The Baseball Commissioner and the Mennonites
by Steve Nolt
Mennonites seemingly always have been intrigued by famous
or powerful people with Mennonite connections._ We speculate
about celebrities with Mennonite-sounding surnames,
or remark on newsmakers connected to international Mennonite
Central Committee projects or domestic Mennonite Disaster Service
In 1914, Chicago Mennonite businessman C. B. Schmidt was curious
about the genealogical ties between noted federal judge Kenesaw
Mountain Landis (1866-1944) and the Swiss Brethren martyr Hans
Landis. Hans Landis had given his life for his faith three hundred
years earlier in Zurich, becoming it turned out
the last Anabaptist executed in Europe and marking an end to
a bloody era begun in 1526._
Schmidt made a copy of the Hans Landis story recorded in the
Martyrs Mirror and sent it to Judge Landis, who responded with
the following letter:
United States District Court
Northern District of Illinois
February 10, 1914
Dear Mr. Schmidt:
I certainly appreciate the courtesy of your favor of January
30th with the enclosures. This is a subject that has long been
a matter of curiosity in our family, and until the receipt of
your letter I had seen nothing definite on the subject. I have
transmitted a copy, including your letter, to each member of
the family, and again assure you, with my best wishes, of my
Kenesaw M. Landis_
Immediately, an excited Schmidt sent the judges letter
to John F. Funk (1835-1930) whose Elkhart, Indiana Mennonite
Publishing Company had translated and issued the Martyrs Mirror._
Judge Landis, it seemed, might assign some significance to his
Having enforced new antitrust laws in a high-profile case
against the Standard Oil conglomerate, Judge Landis was already
famous when Schmidt contacted him. A few years later Landis
name became a household word when he was appointed the first
commissioner of major league baseball. Charged with cleaning
up a game stained by scandal, Judge Landis ruled the sport for
almost a quarter century, until his death.
But how was the baseball commissioner connected to the Mennonites?
Judge Landis authorized biographer, Taylor Spink, celebrated
his subject as a real American patriot, but mixed in some garbled
facts from the story Schmidt had passed on. The Landises
were born and bred in the American traditions, Spink insisted,
even if the family originally was Swiss, and an early ancestor,
Pete Landis, a Mennonite, was decapitated at Geneva for his religious
convictions back in the sixteenth century. The story placed
the judges ancestors in France, and then a whole
boatload of them came to this country before the American Revolution.
The Landis family, according to Spink, settled in the fertile
farm country near Lancaster, Pa. near the town of
Landisville which was named after these Swiss settlers._
However much Judge Landis may have enjoyed the Martyrs Mirror
account of martyr Hans, the judges personal connection
to his past and his forbearers faith had been tenuous.
A descendant of Pennsylvania Landises from Chester County (not
Lancaster, as he told his biographer), Judge Landis had been
born in Butler County, Ohio where his grandparents Philip (1764-1838)
and Catherine Beary (1776-1847) Landis had moved. The judges
father, Abraham H. Landis (1821-96) had joined the Northern Union
army during the American Civil War, a move that may have strained
whatever ties he still had to Butler County Mennonitism. Returning
home Abraham named his next child after the Georgia battlefield
Kenesaw Mountain where he had been wounded, and
moved the family to Logansport, Indiana.
When it came to any Anabaptist religious heritage, there was,
as the judge had written to Schmidt, nothing definite on
the subject among the Logansport Landises. Ken Landis would
grow up in a home where identification with the American nation
was strong; his own name was a constant reminder of military
action. Two of his brothers became Indiana congressmen and another
represented the United States government in Puerto Rico after
the American takeover of that island.
Ken Landis journey as judge and baseball commissioner
made him, by the early 1940s, one of the most recognized people
in America. A self-styled Progressive, he worked
to control dissent and defend a vision of society in which the
better sort of people managed the affairs of everyone
else. Despite his power and influence, as the years wore on Landis
became an increasingly discouraged and isolated man, unable to
manage change and frustrated with the country that had given
him his identity.
