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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Say It Ain’t So

Where is Landis When We Need Him?

I’m not sure what to be more shocked about this morning: the breaking news that long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans may have to endure more ridicule or that the quietly inept Commissioner of Major League baseball has stepped in to bail out another of baseball’s loudly inept owners.

The story out of Chicago that the 1918 Cubs may have been the World Series throwing inspiration for the 1919 White Sox is, still and all, based on speculation. The Dodger meltdown is all too real. Old documents have turned up that suggest that White Sox players, pitcher Eddie Cicotte particularly, may have been inspired by the Cubs taking a dive against the Boston Red Sox in the 1918 series. Cicotte is hardly a character witness. He was banned from baseball for life by then-Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for cavorting with gamblers and, very likely, conspiring to lose the 1919 series to the Cincinnati Reds.

Professional baseball realized it had a problem in the wake of the “Black Sox” scandal and turned to a crusty Chicago federal judge, Landis, to assume dictatorial powers over the game in the interest of restoring integrity to the national past time.

Landis was selected by the owners – baseball had millionaire owners then, too – but he operated more as a policeman than a hand maiden. With two major National League franchises – the Mets and the Dodgers – now operating under serious financial clouds and with Roger Clemens about to follow Barry Bonds into steroid never-never land, baseball could use a commissioner who was less dedicated to holding the coats of the game’s owners than in establishing fundamental standards of conduct that, Landis-like, really protect the integrity of the enterprise.

Gamblers once spread around money to try and fix the World Series and Judge Landis drew a sharp line in the infield dirt by declaring that gambling was off limits to anyone involved in the game. Just ask Pete Rose if that precedent is as good today as it was in 1920.

Today’s baseball gamblers are guys like Frank McCourt who ran one of the great brands in sports into the ditch after using enormously leveraged money to buy the Dodgers and Fred Wilpon, the Mets principle owner, who once counted Bernie Madoff as both close friend and financial advisor.

Given the continued drug cheating and financial incompetency in baseball, a real commissioner would lay down the law, not just try to pick up the pieces. The way to keep the modern day gamblers out of the game is not to let them in the first place and, when they screw up, quickly show them the door. Baseball ownership has always been a closed shop for too many guys operating on too much leveraged money who enjoy the vanity of owning the owner’s box. All their money, their messy divorces and their felonious financial advisors aside, the game still belongs to the fans in the seats.

A real commissioner would spend more time worrying about the best interest of the folks who buy the tickets rather than the interest of some rich guy who isn’t smart enough to make money on a baseball team in Los Angeles or New York.

Landis is remembered for banning the eight White Sox players in 1920 and altogether he banned more than twenty players for gambling, selling stolen cars and other sins that brought disrespect to the game. He also banned one owner – William B. Cox of the Philadelphia Phillies – for betting on his own team. Cox remains the only owner ever banned for life.

It’s time to send some more owners to the showers – permanently. Landis knew the score. He reportedly told players, “Don’t go to those owners if you get into trouble, come to me. I’m your friend. They’re no good.”

Spoken like a real commissioner.

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