Chandler's love made baseball better game

John Steadman

June 17, 1991|By John Steadman

All the components to be found in down-home Southern charm were exemplified by Albert B. "Happy" Chandler, an effervescent son of old Kentucky, who had a smile that would melt concrete. Determination, too. But the personality made him an unforgettable American figure. His extraordinary life carried into extra innings before he died at the grand age of 92.

It was Chandler as commissioner of baseball, despite the fact he was from a state where blacks were then blatantly abused and segregation prevailed, who opened the game in 1947 to all men, regardless of the pigment in their skin.

Only one general manager, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers, supported the action to allow Jackie Robinson to enter the major leagues. The other 15 clubs were opposed. But Chandler ignored them, granted approval and, in the process, put himself in an unfavorable position with those who had selected him for the job and paid his salary.

Chandler had the perfect rationale. "I felt if black men could fight on the beaches of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, they certainly shouldn't come home to be told they couldn't play the great American game," he said. And after Robinson came Larry Doby, Luke Easter, Don Newcombe, Willie Mays and soon it was a sport that exemplified what it always contended itself to be -- truly the national pastime.

From 1945 until 1951, Chandler held the commissionership. Both before and after heading baseball, he had terms as governor of Kentucky, plus serving in the U.S. Senate. Widely respected Bob Considine, the late reporter of the Hearst Headline Service, claimed Chandler was easily the happiest man he met in his lifetime.

But Chandler was mocked for saying how much he worshipped baseball. "Ah loves baseball," he always insisted in a marshmallow-like Dixie drawl. The sophisticates around the game, sitting in judgment of Chandler, demeaned him and scorned their leader, who wouldn't be manipulated.

Chandler had briefly been a minor-league shortstop and then a teacher, coach and high school principal in Versailles, Ky., where he once permitted the football team's best player, who had failed in class, the opportunity to take a one-question verbal test to restore his academic standing, which enabled him to immediately regain his athletic eligibility.

Call it a principal's prerogative. Here's the way it went. Chandler said, "Son, name the capital of the great state of Kentucky?" The kid was obviously stumped. Finally, he replied, "Versailles." Happy didn't fall off his chair but, instead, made the best of the situation.

"That's not a bad answer at all," he rationalized. "Of course, everybody knows the capital of this great state is Frankfort. But Versailles is only 15 miles from Frankfort and 15 from 100 equals 85 and 85 is passing in any old high school. Now, son, you go out and win the game for us."

And that's precisely what transpired. Versailles High School turned back the opposition, with the school principal, Happy Chandler, helping make it all possible.

In giving a speech, Happy was delightful entertainment. We once heard him talk about the respect he had for Canada and its World War I army. "I always feel comforted when I see that maple leaf flag," he said. "It takes me back to the first World War when we U.S. doughboys knew if we were fighting alongside a Canadian soldier we had a chance to stay alive."

Color and candor were a part of Chandler's persona. He also had the courage of his convictions. He suspended Leo Durocher for a season as manager of the Dodgers for associating with unsavory characters. And he championed the cause of the players' association, almost becoming its patron saint, when it was trying to get off the ground. The owners, of course, were trying to kill its organizational plans.

In 1951 at the All-Star Game in Detroit, he was notified by the owners that they had voted to terminate him as commissioner. He heard the news in the dugout, during practice, and after talking briefly with the players, broke down and cried. Yes, the game meant that much to him.

A.B. "Happy" Chandler was only revealing again what was deep within his heart and soul, as he had so often proclaimed, "Ah loves baseball."

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