Skip to main content
Original Issue

Happy Days

In the 90th baseball season of his life, former commissioner Happy Chandler is still at the top of his game

It was time for lunch. Happy Chandler, who is five years older than the World Series, suggested the barbecue at Scotty's Pink Pig over in Frankfort, which is Kentucky's capital and where he arrived as a state senator going on 60 years ago, making $10 a day when the legislature was in session. Mama is playing bridge today at the famous Bluegrass blue-blood hangout, the Idle Hour, which the Governor describes as "the flooziest country club in the commonwealth." Happy himself does not play bridge, inasmuch as "there are too many cards for one hand to hold," but then he has never played poker, either, or bet the thoroughbreds or partaken of any other games of chance. Notwithstanding, one of his very best friends in Washington was Cactus Jack Garner, FDR's first vice-president, who, during his years in Congress before ascending to that high office, spent enough of his time at poker to make $100,000 at that noble pursuit, which came in handy when he went back home and bought downtown Uvalde, Texas.

So, understand: The Governor certainly has nothing personal against cardplayers, or against folks who drink whiskey, either, even though John Barleycorn has never touched his own lips. This is largely on account of his grandfather, a second sergeant in Morgan's cavalry during what Happy refers to as the War Between the States (as southern people of his generation and perhaps the next still do), because Grandfather Chandler frittered away the Chandler money while manfully attempting "to drink up all the whiskey in the world." As a consequence, Happy's father and Happy himself never drank, which helps explain why the elder teetotaling Chandler lived to 90 and why Happy was 89 this Bastille Day. The bourbon-guzzling Grandfather Chandler paid dearly for a life of excess, of course; he bought the farm when he was a tipsy 93.

It would appear, then, that Happy, who is older than the Boy Scouts, has one year left sober—or four if he gets down to some serious drinking. The Governor is so old that he calls Ted Williams, who's old enough to be on Social Security now, "a nice boy" and refers to Barry Bingham, the patriarch of the famous Kentucky newspaper family, as "a lovely youngster." Bingham is 81. Most people know of the wife of John Y. Brown, another former governor. Happy knew his grandparents. Happy ran for office through so many generations, he developed a slogan: Be like your pappy, vote for Happy! Happy knows most everybody, living or dead. When people say, "Governor, do you know so-and-so?" Happy usually replies, "I knew his parents before he was born." Happy is older than the Rotary, Southern Methodist University and jazz. He is two years older than the Ayatollah Khomeini.

He gets to kiss a lot of pretty women, regardless of their age. At Scotty's Pink Pig, for example, Clayton Bradley, proprietress of that establishment and president of the Democratic Women's Club of Kentucky, gives him a big kiss when he arrives. As does Clayton's daughter. As do various and sundry female customers. Many good-looking women tell the Governor that he is the only man, save their husbands, allowed to take such liberties. He calls these shameless hussies either "honey" or "baby" and much enjoys this physical gratuity. If Mama, who married him a scant 62 years ago, wants to go over to the flooziest country club in the commonwealth and waste her time playing bridge with the girls, then that's her own tough luck. "Governor, my, aren't you looking well," says one of his female fans at the Pink Pig. "There's three stages of life," Happy replies, winking. "Youth, maturity and my-aren't-you-looking-well."

Often, though, he is so damned proud of such compliments that he holds up his arm and makes a muscle. It's solid, too. And Happy is five years older than airplanes.

Also, apart from Muhammad Ali and maybe Man o' War, the Governor is the most famous Kentuckian of the 20th century. And he has outlived just about everybody. John Stennis is the only one left in the United States Senate from Happy's days there, and Alf Landon must surely be the only governor still living from back when Happy first ran the commonwealth 52 years ago. Colonel Matt Winn is long gone from Churchill Downs, and Alben Barkley, the Veep, from Washington; Adolph Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass, is spinning in his grave about something or other, and Colonel Sanders has some white wings now, to match his suit. But Happy's still just fine.

