JUDGE LANDIS ON STEROIDS EDITION
(OR, RIVER DEEP, KENNESAW MOUNTAIN HIGH)
Last weekend Chris Kahrl, Cliff Corcoran, Neil deMause and I spent a pleasant evening answering questions at Coliseum Books in Manhattan. Actually, we didn’t answer questions, we answered question, because all anyone wanted to talk about was Performance-Enhancing Apple Jack, Barry Bonds, and Baseball Between the Numbers’ take on the latter. As we do radio spots around the galaxy talking about our vast array of spring products (Two books! Branded Horse Blankets! Will Carroll’s All-Ages Slumber Party!) all anyone wants to do is engage us in judging players and handing out asterisks. We’re the stats guys, after all–we must know Where They Should Go.
If you’re fair, though, you have to admit that you don’t know where or how to apply the asterisks. If half or a third the players were using, and all of them were using a different combination of chemicals to hulk out, and each one derived a different benefit from doing so, it becomes difficult or impossible to figure out to what degree the statistics were perverted. The best you can do is shrug your shoulders and hope that the various distortions washed out in the mix.
This is exactly what happened in 1926 when Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner, found various parties picking at the scab of the 1919 World Series scandal. In November, 1926, Ty Cobb, who was still a vital ballplayer at 39 (he had just batted .339/.408/.511 in a half-season of play) was terminated as Tigers manager and released, ending an association with the Detroit club over two decades old. Not long after, Tris Speaker, player-manager of the Indians and also still a potent hitter (.304/.409/.469 in 150 games) at 38, was let go in similar fashion. Two of the game’s most enduring stars had disappeared in a puff of smoke. No explanations were given.
Eventually it was revealed that a pair of letters, one sent by Cobb to Smokey Joe Wood, the other from Wood to Dutch Leonard, implicated Cobb in fixing, or at the very least betting on, the Cleveland-Detroit game of September 25, 1919. Speaker wasn’t mentioned in the letters but when Leonard turned the letters over to the American League he fingered Speaker as being part of the plot. Once the truth was out, Cobb and Speaker demanded a full investigation–the letters were vague and didn’t specify what, if anything had happened. Cobb was ready to admit that he had helped Leonard and Wood get a bet down, but, Pete Rose-like, insisted that he had always played to win. Nor did he have any money on the game itself.
The revelation opened up the quintessential can of worms, with players coming out of the woodwork to report other fixes or cases of one team paying another a “gift” to “bear down” against a key opponent. Even Chick Gandil and Swede Risberg, the Black Sox’s top scumbags, appeared to trash the integrity of the 1917 American League race won by the White Sox, with the Tigers supposedly rolling over for the Pale Hose in some key games. Others called aspects of the 1921 and 1922 seasons into question. The Judge was now swamped with gambling scandals, and it appeared that the game’s reputation was about to take another big hit. Congress began talking about regulating baseball (in American politics, nothing ever changes and nothing ever gets done), and all of the other typically self-serving hysterics got to caterwauling.
Landis held open hearings before the press, calling over 30 players to respond to the various charges. In the cold light of day, Gandil and Risberg’s charges seemed easy to dismiss because they appeared to be so… stupid. Directly after he and Risberg testified that in 1919 they had played out of position in games against the Tigers in return for favors done in 1917, Gandil and the Judge had this exchange, as reported in J.G. Taylor Spink’s biography of Landis:
GANDIL: I want to ask you, Mr. Landis, why, after I was dragged through a court trial and acquitted in the 1919 Series, is it that I was blacklisted?
LANDIS: Do you want to be reinstated?
GANDIL: No, I don’t. But I want to know why I was blacklisted.
LANDIS: I couldn’t pass on that unless I could ask you some questions about the 1919 World Series.
GANDIL: I don’t want to go back to that Series.
LANDIS: Well, if you want an answer right now, you have just testified that you played out of position in two games in 1919. That would cause you to be placed on the ineligible list.
That last “Oh” isn’t part of the official record, but what else could he possibly have said? Surely nothing we could print here.
During the proceedings, pitcher Bernie Bolland, a member of the 1917 Tigers, got in Risberg’s face and said, “You’re still a pig.”
“I am not a pig,” Risberg cleverly replied.
