Happy Chandler Had to Approve Robinson’s Dodger Contract
The dogwood is in its glory and the mockingbirds in full song, but the news from the Bluegrass during Kentucky Derby week is that Albert Benjamin Chandler is not happy.
Chandler, Happy Chandler, has participated in a lot of history in his 88 years, and now he feels slighted by the recorders of one proud moment of it.
“I’m not sore at anybody, pardner, you know better than that,” he was saying the other day. “But what I’ve been reading about the Jackie Robinson matter leaves out a key part. I think the record ought to be put straight, that’s all.”
Jackie Robinson became the first black to play in the major leagues. That happened 40 years ago, an American milestone being observed this baseball season. What is overlooked, the genial Kentuckian insists, is that the key part played in breaking down that racial barrier was his part, Chandler’s.
“The facts are obvious,” he said. “I had to approve Robinson’s contract. Without my approval it could not have happened. The pressure was on me not to approve it, but I approved it. That’s the way it was.”
Chandler was the commissioner of baseball in 1947. Over the four decades since then, however, Branch Rickey, general manager and part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, has been generally acknowledged as the man who erased baseball’s color line--if one person can be cited. It was Rickey who signed Robinson, then called him up from the Dodgers’ Montreal farm team.
“I take nothing away from what Mr. Rickey did,” Chandler said. “But I know what Hank Aaron said the day we were both inducted into the Hall of Fame.”
Aaron, the Atlanta Braves’ slugger, and Chandler, described on his Hall of Fame plaque as “iron willed and honest ... known as the players’ commissioner,” were inducted in 1982.
“Hank Aaron stood up and pointed to me and said, ‘If it weren’t for that man I wouldn’t be here today.’ And when it came my turn to speak, all the Hall of Famers there, the players, stood up and applauded. Mrs. Robinson also was there and she applauded loudest of all.
“I wasn’t running for anything in 1947,” he said, “but I wasn’t running from anything either. I did what I did because it was right.
“And I’m not running for anything now. I haven’t complained. I’ve only answered people who have asked about what happened back then.
“My feelings then were not a secret. When the owners elected me, unanimously, in 1945, a reporter asked me whether I thought blacks should be in the major leagues. Everybody knows what I answered. It was in the papers. I said if they were good enough in Guadalcanal they were good enough in the major leagues.”
The fact that Happy Chandler, even at his age, isn’t running for anything qualifies as somewhat newsworthy.
He was twice elected governor of Kentucky, something no other person has done in this century, and twice elected to the U.S. Senate. In all, he ran for 13 elective offices over three generations and won 12. When he ran for governor the second time, after his stint as baseball commissioner, Jackie Robinson came to Kentucky to campaign for him.
Those races don’t include his election as baseball commissioner, for which he didn’t have to shake a single hand.
Mention of that fact started Happy Chandler to reminiscing. The old campaigner, as ebullient as ever, says he can remember everything that happened to him all his life, including the year 1947.
“Pardner, I have total recall since I was four.”
So what pressure was put on him not to approve Robinson’s contract?
“In January of 1947 the 16 baseball club owners called a meeting. It was at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. They asked me to preside.
“I knew why they called it. It was entirely for my benefit. They wanted to let me know how they felt about letting Jackie Robinson in the majors and they knew as commissioner I had to approve the contract. That was the only subject discussed.
“I announced the vote. It was 15 to 1. Branch Rickey’s was the only yes vote.
“When I got back home, Rickey was on the phone saying he wanted to come see me. I told him, come on.
“He sat in that chair where you’re sitting, and I sat in this chair where I’m sitting. He said, ‘Commissioner, you know I can’t do this without you.’ I said, ‘I know.’ All of them knew that the commissioner has to approve every major league contract. We talked for an hour, maybe two, but the matter was decided right away. I told him we would do it, and if there was a fight we would make the fight.
“When he left I called my office. The commissioner’s office was just over in Cincinnati, although I did a lot of my work right here. I told my chief contract man, George Dedman, that Jackie Robinson’s contract would be submitted and if it was in order it was to be approved. That was that. Amen.”
Any other pressure?
“Yes. Even before that meeting in New York, some of the owners of Negro League clubs remonstrated with me. They said that if I allowed the majors to take away their best players, it would ruin them, destroy their league. Which it would, and I understood their problem. They got the same answer.”
Why did the major league owners select Sen. Chandler as commissioner in the first place?
“Well, I had played minor league baseball. I threw a no-hitter for Grafton, N.D., in the Class D Red River Valley League and had a tryout in Triple A, in Saskatoon. But that was it. Then I went on to Harvard Law School. So they knew I knew something about baseball.
“But I think they anticipated the racial matter. They knew I was a Southerner. I am. I’m proud of it. My grandfather was a sergeant in Morgan’s cavalry. I also think they regarded me as sort of a bumpkin, somebody they could manipulate. They discovered they couldn’t.”
Was that why his seven-year contract as commissioner was not renewed in 1951?
“I’ve never said that. But do you think it helped? The vote was 11 to 5 and I needed 12, 75%. I’ve been told that if I had made one phone call I could have gotten the 12th, but I didn’t.
“I know that when they voted on my successor, Ford Frick, two owners, Clark Griffith (Washington Senators) and Connie Mack (Philadelphia Athletics) turned in blank ballots as a protest. They told me so.
“Some of them also were against me because of the players’ pension fund. I set it up. When baseball became televised I put all that new money into the fund. That wasn’t popular with the owners, but it was with the players.
“Come with me, pardner.”
Happy Chandler, grinning, led the way through hallways decorated with plaques and photos and other honoraria of his years in public life, to his bedroom. He rummaged in his dresser drawer and, beneath the shirts, found what he was after.
“Look at this,” he said. With his fingertips, he lifted out a baseball autographed by Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb.
“And look at this.” He came up with a silver tray and wiped it gently with the sleeve of his sweater. It was given to him in 1951, when he retired as commissioner. The inscription said it was from the players of the major leagues.
“The players,” Happy Chandler said. “Not the owners.”