Be lucky, go Happy! was his first campaign slogan. His baby blues twinkle, and that's a bounty. When he was a younger fellow, Happy Chandler's eyebrows were so black and full—a surrey with the fringe on top—that they dominated his face, and his crinkly little eyes got lost in the shadows. But now those eyebrows are thin and white, and people—those who kiss him and those who don't—can see how pretty his eyes have been all these years.

"Let me get my stick over there, pardner," he says. The cane is his only evident concession to age. He puts on his blue Kentucky Wildcat cap, to go with his white Kentucky Wildcat sport shirt, and starts moving through the house at 191 Elm, where he and Mama have lived for 54 years, raising their four children and manifold laughs and memories. "Gonna take you down to the basement later, Pardner," Happy says. "Want you to see the natural stone foundation. This is the best-built house in the commonwealth." But first there is another sight to visit on the property.

The Governor leads the way out the backdoor and down the path past the tomato plants to his cabin, which is made of walnut logs. The walls inside are lined with his lawbooks and the mounted sailfish he has caught. "I'm just showing you this because you can't see it anywhere else," he explains. And then he takes his place at his desk and points to the chair next to it, where the Mahatma sat and puffed on his big cigar one winter's day 40 years ago. Two other people the Governor has outlived are Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson.

If Happy Chandler had been a slightly better football coach, which is all in the world he wanted to be, he never would have become baseball commissioner. He played quarterback (and some linebacker) at Transylvania College in Lexington after arriving there in 1917 from Henderson County with barely five bucks in his pocket. His father was a postman, and his mother had run off when he was four, leaving little Happy to help out the best he could for a quarter a day, planting tobacco. He was Albert then (as christened) or, occasionally, Irish, but once he was tagged with Happy at Transylvania, it never left him.

Of course Happy must have rather liked Happy, otherwise he could have left it behind without a trace when he went off to Harvard Law. There he served as the local behind-the-lines scout for the Centre College Praying Colonels in 1921, when that unknown team from Kentucky beat Harvard in what is still one of the great upsets in the history of college football. Bo McMillin scored the only touchdown, and Uncle Charley Moran was the coach. Happy sat on the bench and, afterward, in the madness, McMillin deputized him to carry the sacred game ball back from Cambridge to the team's hotel in Boston. Even more significant, before the game, Uncle Charley had bidden Happy come into the Praying Colonels' locker room and sing Down The Road To Home Sweet Home. There was, the Governor recalls, not a dry eye in the house.

Young Happy was also a fine basketball player. For much of his first two years at Transylvania he was "back guard," but sometime during his sophomore season "they let me shoot," and he went for 14 in a 25-14 shellacking of Louisville. In baseball he was a pitcher with a sneaky curve, good enough to let him play in the Red River League up in North Dakota, where he pitched a no-hitter. Was that Organized Baseball, Governor? "It was a league," he says. After failing a tryout in Saskatoon, he returned to Kentucky. There, in the Bluegrass League, playing for Lexington, he hit a grand slam. He coached high school football in his new hometown of Versailles (pronounced ver-SALES), women's college basketball at the University of Kentucky and freshman football at Centre. When Uncle Charley left and Happy was passed over for the head job, he was so devastated that he gave up sports for politics, started singing My Old Kentucky Home instead of Down The Road To Home Sweet Home and began making speeches to anybody. "One year," he says, "I made 890 speeches, Pardner, only a friend told me I made one speech 890 times."

His big chance came in 1935 when he was "the boy lieutenant governor" and his boss left the state to visit Washington in quest of federal funds. As soon as the governor's train crossed the West Virginia line, a secretary called Happy. "You're governor, Happy," he said. Immediately, Acting Governor Chandler began appointing Kentucky Colonels and ordered an emergency session of the legislature, which changed the election laws and, providently, helped speed Happy into the governor's mansion in 1935. Then, when one of Kentucky's senators died, the Governor resigned so that his successor could appoint him to the Senate. In a special election in 1940 and again in 1942 the Kentucky voters returned him to the Senate, where, among other accomplishments, he became one of five members to be dispatched around the world to examine World War II battlefields.

When Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had served baseball as its first and only commissioner for a quarter of a century, died in 1944, baseball asked Senator Chandler if he might be interested. Larry MacPhail of the New York Yankees was the Governor's baseball patron. The salary was, for openers, $50,000. As a senator, Happy was making $10,000 and what few more bucks he could scrape out of his 15 acres of tobacco in Versailles. "Mama," he asked, "how long has this been going on?"

Early in his tenure, which began in 1945, Happy said, "As baseball commissioner, I'm compelled to spend the winters in Florida and attend baseball games during the summer. If there's a better job than this, I don't know what it is." Then he got to know his constituents, the owners. "There were a lot of common suckers," he says. "I wouldn't have let some of 'em in my house."

Many of them didn't like it that the new commissioner acted as bossy as the old. Happy tossed Leo Durocher, then managing the Dodgers, out for a whole year; he angered the owners by denying them the right to sign kids before they graduated from high school; he prevented them from keeping prospects unfairly bottled up in the minors; he denied them Sunday night ball; he warned them that they had better change their ways or antitrust would catch up with them. He dealt with a short-lived challenge from the Mexican League, and he instituted the players' retirement plan, which the Governor still thinks may have irritated the owners more than anything. "It touched their pocketbooks," he explained, "but then, I've always been pension-minded—I also got 'em for the troopers, the schoolteachers, the state employees."

In 1951, a year before his expected reelection, Happy was blindsided by an owners' cabal, and though he carried the vote 9-7, he lacked the necessary three-fourths majority. "If Jesus was commissioner for six years and did a fair job, he couldn't get 75 percent of the votes," the Governor says, and he quotes an old politician: "When people decide to vote against you, they do it for a good reason, for a bad reason or for no reason at all."

His successor, Ford Frick, would raise sycophancy to an art and ride it all the way to the Hall of Fame. "After I left, they had a vacancy for the job of commissioner and decided to keep it," is the way Happy explains what happened. Happy returned to politics and was elected governor again in 1955, but he never stopped seeking wider horizons. He once wistfully envisioned a 1960 Democratic ticket that would have had him on the top and a young senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, running as vice-president. By 1968, the Governor was ready to settle for the second spot on George Wallace's ticket and, indeed, it wasn't until the last moment that he was bumped for Curtis LeMay. But commissioner of baseball would remain his only national office. And apart from the owners, it was good duty, too.

"Give the kids a ball and a bat and a corner lot, and you don't have to worry about juvenile delinquency in that neighborhood," he declared. Happy still keeps autographed balls about his house and a framed autograph of Christy Mathew-son on the wall. "I'm only going to show you this because you won't see it anywhere else," he explains. He has numerous mementos of Ty Cobb. Happy has always adored Ty Cobb. "I have total recall," the Governor says, and his most impressive mnemonic feat used to be keeping track of precisely how many more at bats Pete Rose had than the Georgia Peach. Happy also remembers his World War I service number, which is 5311754, and unfaded opinions are likewise provided upon request:

Judge Landis: "He was a lot like my friend Rupp. He didn't like much of anybody, and nobody much liked him, either."

Connie Mack: "A saint. Like some of the owners back then, he had to live by his wits. After I was fired, he and Clark Griffith handed in blank ballots rather than vote for Frick."

Del Webb, the Yankees owner: "The most refreshingly ignorant sonofabitch I ever met. If I'd been reelected, I was thinking about getting rid of him and he knew it. His partner was Dan Topping. He never carried anything heavier than a knife and fork in his whole life."

President Roosevelt: "Every time he said, 'My friends,...' a million suckers jumped up, and I never did understand that."

President Truman: "He wasn't even the best senator from Missouri. I don't know if he ever gave a damn about anything."