The same year that Judge Landis received the copy of the Martyrs
Mirror story a child who shared his surname was born near Lancaster,
Pennsylvania. Unlike the Judge, Miriam Landis did not have to
rely on C. B. Schmidt to tell her about her connection to her
heritage. Her parents David L. (1882-1961) and Annette H. Esbenshade
(1883-1926) Landis passed on their faith in the context of a
living, breathing community that took it seriously. Miriam attended
Mellinger Mennonite Church where her father was a minister.
Yet the tradition of faith handed on to her was not simply
a static thing only to be received and preserved. Indeed, Miriams
childhood coincided with a period of local debate over what sorts
of changes and innovations faithfulness might actually require.
What did faith mean for ones commercial, social, and community
relationships? How might it grow and change to include other
people? For their part, Miriam and her husband W. Ray Wenger
(1910-45) were committed to extending their faith story to others
when in 1937 they left Pennsylvania to live with the people of
Tanganyika, in East Africa._
But if a living tradition had provided some of the resources
for a pioneering move halfway around the world, it would itself
be transformed by the new experiences and cultures in Africa.
As African Christians joined the story and made it their own,
the Landis, Wenger, Stauffer, Shenk and other missionary families
found their heritage enriched, but often challenged. In the early
1940s, for example, Miriam Landis Wenger was among those who
experienced the East African Revival a spiritual
revolution that broke down racial barriers and allowed white
missionaries to see as equals their African brothers and sisters
in Christ._ In those same years back in the United States, Judge
Ken Landis was spending his last lonely and bitter days fighting
a racist battle to exclude black players from major league baseball
and keep the game respectably white._
Heritage had meant different things to Ken Landis and Miriam
Landis. In one case, it was an antiquarian curiosity. A distant
past, it joined colonial patriots and wartime heroes to form
a tale of American progress and imperial dominance. In the other
case the past was a resource, a calling, and a debt that supported
a living community which passed on its promise. The faith of
martyrs and ministers and ordinary folks possessed a vitality
even of self-criticism and the ability to reproduce itself, cross
racial and cultural lines, and include new people into its very
meaning. The orientation and outcomes could hardly have been
Nevertheless, it is quite likely that even today more American
Mennonites recognize the name Kenesaw Mountain Landis than can
identify correctly the East Africa Revival.
Steve Nolt teaches history at Goshen College.
He has related the story, above, in a number of church and other
story-telling settings. Those audiences have provided some evidence
for the suggestion in the concluding sentence.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin July 2001 Nolt, p. _ PAGE _1_
_ See the commentary provided by the poem How the
Deck is Stacked in the Mennonite Game, by Nina Forsythe,
theMennonite, Oct. 6, 1998, 5.
_ Landis, Hans, Mennonite Encyclopedia, V. 3.
_ Kenesaw M. Landis to C. B. Schmidt, Feb. 10, 1914, Hist Mss.
1-1, John F. Funk Papers, box 36.
_ C. B. Schmidt to Rev. John F. Funk, Feb. 13, 1914, Ibid.
_ J. G. Taylor Spink, Judge Landis and Twenty-five Years of
Baseball (New York: Thomas and Crowell Co., 1947).
_ Joseph C. Shenk, Silver Thread: The Ups and Downs of a Mennonite
Family in Mission (1895-1995) (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books,1996),
_ Ibid., 75-83; Mahlon M. Hess, Pilgrimage of Faith: Tanzania
Mennonite Church, 1934-83 (Salunga, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board
of Missions and Charities, 1985), 55-85; Louise Stoltzfus, Quiet
Shouts: Stories of Lancaster Mennonite Women Leaders (Scottdale,
Pa.: Herald Press, 1999), 109-10.
_ Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Baseball: An Illustrated History
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 282-83.
Mennonte Historical Bulletin