When Kenesaw Mountain Landis was installed as major league baseball's first commissioner 70 years ago, the sport was in crisis.
Several members of the Chicago White Sox had been indicted for working with bookmakers to throw the 1919 World Series. Faced with a loss of public confidence in the integrity of the game, baseball's owners had turned to Landis, a federal judge, to bail them out.
Landis agreed to try only if he were given absolute control "over whatever and whoever had to do with" the sport. He wanted to establish the commissioner as someone not to be argued with--a kind of super umpire.
Setting an Example
In a written promise, the owners pledged to give him that authority. They said they would "set for the players an example of the sportsmanship that accepts the umpire's decision without complaint." They even promised not to challenge him in court.
Landis quickly set a harsh tone for a tenure that would last 20 years. The day after seven members of the White Sox were acquitted of criminal charges by a hometown jury, he expelled the players from baseball for life.
In an attempt to avoid a similar fate, Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose, who is accused of betting on his own team, has challenged in court the power of one of Landis' successors, Bart Giamatti.
For Rose--who holds the baseball record for most career hits and has been viewed as a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame--what is at stake is not only his livelihood but also his place in baseball history.
For Giamatti, a former president of Yale University, the stakes are also high. He could become the first commissioner of any professional sport to lose his authority to discipline a player or manager.
Some experts view Rose's legal maneuvering as the last gasp of a desperate, and guilty, man. But others say that, regardless of Rose's guilt or innocence, his case could lead to major changes in the way professional athletes are governed by their leagues.
Threat to Discipline
Rose's most melodramatic critics say that if he succeeds in persuading the court to forbid the commissioner to decide his guilt or innocence on the betting charges, he will destroy discipline in baseball--and perhaps all of sports--by opening commissioners' decisions to second-guessing by the courts.
"Once you get started, then every kind of sports dispute--every time somebody gets suspended for three days, or even whether a ball is fair or foul--can wind up in court," said U.S. District Judge Jim R. Carrigan of Colorado, an authority on sports law.
Added Tulane University law professor Gary Roberts, another sports law authority, "It could mean that the next time the NCAA calls the athletic director at the University of Kentucky and says, 'We've got the goods on you,' all the athletic director will have to do is run to a Kentucky alumnus who's a judge and get an injunction barring the NCAA from taking action."
Because the baseball commissioner's power is so awesome and so buttressed by tradition, Rose is not challenging the commissioner directly. He is approaching his problem as would an ordinary worker whose boss is preparing to fire him unfairly, rather than as a celebrated sports figure accused of committing the national pastime's cardinal sin by betting on his own team.
In effect, Rose is saying that it's time for baseball to break out of the Landis era by giving him a hearing before a court or an arbitrator--anybody but the commissioner who has already investigated the betting charges and who, Rose says, has already privately concluded that he is guilty.
Rose has had to tread carefully in challenging the commissioner's authority. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has gone out of its way to make decisions by the baseball commissioner virtually sacrosanct.
In a ruling made in 1922 and widely derided as irrational, the Supreme Court said baseball was special in a way other professional sports were not. The court declared baseball exempt from federal antitrust laws that ban collusion among businesses, including other professional sports leagues, engaged in interstate commerce.
This exemption has limited the ability of baseball team owners to challenge the commissioner's decisions. In football, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, for example, was able to argue successfully in court that other team owners had illegally--through the commissioner--ganged up on him to keep him from moving his team to Los Angeles. If Davis had owned a baseball rather than a football franchise, his antitrust argument would have gotten nowhere.
Baseball's antitrust exemption has also limited the recourse of players and managers who are forced out of the game. They have been unable to argue that owners--acting through their commissioner--illegally conspired against them.
Players and managers forced out of other sports have been able to make the argument. However, since courts have generally taken a hands-off approach to professional sports altogether, it has not done them much good.