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Ex-baseball MVPs say it’s time to pull Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ name off award plaques

The former commissioner has a "complicated" legacy that includes "documented racism,” official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn says.
In this Oct. 1, 1941, file photo, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis throws out the first pitch to open the 1941 World Series with the Brooklyn Dodgers facing the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia is at right. Landis' name and image are on the National League and American League most valuable player placques.
In this Oct. 1, 1941, file photo, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis throws out the first pitch to open the 1941 World Series with the Brooklyn Dodgers facing the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia is at right. Landis' name and image are on the National League and American League most valuable player placques. [ AP ]
Published Jul. 1, 2020

Some winners of major-league baseball’s MVP awards say it’s time to take the name of former commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis off the plaques.

Hired in 1920 as the sport’s first commissioner to help clean up rampant gambling, Landis and his legacy are “always a complicated story” that includes “documented racism,” official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn said.

No Black players played in the majors during Landis’ quarter-century tenure. Jackie Robinson broke the barrier in April 1947, about 21/2 years after Landis died.

“Why is (Landis’ name) on there?” said Barry Larkin, who is Black, and who was voted National League MVP in 1995 with the Reds.

Landis’ name has been prominently displayed on every American League and NL MVP plaque since 1944: Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award, in shiny, gold letters twice as big as those of the winner.

The trophies also have a sizable imprint of Landis’ face.

In 1931, Landis decided members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America would pick and present the MVP awards. Before that, the leagues had their own mishmash system.

During the 1944 World Series, the association voted to add Landis’ name to the plaque as “an acknowledgement of his relationship with the writers,” longtime association secretary-treasurer Jack O’Connell said.

“This is 2020 now, and things have changed all around the world,” said Braves 1991 NL MVP Terry Pendleton, who is Black. “It can change for the better.

“Statues are coming down, people are looking at monuments and memorials. We need to get to the bottom of things, to do what’s right. Yes, maybe it is time to change the name.”

Said Phillies three-time NL MVP Mike Schmidt, who is white: “If you’re looking to expose individuals in baseball’s history who promoted racism by continuing to close baseball’s doors to men of color, Kenesaw Landis would be a candidate. … Removing his name from the MVP trophy would expose the injustice of that era. I’d gladly replace the engraving on my trophies.”

Landis’ precise role in racial issues has been debated for decades.

Landis broke up exhibitions between Black and white All-Star teams. He invited a group of Black newspaper publishers to address owners in what became a cordial but totally fruitless presentation.

Toward the end of his tenure, he told owners they were free to sign Black players. But there is no evidence he pushed for baseball integration, either, as the status quo of segregation remained.

“If you have the Jackie Robinson Award (the official name of the rookie of the year award for both leagues) and the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Award, you are at diametrically opposed poles,” Thorn said. “And it does represent a conundrum.”

O’Connell said no MVP had voiced a complaint to him about Landis since he took his post in 1994. He said Landis’ name on the plaque wasn’t pledged or part of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America constitution.

Any association member could raise an objection to Landis’ presence. Normally, that would be discussed at the organization’s next gathering, scheduled for December at the winter meetings in Dallas.

O’Connell said if someone raised the issue now, it could be brought up to the board and opened to discussion and a vote. To pull Landis’ name “would be a simple matter of redesigning the plaque,” he said.

— Ben Walker