Despite such high camp fun, Landis wished all of them would just go away. There were a number of suspicious things about the games brought up by the besmirched duo. Even squeaky clean Eddie Collins had admitted he paid $45 into a gift fund for the Tigers as incentive to beat the Red Sox during the tight 1917 race. At least that’s what Collins understood the fund to be, as opposed to a bribe for the Tigers laying down against the White Sox in consecutive doubleheaders played on September 2 and 3, 1917. Indeed, the Sox had run wild on the bases against the Tigers, stealing up to eight bases in the games. In fact, it was Landis himself who had published the incriminating Cobb and Wood letters, perhaps with an eye towards deflating rampant rumors about the reason for Cobb and Speaker’s releases and eventually reinstating the pair. Landis then exacerbated the situation by holding off any ruling on the Cobb-Speaker matter until after he had dealt with the Risberg-Gandil accusations. “Won’t these God damn things that happened before I came into baseball ever stop coming up?” he said privately, while at the same time dragging the events out in public.
In the end, Landis employed a magic wand solution, making all of the past gambling problems disappear. He decided that Risberg and Gandil were lying, said that the practice of giving gifts, “was an act of impropriety, reprehensible and censurable, but not an act of criminality.” He imposed penalties for all future infractions, then declared a statute of limitations on baseball offenses. If it happened before Landis became Commissioner, he didn’t want to know about it.
Within a few days, American League president Bancroft Johnson, Landis’s mortal enemy, forced the Commissioner’s hand on the Cobb-Speaker matter by giving an interview in which he said:
Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb never again will play ball or manage an American League club. They were given positions of trust and they failed to keep that trust. No matter what Landis rules, the American League won’t have them. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker have been offered public hearings. Each of them declined. [Cobb and Speaker had insisted that they be able to confront Dutch Leonard in any hearing, but the pitcher refused to appear. Their attitude towards a hearing was also complicated by the possible damage that would be done to Joe Wood, who likely had bet on the game. Now the baseball coach at Yale, he had a lot to lose.] In view of that, the public itself can answer the question whether the legal fight Cobb’s and Speaker’s attorneys have been talking about will materialize.
Landis wasn’t about to let Johnson usurp his authority and called for a face to face showdown in the presence of the assembled owners. Within a few days, Johnson, who had dropped a few brain cells over the years, amended his story to say that Cobb and Speaker were thrown out of the league because they were bad managers–Cobb was too brutal with his players, while Speaker thought more about betting on horse races than managing his club. This was a new wrinkle–a manager could be banned from baseball just for being bad at his job? Did the Dodgers forget this when they hired Grady Little?
Johnson became the subject of the meeting instead of Cobb and Speaker. Johnson, the founder of the American League, was let go, the cover story being that his health was shot. “Johnson was twice near collapse” at the meeting, the New York Times was told by one of the attending owners, and had to be helped to a chair. “After the meeting he failed to recognize a close friend for almost a full minute. He was seen in the lobby of the club, walking as if dazed and talking in a mumble.” Johnson very well may have had a breakdown at the meetings, but this represented a face-saving coincidence for the owners–this was the first time he was said to have had health problems. Landis said he would “take up” the Cobb-Speaker case shortly.
At the end of January, 1927, Landis finally cleared Cobb and Speaker. Landis was helped immensely by Leonard’s adamant refusal to travel east from California and testify in person. The Judge declared the outfielders free to sign with any club–American League only (take that, Ban).
With two of the game’s top-tier stars vindicated and the statute of limitations eliminating the possibility of anymore cases coming to light, the Commissioner was free to devote himself to things he really enjoyed, like persecuting Branch Rickey over his farm system and keeping African-Americans out of the majors. Everything had been whitewashed. If there were games fixed in the past, the policy was don’t ask, don’t tell.
In today’s magic jellybeans scandal, the disincentives to mounting a full investigation are exactly the same as those confronted by Landis. Not only will an investigation be unable to come to any definitive or satisfactory conclusions, but it will implicate so many players, managers, coaches, and even front office personnel and owners along the way that the game’s reputation will suffer worse damage than if the bodies are left buried.
That’s why the only asterisk we are likely to see is the one denoting that steroids violations will be prosecuted from this* date forward, with all that went before officially sanctified as terra incognito.