Wouldn't be the first U.S. senator to...

GEORGE MITCHELL

April 18, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

GEORGE MITCHELL wouldn't be the first U.S. senator to become the commissioner of baseball.

In 1944 Kenesaw Mountain Landis died. He was the first commissioner of baseball, appointed in 1920. The team owners chose Sen. A. B. "Happy" Chandler, a Kentucky Democrat, who had fought to keep baseball going during World War II. Many wanted it suspended for the duration.

When the owners made it official, in the spring of 1945, Happy was expected to resign from the Senate. He didn't. He held both jobs. There was a lot of complaining about this in the press and political circles, especially in Kentucky, where the Republican governor couldn't wait to name a member of his own party to the seat.

Every piece of mail the governor got from the senator, he immediately tore open, to see if it was a letter of resignation. Happy started writing "THIS ISN'T IT" on the envelopes.

He finally resigned in November 1945, and took baseball sprinting into the post-war world. Sprinting faster than the owners really wanted to go. Though he is probably best known for having suspended Brooklyn Dodgers Manager Leo Durocher for a full year, in a dispute involving gamblers, the owners were most upset about his siding with the players on establishment of a pension fund and siding with integrationists who wanted to break the color line. He was the commissioner who brought Jackie Robinson into the national pastime.

The owners were never comfortable with the assertive Happy, and they fired him in 1951.

Happy was an ambitious man. He tried to get Franklin D. Roosevelt to choose him as his running mate in 1944. He tried to get Harry Truman to do so in 1948. Though as commissioner he was forbidden to get involved in politics, some thought he gave encouragement to the Dixiecrats in 1948, out of spite -- and to no avail; Truman was re-elected (and carried Kentucky).

Happy was elected governor in 1954 and served one term. He still had his sights set higher. Or maybe he just liked to campaign. In 1968 he sought the vice presidential slot on George Wallace's ticket.

That was a rather sad last hurrah -- and misleading. He may have been a states' righter -- maybe even a segregationist -- at the end of his career, but earlier, when it counted, he had been ahead of the curve in seeking racial justice.

He was a champion of the poor, whites and blacks, in his first term as governor, and in his second he used troops to enforce school desegregation. Despite Happy's later lapses, Don Newcombe, a Dodger pitcher and black pioneer, said of him when he died in 1991, "Some of the things he did for Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and me when he was commissioner -- those are the kinds of things we never forget. He cared about blacks in baseball when it wasn't fashionable."

Senator Mitchell would have a big pair of shoes to fill.

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