Bill Veeck: "An authentic baseball man. Unlike a lot of owners, if you caught him doing something tricky, he'd just go belly up and take what was coming to him. He understood. It was as simple as a goose going barefoot."

Satchel Paige: "He threw everything knee-high, and I always thought that's what you had to do to win. But I thought the best two pitchers I ever saw were Walter Johnson and Lefty Grove. I'da used Old Satch in relief and nobody would've ever got on base."

Leo Durocher: "People asked me if it wasn't hard suspending him for a year. But, hell, I signed 36 death warrants when I was governor, including two men they hung in the courthouse yard for rape. If you ask me, I was lenient on Durocher. He got paid that year. Branch Rickey asked me if he could keep on paying him, and I said sure, hell, it's your money. I met Durocher's second wife, a lovely little child named Grace Dozier, twice. First, she was pleading for him, and then I met her after Durocher'd been reinstated. That second time she just said, 'Governor, you knew he was an s.o.b. all the time, didn't you?' And I said, 'You said that, I didn't.' "

The Governor admired Durocher's boss, Branch Rickey, albeit with some large qualifications, notably those involving sanctimony. One time, though, all differences were aside, and they found themselves alone together. This was in 946, when the owners took a secret ballot after a meeting in Chicago. The vote was 5-, Brooklyn being the only club in favor of breaking the color line.

Forgotten sometimes in the murk of history is that Rickey was not the first owner to try to bring blacks into baseball. Veeck, for one, wanted to field a whole black major league team during the war. The Mahatma was simply the first to make the attempt after Judge Landis died. Landis was on record as not even allowing major league teams to barnstorm against Negro league teams in the off-season. It had been assumed that the Governor would continue this policy, and the 5- vote was largely for purposes of instruction.

"They made a damn big mistake," Happy says. "Sure, I'm a Confederate. My grandfather was second sergeant in Morgan's cavalry during the War Between the States. But, Pardner, there were a lot of other things."

Only one man could approve major league contracts: the commissioner. Rickey had it all worked out, point by point. Robinson would be kept on the minor league Montreal roster for all of spring training, most of which would be spent in the Caribbean and Panama, away from Jim Crow Florida. He even had Robinson moved to first base so he wouldn't be challenging the popular second baseman, Eddie Stanky, and he set up discreet meetings with various black leaders, urging them to help restrain black enthusiasm. Every stone was ready to be laid in place.

But none of it would mean a thing unless the commissioner went along. So Rickey called Happy. It was not long before the opening of spring training in 947 when the Mahatma arrived in Versailles, at 9 Elm Street. The two men went out to the walnut log cabin, and the Governor sat at his desk just as he sits there this day. He had Rickey sit to his left, in the same chair that's there in the same place. Then Rickey told him his plans, and said, "Governor, I can't do this unless I have your full assurance of support."

Happy told him that's exactly what he had. And nobody on God's green earth was going to change his mind. The Mahatma took a puff on his cigar. Effectively, from that moment on, baseball—American sport—was integrated.

Forty years later, the Governor leans back in his chair. He is older than Oklahoma, the forward pass and Vitamin C. He is three years older than adrenaline.

"On my mission for the Senate to the battlegrounds, Pardner, I saw white men, red men, black men and yellow men all fighting on the same atoll to make this world safe for all mankind," he says. "Now, I wasn't present when the Lord gave out colors, and it occurred to me that when I had to meet my Maker, and he asked me why I didn't let that fellow Robinson play baseball, and I said it was because of his color—well, it occurred to me that that just might not be a satisfactory answer."

Among the things that the Governor shows you because you can't see them anywhere else are an autographed holy book from Ben-Gurion and an autographed picture of the real mahatma, Gandhi. They are in his bedroom. Many plaques are on the walls here and there, and photographs, and two huge portraits of himself and Mama that were painted by his famous distant cousin, Howard Chandler Christy. "That's my girl," Happy says, looking at a portrait of Mama painted in 937. She had come out of Virginia 4 years earlier to teach in an Episcopalian girls' school. The house is full of family, Kentucky, Democrats and baseball.

