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Good on the BBWAA for removing Kenesaw Mountain Landis — and his history of racism — from MLB's MVP awards

Shalise Manza Young
·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·4-min read

It’s not like there hasn’t been any major news happening in the United States lately, even for the “stick to sports” crowd that certainly keeps its own word and never reads anything that doesn’t involve athletes or athletic contests.

So maybe you missed the news that last Friday the membership of the Baseball Writers Association of America — the BBWAA — overwhelmingly voted to remove Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ name from the MVP trophies it hands out each year.

The reason? There’s a good amount of evidence that Landis, Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, was racist.

If you didn’t know the MVP award was named for Landis, you’re in good company. But it is.

Or at least, it was.

The octagonal plaque given to the winners from the American and National leagues has for decades featured Landis’ name in giant letters around the outer edge and even an imprint of his face. His name was far bigger than that of the players who won, their name and team etched on a small plate in the center of the plaque.

Earlier this year, 1995 NL MVP Barry Larkin, 1991 NL MVP Terry Pendleton and three-time NL MVP Mike Schmidt — Larkin and Pendleton are Black, Schmidt is white — told the Associated Press that it was time for Landis’ name to be gone from the award.

Cincinnati Reds legend Barry Larkin has been outspoken against Kenesaw Mountain Landis' name being on baseball's MVP awards. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Cincinnati Reds legend Barry Larkin has been outspoken against Kenesaw Mountain Landis' name being on baseball's MVP awards. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

“Why is it on there?” Larkin wondered.

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

Kudos to the BBWAA for agreeing.

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and The Athletic made the proposal to the BBWAA body, and last week it voted. Eighty-nine percent were in favor of removing Landis’ name. For this year at least, the award won’t be named after anyone.

In the same way that removing Confederate statues from city centers doesn’t erase them from history, taking Landis’ name off the award doesn’t erase him from baseball. (And at least his tenure with MLB lasted a lot longer than the losers of the Confederacy.)

It is a recognition of the discomfort of some of the game’s biggest names and of the complicated legacy of Landis, which official MLB historian John Thorn said includes “documented racism.”

What can’t be disputed is that during his 24 years as MLB commissioner, teams were never integrated. Landis broke up exhibition games between teams of Black all-stars against white all-stars, and Bill Veeck alleged in his 1961 memoir that when he wanted to buy the Phillies in 1942 and fill the roster with Negro League players, Landis blocked the sale.

While he publicly said that there was no rule banning Negro players in baseball, it’s probably not a coincidence that Jackie Robinson didn’t debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers until two-plus years after Landis’ death.

As Schmidt noted, Landis wasn’t an outlier during his time. The NFL had Black players in its earliest years, but from just after the Great Depression until after World War II ended, it had none. And to this day, the league is touchy with race-related issues; commissioner Roger Goodell has said recently he encourages NFL teams to sign Colin Kaepernick, and we’ve seen how that’s gone.

That doesn’t make Landis’ the behavior right, or mean that we should continue celebrating those who had such antiquated ideas. MLB has a big enough problem getting young Black players into the sport already. Continuing to metaphorically shout out the name of a man integral of keeping Black players out of the game by naming its biggest award after him doesn’t help things.

If the BBWAA is taking suggestions, may we suggest one of their own: the Claire Smith Most Valuable Player Award. Has a nice ring to it, no?

Smith is a pioneer: a Black woman who covered baseball for decades, beginning in 1983 when she followed the New York Yankees for the Hartford Courant. She thrived despite opposition in the press box and beyond — during the 1984 NLCS, she was physically removed from the San Diego Padres clubhouse even though she had the proper credentials to be there. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who went on to be a sports columnist at the New York Times, in 2017 Smith became the first woman to win the J.G. Taylor Spink Award and was honored as part of induction weekend at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

That’s a valuable legacy, and it would be a most valuable addition to the awards. Certainly more so than the name they just subtracted.

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