“You can’t keep a Landis on the ground.”
-Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Omaha World-Herald, April 5, 1920
March 28, 2019, marks the earliest opening day in Major League Baseball history. 2019 also marks the 100th anniversary of the Black Sox Scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. In the wake of the scandal, baseball was looking to restore its integrity with a leader with his feet firmly on the ground. They elected Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first Commissioner (or “Czar”) of Baseball. A long-serving jurist from Chicago, Landis was known for his decisions against big businesses, like Standard Oil, and for slipping out to Cubs and White Sox games. But Landis also had his head in the clouds — a true aviation enthusiast!
In 1917, with the American entry into World War I, Landis’s son, Reed G. Landis, enlisted in the Aviation Section of the U.S. Signal Corps, becoming an ace with twelve aerial victories. The elder Landis considered joining himself at the age of 50. He even wrote to Secretary of War Newton Baker asking to join the service and be sent to France. Baker requested that Landis remain in the United States to support the war efforts. As such, he made visits to Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois. His first ever airplane flight was in a Standard JR-1 with Rudolph W. "Shorty" Schroeder piloting.
By 1920, Landis had logged 16 hours in the air in 10 separate airplane flights in a variety of aircraft from Standards to Curtiss Jennys to Avros. He made his first balloon flight on April 5, 1920, in the middle of a Nebraska snowstorm. His companions were Lt. Col. Jacob Wuest, commanding officer at Fort Omaha; Col. Joseph C. Morrow, aeronautical officer; and famous pioneering balloonist, A. Leo Stevens, who was currently the chief civilian adviser to the balloon division. The goal was to fly from Ft. Omaha directly to Chicago while testing a wireless system. Wrapped in wire, the party could receive telephone and telegram calls in its attempt to break a record of 15 miles for telephone communication with a balloon in flight. No response apparatus was included.
When asked why he made the trip, Landis responded, “Why, I’m anxious to see what happens, that’s all.” The balloon itself only made it to Anita, Iowa, reaching an altitude of 6,500 feet and encountering temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees below zero. Landis concluded, “…while I remain loyal to the heavier than air plane, I am strong for this free balloon.” He even signed on for a potential future balloon expedition that summer to signal Mars!
In November 1920, Landis took the position as Commissioner of Baseball. As the legend of Landis grew with his new baseball title, “Czar,” his flights were frequently in the news. When he took a trip with his wife to the Panama Canal Zone in 1925, he visited his son’s former assignment, the 25th Bombardment Squadron, and finagled a flight over the Canal. Landis was front and center with Orville Wright at the dedication of Wilbur Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, in 1927.
In 1930, Maj. Reed Landis served as the publicity director of the National Air Races in Landis’s hometown of Chicago, and his father was there with wings! In fact, Landis featured in a photo with his son as he purchased his grandstand ticket for the races directly from Reed.
Landis maintained his friendship with balloonist A. Leo Stevens through the years. Stevens made his home in Fly Creek, New York, just down the road from Cooperstown. Knowing that Landis would be present at the opening of the brand new Baseball Hall of Fame on June 12, 1939, Stevens invited Landis to visit, but Landis’s visit was too quick for a stop.
In May 1943, Landis wrote a letter to Stevens (recently found in the National Air and Space Museum Archives Technical Reference Files Collection). From the contents, we can guess that Stevens had invited Landis to review Stevens’ aviation and ballooning memorabilia and bring his own artifacts while visiting Cooperstown. Landis noted that his collection “is pretty small because I do not keep things.” But he did add, “It will be good to have a reunion with my old free balloonatic.”
The letterhead is simple and unassuming—one word—“Baseball.” The signature is that of a giant (though not of the New York or San Francisco kind). Both Stevens and Landis would die a year later in 1944.
As many Major League Baseball parks receive celebratory flyovers on Opening Day, remember Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first Czar of Baseball and aviation and ballooning enthusiast.