Memories & Dreams: Happy Chandler

By Marty Appel

Succeeding Kenesaw Mountain Landis as Commissioner of Baseball was not unlike succeeding J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI or Franklin D. Roosevelt as President of the United States. After such a long time in office – 25 years in Landis’s case – the job was so associated with one figure, succession would be a great challenge.

Albert B. “Happy” Chandler seemed up to the challenge. A skilled diplomat from his years in politics (as U.S. Senator and Governor of Kentucky), he came to the position at a time post-war America was about to face serious questions about what it stood for as a nation. One was certainly whether the national pastime could continue in its segregated ways. Black men had fought in the war – could they not play anything other than Negro League baseball?

It was Branch Rickey of course, who took the lead, signing Jackie Robinson to a 1946 contract to play at Triple-A Montreal, and then to a Major League contract in 1947 to play for Brooklyn. Rickey’s intentions would have been thwarted if the contract was not approved by Chandler, who faced clear opposition from other owners. A reported 15-1 vote against integration had been taken at an owners meeting.

“I don’t want to be too hard on the old man {Landis},” wrote Chandler more than 40 years later in his autobiography, “because he wanted to keep his job…. He was doing what the owners wanted him to do.”

So Chandler, despite his upbringing in the segregated south, approved the contract. He may not have been the lead player in this drama, but it didn’t play out without him. It was a courageous act, and very anti-Landis.

It was Chandler’s style to be bold. When unpopular in New York for suspending Brooklyn’s Leo Durocher over gambling associations, he was introduced to great booing at Yankee Stadium on Babe Ruth Day in 1948. His first words at the microphone were, “This is Albert B. Chandler.”

That was the man’s style.

Chandler made a deal for radio rights to the World Series in 1947, and for television rights in 1949, using the proceeds to establish the first pension fund for players. Again, the money could have gone to the owners, but Chandler saw that the time had come for pension consideration, and there was the new revenue stream to fund it.

His decision to impose a five-year ban on players who jumped to the Mexican League (effectively, a death sentence), may have overreached (Baseball settled a lawsuit brought by Danny Gardella), and by 1951, sufficient support just wasn’t there to extend his contract. Yankees co-owner Del Webb, angered over Chandler’s inquiries over his ties to the gamblers who were building Las Vegas, led the opposition that brought him down.

Out of the game and largely forgotten as the years passed, it was Commissioner Bowie Kuhn who “rehabilitated” his reputation in the 1980s, inviting him to sit with him at All Star and World Series games, calling on his counsel, and helping to lobby for his Hall of Fame election in 1982.

Chandler, baseball’s second Commissioner, died at 92 in 1991.