Kenesaw Mountain Landis is dead.
Happy Chandler is dead.
Bart Giamatti is dead.
Along with having already taken their final leisurely stroll across the green fields of earth and into the unknown, these three men have a few other things in common. All were commissioners of Major League Baseball, all faced a major decision point for the game, and all took unprecedented actions during their terms.
Rob Manfred is the current living and breathing commissioner of baseball. When faced with the opportunity to take unprecedented action in the face of a never-before-seen crisis in baseball, he decided instead to rely on decisions made by those who came before him. Despite really good reasons not to do so.
On January 13th, 2020, following a two-month investigation, Commissioner Manfred released a nine-page report concluding that the Houston Astros violated MLB rules by using television cameras to steal catchers’ signs and then relaying that information real-time to the hitter at the plate during Houston’s run to the 2017 World Series title and again during the 2018 season. Manager AJ Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow were each suspended for one season and subsequently fired by the team. Two former members of the Astros, Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, were immediately fired by their respective teams (the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets). None of the current Astros players who took part in the scheme were disciplined in any way by either the league or the team.
Despite the outcry from baseball fans and widespread criticism from other players, Manfred refused to vacate any of the Astros’ wins, strip them of their World Series title, or declare them ineligible for any future post-season appearances. In responding to the criticism regarding the decision to not vacate any victories or apply a notation to the record books, Manfred continued to state baseball tradition and claim that such a ruling would be unprecedented in baseball history.
“I am a believer in the idea that precedent matters and when you deviate from it, you have to have a really good reason to do that.”
~ Rob Manfred
Kenesaw Mountain Landis (MLB Commissioner, 1920 – 1944)
As the first commissioner of Major League Baseball, every decision Kenesaw Mountain Landis made was inherently unprecedented, including the permanent ban for eight Chicago White Sox players suspected of throwing the 1919 World Series. It was a tough and controversial decision that restored the faith baseball fans and strengthened the game of baseball. The ban has exceeded the players’ lifetimes with various parties petitioning MLB for reinstatement over the years; most recently in 2015. The ban remains in effect.
Happy Chandler (MLB Commissioner, 1945 – 1951)
During his term as MLB commissioner, Happy Chandler, in an unprecedented decision, approved the contract of Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In doing so, Chandler broke with more than a half-century unspoken tradition in baseball and the informal policy of Landis, thereby helping pave the way for Robinson to be the first African American player to appear in the Major Leagues. It was a decision that was controversial in 1947, but one that strengthened the game of baseball immeasurably.
Bartlett Giamatti (MLB Commissioner, 1986 – 1989; died in office)
In 1989, following an investigation into whether baseball legend Pete Rose bet on games in which he played and managed, Bart Giamatti reached an unprecedented settlement with Rose in which he agreed to an immediate lifetime ban from baseball. As part of the settlement, Rose agreed to not challenge the ruling, “in court or otherwise.” At the time he agreed to the settlement, Rose believed the ban would be lifted quickly, stating, “As you can imagine, this is a very sad day for me. But I’m going to be out of baseball for a very short time.” The ban remains in place to this day and Rose is the only player in MLB history to be placed on the ineligible list by mutual agreement. It remains a controversial decision, but one that strengthened the game of baseball.
When faced with an unprecedented situation, either a crisis (as those faced by Landis, Giamatti, and Manfred) or an opportunity (like the one presented to Chandler), not only should an unprecedented solution be considered, it can be the best and most appropriate response.When faced with an unprecedented situation not only should an unprecedented solution be considered, it can be the best and most appropriate response. Click To Tweet
Manfred seemed to only consider what had already taken place and the removal of what had already been won. Had more time been spent looking forward and the Houston Astros been banned from the 2021 post-season, a bold and unmistakable message would have been sent to any player or team executive thinking about cheating in the future. It would be a controversial decision, but it would strengthen the game of baseball for years far beyond those of Manfred’s days as commissioner or even here upon earth.
Days which we all get far too few of. When your chance comes, be unprecedented.