Ratto: Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the myth and the mistake


It is a measure of our ability not to care about the names of awards that almost nobody knew that Kenesaw Mountain Landis' name name was on baseball's most valuable player awards, but now that we know, it's good to remember him, realize what a monumental bastard he was, and change the name to nearly anything else.

Landis is credited with saving baseball from the Black Sox Scandal, which is nonsense. Babe Ruth did that. Landis is also called the last independent commissioner, which may be true but he largely flexed his power to defend the rights of the owners (big surprise there) and to aggressively discourage integration in his sport. He was even a lousy judge before he got the commissioner's gig. So yeah, scrape that name off the hardware like yesterday.

But there is a small problem, and that's in trying to figure out whose name should go on it because a lot of the very best players have their names on other baseball awards (Bud Selig did get honoring the past right, anyway), and which of them deserves a commemorative promotion? Should it be Willie Mays (World Series MVP), or Henry Aaron (best hitter in each league), or Jackie Robinson (rookie of the year) or Cy Young (best pitcher) or Ted Williams (most productive hitter) or Mariano Rivera (best American League reliever) or Trevor Hoffman (best National League reliever)? Is there some player who should skip to the head of this particular line? Does it really matter, and if not, is it really a problem at all?

Awards are largely given to reward the builders of a sport, and baseball has been more progressive on using players than the others. The NBA uses its former commissioners, notably Maurice Podoloff

(MVP) and Larry O'Brien (championship), neither of whom committed any villainies that we know of,  but it also has the Bill Russell Award (NBA Finals MVP) and the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year, named for Cincinnati Royals teammates Jack Twyman and Maurice Stokes. Stokes suffered a massive stroke while on a road trip and never played again, and Twyman cared for Stokes and raised money for his care for the remainder of his life, so that's about as good as trophy names gets.

And therein lies the trick — how not to dishonor people who did nothing to dishonor the game or the society.  Does Kobe Bryant deserve a trophy named after him? Almost indubitably -- something suitable to his character and contributions. Same with Michael Jordan. I'll leave the rest of you to have the fistfights about why or why not. And if you don't want either of them, there are hundreds of others from which to choose. Knock yourselves out. Nikoloz Tskitishvili's moment is coming, I can feel it.

But what happens when they become less fashionable? Are these all just disposable names in the end?

Well, yes. They are all disposable names, because history and short memory spans just work that way. But given this opportunity to address this infinitesimal bit of our history with a critical eye, we should find good reasons to decommission history — in the Landis case, because he was an utter hyena who brought significantly more shame of the sport than glory. There can always be new statues to honor the truly worthy, and new awards too, Let a thousand names bloom.

As for the case of the National Hockey League, which names all its trophies for really old folks and have even grafted their names onto the wards themselves, like the Hart and Vezina, Selke, and Conn Smythe rather than MVP, best goalie, best defensive forward or playoff MVP. It's now just accepted shorthand. Even the Stanley Cup is named for a former governor-general of Canada when it was still a British colony.

In other words, statues need to prove their worth historically, and so do trophies. In the case of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, there is no case to make. He defended the color line with a racist's zeal,  an d even the thing he is most credited with — cleaning up the sport after the 1919 World Series -- was mostly him banning eight players, leaving the management alone and never opening another gambling investigation again by pretending they never happened. He is, in sum, objectively far worse than Rob Manfred.

So yeah. Do Landis for sure, and name it after anything you want. But only because he earned the shame of history's dustbin. Ending the process of honoring villains is not the same as canceling culture. Remember Landis all you want, but remember him as the irredeemable bastard he was, and don't attach his name to one of the things for which the sport should want to take pride.