"I was always sober, so I meant to do everything I did," Happy explains, walking along without his cane now. "I wouldn't change a jot or a tittle."

Baseball and politics?

"Look, Pardner, you can't ever get everyone's love. When I became governor I said only that I wanted the respect of the respectable people of the commonwealth—and the same could be said in baseball. You've got to be just, temperate and decent...or what's the point?"

The Governor pads down the hall to his clothes closets and pulls out an autographed baseball. It was signed by the late Honus Wagner and the late Ty Cobb. Happy went to see the late Babe Ruth in the hospital when he was dying and everybody else in baseball was avoiding him out of guilt because they hadn't given him a job. "It's a terrible thing to have such shabby people in a thing like baseball," the Governor says. "But a lot of those boys...."


"Yeah, those children. Ignoramuses. And it seems like it's deteriorated even further since then, too. There's a sorry set of owners up there now. Most of 'em couldn't pour piss out of a boot if the directions were on the heel."

Then the Governor begins to root around in another drawer, this one full of shirts. "Baseball's certainly a fine institution, and the proof is how it continues to thrive no matter how the ones in charge mistreat it," he says, enjoying himself. In fact, he has never seemed happier than when he pulls out a handsome silver tray from amid the shirts. It was a gift from the players. Organized Baseball waited 3 years after firing Happy before it remembered him and put him in the Hall of Fame. The players gave him this tray right after they found out he had been fired. The names of all 6 teams are engraved on the tray. "I don't think there's another commissioner ever, in any sport, ever got a thing like this," the Governor says. "From the players."

He keeps it tucked away under the shirts because, in case anybody ever broke in and stole Mahatma Gandhi and the cups and plaques, even the Ty Cobb stuff, he reckons they'd never find the players' tray. Happy slips it back, hidden, into the drawer. "Pardner," he says, "I wouldn't trade that for the national debt."

Then it's time to inspect the natural foundation. Actually, there are two foundations. One is the stone in the ground. The Governor goes down into the basement and pounds on it. The other is above the ground. It is the red brick, and it is the green roof to match the lawn, and it is the flowers, which are everywhere, and just down Elm Street (imagine actually living on an Elm Street in real life) there is an actual railroad crossing and an actual water tower, and just beyond that is the main street, with the Episcopal church set almost exactly halfway between the Catholic church and the Baptist church, just so, and a bit beyond that, one way, is the county courthouse; and a bit beyond that, the other way, is a ball field, the nearest baseball diamond. That's quite a foundation, too.

But back inside 9 Elm, coming up the basement stairs, making his way without his stick, comes the Governor. And suddenly, for no reason, he breaks into Invictus. "Out of the night that covers me," he intones, moving up the stairs, "Black as the Pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul."

He didn't miss a beat with that verse. That is one of the advantages of having total recall in the 90th summer of all your born days. And so he starts again, another verse, and each step up the stairs brings-a new line. "In the fell clutch of circumstance..." Step. "I have not winced nor cried aloud...." Step. "Under the bludgeonings of chance..." Step. "My head is bloody, but unbowed." And one more step.

Happy pauses at the top of the stairs, and my, isn't he looking well?

To coin an expression, I'm only showing you this because you can't see it anywhere else.





Chandler greeted Robinson and Don Newcombe before the 949 Series.



Ever the showman, Happy sparred with a middleweight in Louisville in '38.



Happy was Kentucky's favorite son at the 956 Democratic convention, but Adlai got the nod.



Chandler (right) and Rickey held the stage at a National League bash in '5.



Chandler had his epochal meeting with Rickey in the cabin behind his home.



At a UK game, Happy led "My Old Kentucky Home."



The Commissioner keeps the past close at hand.



Happy's marriage to Mama has lasted through thick and thin and 62 years in baseball and politics.