On April 24, 1945 A.B. “Happy” Chandler was elected baseball’s second commissioner. Chandler served into 1951, earning himself election into baseball’s Hall of Fame. But that was just one part of a distinguished life.
Like a lot of people, I’d like to someday be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But that’s a tough row to hoe. At this stage, we can eliminate my being inducted in as a player, which leaves far fewer choices open But let’s pretend I was a mere babe, with all the choices in the world. What would be my best path to the Hall?
As it turns out, commissioner. There have been nine baseball commissioners. One, Bud Selig, is still “active,” so to speak. Of the eight past commissioners, four are currently in the Hall of Fame: Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Bowie Kuhn, Ford Frick and Happy Chandler. No other category—umpires, players, executives—offers a seemingly 50 percent chance of ending up in the Hall of Fame.
Chandler grew up, at least according to his own telling of the story, poor in Kentucky. His mother abandoned the family when he was young, but Chandler nonetheless excelled in sports and academics, earning himself a place at Transylvania College.
(The college takes its name from the Latin meaning of the word, rather than the European area known for its vampire culture. Indeed the school was founded before Dracula was written.)
Chandler’s education at Transylvania was briefly interrupted when he joined the Army in the midst of World War I, though the Armistice was signed before he saw any serious action. He continued to excel athletically, earning his lifelong nickname for his cheerful disposition on the teams.
He briefly attended Harvard Law School, but eventually earned his law school degree from the University of Kentucky. After a few years of private practice, Chandler entered government service, beginning in the Kentucky state Senate in 1930 and rising to the position of governor by 1935.
(Chandler’s star rose on his opposition to parimutuel betting. It was eventually defeated, but has since rebounded and is now the standard in horse and similar forms of racing. He further boosted his career by using his powers as lieutenant governor to change the laws to enhance his chances of ousting the standing governor, with whom Chandler disagreed on many issues.)
Labeled the “Boy Governor,” Chandler was just 37 when he took office. He supported pensions for teachers, a foreshadowing of one of his great accomplishments as commissioner. In 1939, after some minor political chicanery, Chandler was appointed to the U.S. Senate.
Chandler’s time in the Senate largely coincided with World War II. During the war, he was known for his belief that the war on the Asian front should not be a second priority to the European theatre. Less seriously, he also was an active supporter of keeping major league baseball going through the war.
In 1945, he resigned from the Senate to take the position of baseball commissioner. It was the first time in more than 15 years that Chandler had worked for someone other than the state of Kentucky or United States government.
Chandler was actually the last candidate nominated for the vacancy created after the death of Landis, but was elected unanimously. Chandler’s greatest accomplishment came during his first year in office, when Branch Rickey declared his intention to break the color line of professional baseball. While 15 of baseball’s then-16 owners opposed the move, Chandler supported Rickey and Jackie Robinson was signed to play for the Dodgers’ Montreal farm club.
The year 1947 was the most contentious of Chandler’s tenure, albeit one not without successes. At the beginning of the year, Chandler suspended Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for a year for “conduct detrimental to the game of baseball.” Whether this was because of Durocher’s alleged connections to gamblers, his supposedly having stolen his wife from another man or his behavior relating to the opening of the Yankees’ manager job was never quite clear. In fact, Chandler’s official reason was the “accumulation of unpleasant incidents.”
That season also saw, of course, Robinson’s debut at the major league level, and while Chandler is not a prominent feature in the story of Jackie’s first season, his behind-the-scenes role should not be underestimated. But ’47 also saw one of Chandler’s great non-Robinson accomplishments. That year he established the player pension fund, harking back to his days as Kentucky governor. The pension fund was started with the nearly half a million dollar deal Chandler helped negotiate for radio rights to the World Series that year.
Two years later, Chandler arranged a $4.375 million deal for the radio rights to the Series for next seven years. Nearly $40 million in modern dollars, all the money from that deal again went to the pension fund. A season later Chandler secured a million dollars a year for the next six years of World Series television rights, which also went directly to the players’ pension fund.
Aware he was unlikely to be reelected to his position—perhaps because of what was widely viewed a pro-player stance or his support of Robinson’s integration—Chandler resigned in 1951. He was a virtual pariah from baseball thereafter until the election of Bowie Kuhn to the commissioner’s office. During his exile, Chandler declared of the owners that “they forgot me and I forgot them.”
He continued life as a private citizen but only briefly. Chandler ran once again for governor of Kentucky, using the marvelous slogan “Be Like Your Pappy and Vote for Happy.” He won.
Somewhat bizarrely, given his past support for Robinson, Chandler aligned himself with Strom Thurmond and the “Dixiecrats,” alienating himself from the national Democratic Party. Even so, in 1956 Chandler used National Guard troops to integrate Kentucky schools.
His Hall of Fame election in 1982 completed his reintroduction in the fold of baseball. He published an autobiography at the age of 89, and died just three years later. His grandson, also named Albert Benjamin Chandler, is currently a U.S. representative from Kentucky, continuing the family tradition.