Former MVPs say ex-MLB commissioner with history of racism should be removed from plaque

As America attempts to reconcile its history of racism and argues about what to do with monuments of slave owners, a conversation is beginning in baseball about the racial implications of one of the game’s most prestigious trophies.

Each year, the MVP award is handed out to the best players in the American League and National League. The common fan may not realize the MVP plaque is decorated largely with the words: “Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award” with a picture of Landis, MLB’s first commissioner.

That, in and of itself, isn’t uncommon. The Cy Young award is quite literally named after someone. Recent years have seen MLB name Rookie of the Year award after Jackie Robinson and its relief pitcher awards after Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman.

There is one key difference, however: Landis has a history of racism. He the commissioner in MLB before integration. History usually paints him as opposed to integration or a man who slowed it. MLB’s official historian John Thorn told The Associated Press that Landis’ legacy is “always a complicated story” that includes “documented racism.” It wasn’t until Landis died Robinson broke the color barrier.

Now, former MVPs — some Black, some white — are wondering whether it’s time to take Landis’ name and image off the plaque.

The AP’s Ben Walker talked to Barry Larkin, Mike Schmidt, Terry Pendleton, all past MVPs, and all agreed that having Landis’ name on the award in 2020 is problematic.

“If you’re looking to expose individuals in baseball’s history who promoted racism by continuing to close baseball’s doors to men of color, Kenesaw Landis would be a candidate,” three-time NL MVP Mike Schmidt of Philadelphia said.

“Looking back to baseball in the early 1900s, this was the norm. It doesn’t make it right, though,” said the Hall of Famer, who is white. “Removing his name from the MVP trophy would expose the injustice of that era. I’d gladly replace the engraving on my trophies.”

Said Larkin:

“His name should not be represented on a plaque or award of honor, especially at this day and time. If his name was taken off, I would not be opposed to it at all.”

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/9552/" data-ylk="slk:Mookie Betts">Mookie Betts</a>, right, receives his 2018 MVP plaque, which is inscribed as the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Mookie Betts, right, receives his 2018 MVP plaque, which is inscribed as the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Who was Kenesaw Mountain Landis?

Landis rose to power in baseball during the Black Sox scandal. He was a federal judge before becoming the MLB commissioner in 1920. It was Landis who banned eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox from baseball.

At a time in which the Negro Leagues had talents like Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin and Satchel Paige, Landis was presiding over Major League Baseball. While historians disagree a bit about whether he was firmly opposed to integration or just slowed it, the fact is that baseball remained segregated until after his death.

He served as MLB’s first commissioner until he died. He was eventually voted into the Hall of Fame. Landis decided in 1931 that the Baseball Writers Association of America would vote for the MVPs in each league, a practice that still stands. In 1944, a month before he died, the BBWAA voted to put Landis’ name and image on the award.

Thorn, MLB’s historian, sees how having awards named after both Landis and Robinson puts MLB at odds with itself.

“Landis is who he is. He was who he was,” Thorn told the AP. “I absolutely support the movement to remove Confederate monuments, and Landis was pretty damn near Confederate.

“If you have the Jackie Robinson Award and the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Award, you are at diametrically opposed poles,” Thorn said. “And it does represent a conundrum.”

What’s next for the MVP award?

Confederate monuments are a timely analogy for the MVP award, it appears. Pendleton compared the two and said it might be time for a change in baseball too.

“Statues are coming down, people are looking at monuments and memorials,” he said. “We need to get to the bottom of things, to do what’s right. Yes, maybe it is time to change the name.”

“I’ve always thought about that, why is that still on there?” Pendleton said. “No doubt, MVP stands on its own. It doesn’t need a name.”

MLB itself doesn’t dictate the name of the award, so a change would have to come from the BBWAA. Jack O’Connell, the longtime secretary-treasuer of the BBWAA told the AP a change would be as easy as redesigning the plaque if the writers were to agree to it — but that might not happen before the end of the 2020 season.

The issue could be raised and discussed, but the next normally scheduled BBWAA meeting would happen at the winter meetings in December.

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