He also sold radio and television broadcast rights with the proceeds going to the players’ pension fund. “I know the players are strong for Chandler,” Ted Williams said. “Chandler has always been good to me.”

But he had made enemies within the owners’ ranks, angering the owners of the Yankees and White Sox and particularly enraging Fred Saigh, the owner of the Cardinals, who engineered Chandler’s ouster (Saigh later was convicted of income tax evasion, but managed to sell the team to Anheuser-Busch). Ellis Ryan, the Indians owner at the time, threw his support behind Lausche, who again was mentioned as a candidate for commissioner. Chandler couldn’t get the necessary three-fourths vote (Landis only needed a majority) and was out as commissioner. “It’s the first time I ever won a majority but lost an election,” he said.

It quickly became a two-horse race between Frick and Reds president Warren Giles. Frick was ultimately elected commissioner when Giles withdrew. Giles then succeeded Frick as National League president.

Chandler resumed his political career, getting elected governor and making bids to be the Democratic candidate for president in 1956 and 1960. In the meantime, he was persona non grata in Major League Baseball until Bowie Kuhn became commissioner in 1969. In 1982, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and died in 1991 at the age of 92.

Photo: Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress

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