Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis vs. Arthur Shires
Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis
by Kathy Warnes
“He who raises a hand against the game of baseball strikes a blow at a national institution. The game belongs to the people.” Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis
Both Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, First Commissioner of Baseball from 1920 to 1944, and Chicago White Sox first baseman turned boxer, Charles Arthur Shires, had colorful personalities that made their clash of wills resound like a Louisville Slugger 125 bat cracking a baseball to homerun status.
Charles Arthur Shires, Fiery Chicago White Sox First Baseman
Kenesaw Mountain Landis (Kenesaw was a misspelling of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia where his father had fought in the Civil War) had pulled himself up by his bootstraps from high school drop out to lawyer and judge with an office in downtown Chicago. When he became the First Commissioner of Baseball in 1920, he installed a sign that said “Baseball” on his office door.
The career of Charles Arthur Shires, or “Arthur the Great Shires”, as both admiring fans and derisive detractors called him, had accumulated a .387 batting average, including 11 home runs, playing 108 games for the Waco Cubs in the Texas league. The Chicago White Sox signed him in July 1928, and on August 20, 1928, Shires played his first game with the White Sox. He earned four hits in five at bats and replaced Bud Clancy as starting first baseman. Shires ended the 1928 season with a .341 average for 33 games.
Before the 1929 season started, White Sox Manager Lena Blackburne chose Arthur Shires to be the team captain to replace third baseman Willie Kamm who resigned to concentrate on his hitting. Two weeks after the White Sox played their opening day game against the Cleveland Blues on April 24, 1929, Blackburne demoted Shires from his team captain position, stating that Shires didn’t keep in shape, he kept late hours, and he consistently broke training rules.
White Sox Manager Lena Blackburne Suspends Arthur the Great
The May 17, 1929, edition of the Milwaukee Journal reported that Lena Blackburne and Arthur the Great threw some punches at each other and Blackburne acquired a black eye. As well as being demoted as captain, Shires found himself suspended from the White Sox baseball team. After a week of thinking it over, Arthur the Great apologized to Lena Blackburne and Blackburne reinstated him, but as a part time player to occasionally pinch hit.
On June 3, 1929, United Press writer George Kirksey reported in The Pittsburgh Press that Arthur the Great had said, “Everything’s all patched up now and I’ll be in there pretty soon. I’m too good a ball player to be riding on the bench. They’ll be needing me any day now.”
Blackburne reinstated his problem player, but on September 14, 1929, Arthur Shires and Lena Blackburne fought a return match after Blackburne again tried to censure him for breaking team rules. Some sportswriters and fans speculated that Arthur the Great might lose his job after this suspension, but Lena Blackburne turned out to be the jobless White Sox player at the end of the season. Shires finished up his 1929 White Sox season with a .312 batting average, three home runs and 41 runs batted in.
Arthur the Great, The Fighting First Baseman
Arthur the Great decided to take up boxing in the 1929 off season, since he had so successfully punched Lena Blackburne during the season. He entered the ring wearing a robe with “Arthur the Great” emblazoned on back. In his first match he took 21 seconds to knock out his opponent, an obscure fighter named Dan Daly.
Then sports reporters and the sports buzz rumored that Chicago Cubs outfielder Hack Wilson had signed a contract for a match with Arthur the Great in January 1930. Chicago fight promoters offered a large purse for the match until Chicago Cubs President William Veeck, Sr. and Chief Stockholder William Wrigley, Jr. huddled and refused to permit their star outfielder to fight. William Wrigley stated that if Hack Wilson went into the ring, the Cubs would trade him.
December 18, 1929, proved to be a knockout day for Arthur the Great. He lost a match with Chicago Bears football player George Trafton. A few weeks later the National Boxing Association and the Michigan State Boxing Commission and Illinois State Boxing Commission suspended Shires after investigators charged that his manager had offered money to an upcoming opponent to throw a fight.
Soon after this came to light, Dan Daly confessed to the Illinois State Boxing Commission that he had deliberately lost his fight to Arthur the Great. Eventually the boxing commissions cleared Shires, because they could find no evidence that he had fixed the fights.
Arthur the Great became more famous after he had been cleared of the fight fixing charges. Wherever he appeared he packed the arenas, out drawing even the most famous fighters. In January 1930, Shires defeated Boston Braves player Al Spohrer by a technical knockout in four rounds at the Boston Garden. His promoter had arranged several other fights when Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis summoned Arthur the Great to his downtown Chicago office with the baseball sign on the door.
On January 18, 1930, confident boxer Arthur the Great marched in to confront the Commissioner of Baseball. He had already earned more money boxing than playing first base the entire 1929 season and he wanted his lucrative second career to last. Five minutes later when Arthur the Great walked out of the Commissioner of Baseball’s office, he knew that he had to choose between playing baseball in the on season and boxing in the off season.
After Arthur the Great had slammed the door, Commissioner Landis scrawled a statement on a slip of paper that would mold all future cases. “Hereafter, any person connected with the organization of baseball who takes part in a professional boxing match will be considered by the baseball office as being permanently retired from baseball. “
The last line of the message condensed the Commissioner’s reasoning. “The two activities do not mix.”
Commissioner Landis earned a reputation as a dictator, preserver of baseball, eradicator of baseball graft and gambling and rabid racist and sexist who would not allow black players or women to play in major league baseball.
Reactions to Kenesaw Mountain Landis were and still are, mixed. Eighth Commissioner Fay Vincent who served from 1989 to 1992, once said, “That middle name tells you all there is to know about how tough he was.” Founder and first president of the American League, Ban Johnson called Landis, “a wild-eyed nut.”
Arthur Shires went on to play first base for the Washington Senators and Boston Braves, finishing his baseball career with the Boston Braves in 1932. In his four year major league career, he played 290 games, scoring 71 hits in 298 at bats for a .291 career batting average. He hit 11 home runs, batted in 119 runs and earned an on base percentage of .347 and a .988 fielding percentage. In Chicago, stories of his boxing matches far outlasted his playing record with the White Sox.
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Pietrusza, David. Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Diamond Communications, 1998.
Seymour, Harold. Baseball: The Early Years. Oxford University Press, 1989.
Ward, Geoffrey C., and Burns, Ken. Baseball: An Illustrated History. Knopf, 1996.