There is something that still bothers Barry Larkin when he looks at his Most Valuable Player award.
In addition to his own name, there is another that is engraved on the trophy: that of Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
« Why is he there? » Asked Larkin, a black shortstop, who was voted National League MVP in 1995 with the Cincinnati Reds this week. « I was always aware of his name and what he meant for the color barrier in the major leagues to be erased more slowly, with all the injustices and racial inequality that black players have had to go through. »
In addition to being Most Valuable Player (MVP), Larkin was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Hired in 1920 as the first baseball commissioner to leave behind the gambling scandals, Landis and his legacy are « always surrounded by a complicated story, » which includes « documented racism, » said John Thorn, official major league historian.
There’s an incontrovertible fact: No black man played baseball in the majors during Landis’s quarter-century tenure. Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in April 1947, almost two and a half years after Landis died.
« Landis is part of the story, even if it’s a scary story, » said Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker.
The fact is, few fans even remember that Landis’s name is inscribed on all trophies for the Most Valuable Player. Most people only refer to this award as the MVP.
But there it is, prominently displayed on every National and American League plate since 1944: Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award. The letters are golden, and they measure almost twice as many as those that make up the winner’s name.
In addition, Landis’s face is engraved on the plaque.
And for some MVP winners, it’s time for that 75-year tradition to end.
« If you’re going to expose individuals in baseball history who promoted racism by keeping the sports doors closed for men of color, Kenesaw Landis would be a candidate, » said Mike Schmidt, three-time National League MVP with the Phillies. from Philadelphia.
« If you look back, in baseball in the early 1900s, this was normal, but it doesn’t hold up or is right now, » said Schmidt, a fellow Hall of Famer, who is white. “Withdrawing his name from the MVP trophy would highlight the injustice of that era. I would be happy to have the engraving on my trophies replaced. ”
Terry Pendleton, who was awarded the National League MVP with the Atlanta Braves in 1991, said: “This is 2020, and things have changed around the world. They can change to improve ”.
« The statues are falling, people analyze the monuments, » he said. “We need to get to the bottom of things, do the right thing. Yes, maybe it is time to change the name. I’ve always thought about it. Why is it still there? There’s no question, the MVP stands on its own, it doesn’t need a name. «
Many of baseball’s top trophies are named after legendary figures: Robinson, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Cy Young, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and others.
How did Landis get on the list? It is easy to trace the origin.
Landis, a federal judge in Chicago, quickly imposed his authority as commissioner. He threw Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox out of baseball for letting himself win in the 1919 World Series.
In 1931, Landis decided that the Baseball Writers Association of North America (BBWAA) should be tasked with choosing the winners of the Most Valuable Player award. Before that, leagues had their own, rather chaotic, system.
During the 1944 World Series, BBWAA voted to add Landis’ name to the plaque, as « an acknowledgment of his relationship with journalists, » said Jack O’Connell, who for years was secretary and treasurer of that association.
A month later, at age 78, Landis died. Before long he was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame.
« Landis is who he is. He was who he was, ”Thorn said. « I absolutely support the movement to remove the Confederate monuments, and Landis was demonically close to the Confederates. »
However, Landis’s father was a surgeon in the Union Army, wounded in the Civil War during the Battle of Mount Kennesaw in Georgia. That mountain became the inspiration for the commissioner’s peculiar name.
Born two years later in Ohio and christened with a slight alteration in the spelling of the mountain’s name, Landis spent time in Indiana and gained prominence in Chicago.
Its precise role in racial affairs has been the subject of debate for decades.
Prevented games between black and white stars. He invited a group of black newspaper editors to speak to the team owners, in what turned out to be a cordial but absolutely unsuccessful meeting.
Towards the end of his tenure, he told the owners that they were free to hire black baseball players. But there is no evidence that it has fostered integration in baseball, given that the status quo of segregation persisted.
« If you have the Jackie Robinson Prize and the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Prize, you are at diametrically opposite poles, » said Thorn. « And this represents a dilemma. »
O’Connell said that no Most Valuable Player had complained to him about Landis since 1994, when he took office. He commented that the inclusion of the Landis name on the plaque is not part of the BBWAA constitution.
Any member of the BBWAA can raise an objection against the reference to Landis.
Normally, this would generate a discussion during the organization’s next meeting, scheduled for December during the winter meetings in Dallas. However, the coronavirus pandemic has left us to see everything related to baseball.
A 60-game campaign should start in late July, and MVP winners are usually announced in November.
O’Connell said that if someone raises the issue now, it could be brought up to the board, before being brought up for discussion and voting.
Withdrawing the name of Landis « would simply be a matter of redesigning the plaque, » he said.
For Larkin, that would erase a stain on the trophy.
The former player recalled that, shortly after the MVP was chosen, he received a call from Joe Morgan, who had won the award twice in the National team. The black intermediary of the Great Red Machine spoke of Landis’ legacy and « said he was never happy with the name being there, » Larkin recalled.
And he himself agrees.
« Your name should not appear on a plaque or award of honor, especially in this day and time, » he said. « If his name were withdrawn, I would not object to that at all. »