Chandler had earned the nickname "Happy" during his college days because of his jovial demeanor, but it masked an ambitious and cunning side of him.
It was 75 years ago that baseball finally awoke from its long slumber of Jim Crowism and allowed the desegregation of the game. Credit for making the long overdue reform become fact belongs to three men: Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and the then commissioner of baseball. Robinson, of course, was the player who actually lived through the experience, who suffered the slings and arrows of racial prejudice, and came out stronger for it; Rickey was the man who took on the baseball establishment and drew up the blueprint for integration's success; and the commissioner of baseball did his part by doing essentially nothing. But it wouldn't have happened without him.
The commissioner back then was Albert B. "Happy" Chandler, the gregarious former Bluegrass State governor and United States senator from Kentucky. He had been chosen in 1945 to become just baseball's second commissioner, succeeding the imperious Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had taken office in 1920 following the notorious Black Sox scandal. Landis died, having served 24 years in office, the previous December. Chandler had earned the nickname "Happy" during his college days because of his jovial demeanor, but it masked an ambitious and cunning side of him. He seemed to check all the boxes baseball's owners were looking to fill. As a former governor and senator, he had the political connections needed to protect baseball's zealously guarded exemption from antitrust laws; a pitcher as a young man, he had briefly considered making baseball a career before entering law school; and being from a segregated state, he seemed a safe bet not to rock the boat. The job was attractive to him because it paid a salary five times larger than that of a U.S. senator. The current commissioner, Rob Manfred, makes more than $11 million annually.
But those favoring the status quo took Happy Chandler too much for granted. As commissioner, he had the power not to accept Robinson's contract with the Dodgers, thus negating Rickey's plans to integrate his team. He could have used as an excuse the fact that many of the Negro League teams paid rent to use big-league parks and signing Robinson would eventually put the Negro Leagues out of business (which it did), thus causing major-league owners to lose considerable revenue; he didn't have to give any reason to deny approval, though. He just could have done so on his own authority. But Chandler quietly approved the contract and in so doing changed baseball and American sports forever. He also incurred the wrath of major-league owners who thought of him as their employee, hired to do their bidding, which was to keep baseball segregated.
He further alienated the owners when he used the money from a contract to broadcast the World Series games to establish a pension fund for players rather than lining the owners' pockets. They would exact revenge when Chandler's contract as commissioner came up for renewal in 1951.
Happy Chandler was not one who lacked an ambition, which included the presidency itself. While governor in 1938, he challenged Kentucky's long-time senator, Alben Barkley, only to be roundly defeated. The next year, when Marvel Logan, the state's other senator, died in office, Chandler resigned the governorship and the very next day had his successor appoint him to replace Logan. He lobbied hard with the FDR administration to be named President Roosevelt's running mate in 1944, only to lose out to Harry Truman, the senator from Missouri. Within a few months, Roosevelt would die and Truman would become president. In 1948, when Truman ran for a full term of his own, he chose as his running mate Chandler's old nemesis, Alben Barkley, thereby blocking Chandler's path to the presidency.
In 1951, Chandler's term as commissioner expired and baseball's owners rejected a second term for him, choosing instead Ford Frick, the president of the National League; but Chandler was not done yet.
He went back to Kentucky and in 1955 ran for and won the governorship, to which he'd first been elected 20 years earlier. He still had Potomac fever in his blood, and in 1960, threw his hat into the ring as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, but politics had changed and his candidacy never got off the ground.
When the integration of baseball proved to be wildly successful and accepted (Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, et al., proved to be just the forerunners of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Bob Gibson), Chandler sought to expand his role into something greater than it had actually been. He spoke often in later years of a clandestine meeting he supposedly had with Branch Rickey to plot their course of action, but never mentioned it while Rickey was still alive, calling into question whether any such meeting ever took place and causing some critics to diminish his role in the great experiment, as Robinson himself referred to it.
The fact is that he didn't need to expand his role. It was enough that he'd approved Robinson's contract with the Dodgers and allowed the integration to move ahead but politicians are quick to reach out for extra credit when things turn out well and to avoid blame when they don't. As for the owners, from time to time down through the years they were unhappy with their choice of commissioners until the 1990s when they finally picked one of their own, Bud Selig, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, to be commissioner. Chandler lived until he was 93 years old; he was the longest surviving ex-commissioner when he died in 1992. He played a small but vitally important role in the evolution of American sports.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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