Wednesday, April 17, 2013

148. "Happy" Chandler: Instrumental to Integration

With all the hoopla these past few weeks about Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball, I thought before I wheel out my new Robinson card and story this week, I'd feature one man who was directly responsible for the destruction of the color line. He's a guy that I will include in the next edition of 21, which will have a "Baseball in Kentucky" theme in tribute to my adopted state. While Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey gets the well-deserved lions share of ink for his part in integrating the modern game, Happy Chandler played an instrumental, though not well-recognized part.

 He was one of those old-time baby-kissing, glad-handing southern politicians with a billion-watt smile, the kind you see in cartoons. He was elected governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky two separate times, represented the state in the United States Senate and was the second Commissioner of Baseball. But before all of that, Happy Chandler was a shortstop.

In the long line of Commissioners of Baseball, Happy Chandler is the only one to have played the game professionally. He was a star athlete in high school and played ball for Transylvania College. He reportedly tossed a no-hitter playing for Grafton in North Dakota's Red River Valley League in 1920 (the town even named the local baseball field after him) and was invited to a tryout with the Saskatoon Quakers but returned to college instead.

During the summers of 1922 and 1923 he played for the Lexington Reos of the Blue Grass League. The Blue Grass League was a Class D circuit, the lowest classification at the time, but it was professional baseball and one of his teammates was future Hall of Famer and member of the famed 1927 Yankees, Earle Combs. Chandler played in less than 20 games but for a time considered pursuing baseball as a career. He also served as a league umpire during the two seasons he spent with the Reos before deciding to attend Harvard Law School.

Chandler worked his way up the ladder of Kentucky politics, first in Woodford County then on to the state level. He was a fiscally conservative Democrat and by 1935 was elected governor. He switched over to the United States Senate in 1939 and it was there that he was approached to become the second Commissioner of Baseball.

Kennesaw Mountain Landis had held the post since 1920 and upon his death the team owners elected Chandler to succeed him. In the period between Landis' death and Chandlers appointment, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey  signed Jackie Robinson and Johnny Wright to Montreal Royals contracts making them the first blacks to play professional ball since Hippo Galloway in 1899

After the 1946 season, Rickey wanted to transfer Robinson's contract to the Dodgers, something that the Commissioner's office had to approve. Rickey went to personally see Chandler who gave his complete support. The Dodgers' general manager later said that without Chandlers full support he would not have been able to bring Robinson to Brooklyn.

Why did Chandler give his support to something his predecessor had vehemently opposed? There are two quotes attributed to him in regards to his approval of the smashing of the color line. The first was given right after he was named Commissioner. Ric Roberts of the Pittsburgh Courier asked Chandler about blacks playing pro ball to which he responded: "If they can fight and die in Okinawa, Guadalcanal, in the South Pacific, they can play baseball in America." Coming after more than 25 years of double-talk and out right lies by the former Commissioner, Chandler's statement came as a bombshell, not just for it's strait-forwardness but because of where he was from. Kentucky in 1946 was still a Jim Crow state and Chandler's words were sure to upset more than a few of his constituents. 

The second quote shows the way he was thinking not just about baseball but the whole idea of institutionalized racism. From his autobiography Chandler had this to say to Branch Rickey at their meeting in 1946:

"I've already done a lot of thinking about this whole racial situation in our country. As a member of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, I got to know a lot about our casualties during the war. Plenty of Negro boys were willing to go out and fight and die for this country. Is it right when they came back to tell them they can't play the national pastime? You know, Branch, I'm going to have to meet my Maker some day. And if He asks me why I didn't let this boy play, and I say it's because he's black, that might not be a satisfactory answer. If the Lord made some people black, and some white, and some red or yellow, he must have had a pretty good reason. It isn't my job to decide which colors can play big league baseball. It is my job to see that the game is fairly played and that everybody has an equal chance. I think if I do that, I can face my Maker with a clear conscience."

As Commissioner Chandler did as much as he could to limit the on-field racism Robinson and the other black players faced. When the St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike if they had to face Robinson he pledged that any player who failed to take the field would be immediately suspended. After Phillies manager Ben Chapman disgraced himself and the game with sickening racial taunts when his team faced the Dodgers, Chandler made it clear that any more of that would earn him and the team severe disciplinary measures.

Besides his part in integrating the game, Chandler was known as the “Players Commissioner." After the Pittsburgh Pirates almost went on strike for more players rights, Chandler established the first pension fund using the proceeds from selling the radio broadcast rights to the World Series. He also tried to keep the game free of the threat posed by gamblers and gangsters when he suspended Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher before the 1947 season. While popular culture has often portrayed Durocher's suspension being brought on by his affair with the married actress Lorraine Day, in actuality he earned it by palling around with Bugsy Siegal and other seedy underworld figures.

For all he did for the game, Chandler's reign as Commissioner came to an abrupt end in 1951 when he resigned after the team owners twice refused to extend his contract. It was a loss for the game as Chandler was its most forward-thinking leader for many decades. He went back to politics and in 1955 was re-elected governor during which he over-saw the integration of the states' public school system. He was inducted to the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame in 1957 and in 1982 he took his place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Still smiling, he lived until the age of 92, dying of a heart attack in 1991.

Though he isn't remembered today as reverently as Branch Rickey or Jackie Robinson, Happy Chandler was indeed instrumental in the games' integration.

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