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Albert Benjamin "Happy" Chandler, Sr.

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Albert Benjamin "Happy" Chandler, Sr.

Posted: 3 Jun 2009 9:02PM GMT
Classification: Obituary
Surnames: Chandler,Watkins,Saunders
Albert Benjamin "Happy" Chandler, Sr. (July 14, 1898 – June 15, 1991) was twice governor of Kentucky, a U.S. Senator, the 2nd Commissioner of Major League Baseball, and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. His jovial attitude earned him the nickname "Happy," which stuck for the remainder of his life.

Chandler's first term as governor is still regarded as one of the most productive of any Kentucky governor.Following on this success, he unsuccessfully tried to unseat Senate Majority Leader and fellow Kentuckian Alben Barkley, but was appointed to the Senate shortly after the election due to the death of the state's junior senator. He would later resign this position to become Commissioner of Baseball, steering it through the difficult period of integration, which many contend led to his not being offered a second contract for the position. Instead, twenty years after his first term as governor of Kentucky, Chandler returned to the Governor's Mansion using the slogan "Be Like Your Pappy and Vote For Happy."

Later in life, Chandler's commitment to civil rights was questioned as he supported Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond's bid for President. Having been elected to his first term at the age of 37, Kentucky's "Boy Governor" was both the last surviving governor of any U.S. state to serve before 1939 and the last living Senator to have served before 1940 by the time of his death in 1991.

Chandler was born in Corydon, Henderson County Kentucky the son of Joseph Sephus and Callie Saunders-Chandler. His childhood was a difficult one. According to his autobiography, his earliest memory was his mother abandoning the family when he was four years old. Though cared for by his father and other relatives, by age eight, he was selling newspapers to supplement the family's income. At sixteen, his fourteen-year-old brother died after falling from a tree while picking cherries.

Chandler graduated from high school in 1917, and, against his father's wishes, enrolled at Transylvania University in Lexington, with only "a red sweater, a five dollar bill, and a smile." During his matriculation, he starred in three sports, captaining the basketball and baseball teams, and playing quarterback on the football team. He also joined the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity after being denied membership in Kappa Alpha. Throughout his educational career, he worked odd jobs to support himself. In the fall semester of 1918, with his nation in the midst of World War I, Chandler volunteered to serve in the Student Army Training Corps, although the corps disbanded with the signing of an armistice in November.

Chandler graduated from Transylvania in 1921, taking with him both a bachelor's degree and his life-long nickname, "Happy," which he was given because of his jovial attitude.From there, Chandler studied at Harvard Law School, coaching high school athletics to earn money. He returned to Lexington in 1922, attaining a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Kentucky two years later. Again, he funded his education by coaching high school sports in nearby Versailles. For the next five years, Chandler was an assistant football coach at Centre College in Danville, simultaneously practicing law in Versailles.

While representing Margaret Hall, an Episcopal girls school, Chandler met Keysville, Virginia native Mildred Watkins. He eventually persuaded his new love to break her engagement to another man. Despite Watkins's eventual confession of having been married previously and being the mother of a two-year-old daughter, the two married on November 12, 1925. Chandler immediately adopted Watkins's daughter, Marcella, and the couple eventually had three children together: Mimi, Ben and Dan.

Early political career

Chandler's career in politics began with an appointment by Judge Ben Williams to the post of master commissioner of the Woodford County Circuit Court in 1928. Only a year later, he was elected to represent Kentucky's 22nd Senate District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He made a name for himself primarily on two issues: the repeal of parimutuel betting and a plan to build a hydroelectric dam on Cumberland Falls. Chandler opposed both proposals, and both eventually failed.

Split with Governor Laffoon

In 1931, Chandler was elected lieutenant governor of the state by a wide margin. Although Chandler and the elected governor, Ruby Laffoon were both Democrats, Chandler soon split with his running mate and ended up working against many of his programs, particularly on the issue of a state sales tax, which Laffoon supported but Chandler opposed. As lieutenant governor, Chandler also served as the presiding officer in the state senate, though his political opponents passed measures to limit his customary powers in retaliation for his split with Laffoon

Laffoon had hand-picked Thomas Rhea to succeed him as governor, but Chandler had other ideas. Advised by political allies, Chandler made the boldest move of his political career. Acting as governor while Laffoon was out of the state – as provided by the Kentucky Constitution at the time – Chandler called the legislature into special session and pushed through a bill calling for candidates for governor to be chosen by primaries rather than elected at the party conventions. This bucking of the political machine made him a hero in the eyes of many voters.

First term as governor

Chandler did succeed in his bid for governor in 1935, defeating Rhea in a runoff primary and disposing of Republican challenger King Swope by a hefty margin. At a mere 37 years old, Chandler was dubbed the "Boy Governor." As promised, he quickly oversaw the repeal of the state's sales tax, compensating for the financial loss to the state by raising excise and income taxes. The 1935 repeal of Kentucky's prohibition amendment gave Chandler a further source of revenue – a tax on whiskey. Frugality and fiscal responsibility became hallmarks of Chandler's administration. The Government Reorganization Act of 1936 so streamlined the state's bureaucracy that Chandler was able to cut the state's outstanding debt by 75%, a whopping $28.5 million.

Chandler increased spending on several projects and proposals throughout his term, however. He supported the state's Old Age Pension Law and created a pension fund for the state's teachers. In 1936, he allocated $2 million to improve the state's rural roads and led the state to participate in the federal Rural Electrification Act. He also provided for free textbooks for students in public schools, and dramatically increased funding for schools, colleges, and universities in the state. By the end of Chandler's first year in office, University of Kentucky president Frank L. McVey proclaimed that "much more has been accomplished than would have been thought possible."

Chandler's heroics continued during the Ohio River flood of 1937, when he personally supervised the evacuation of a partly-flooded penitentiary in Frankfort. Though he opposed the closed shop and sit-down strike tactics used by the state's labor unions, Chandler also earned a reputation as a friend of organized labor by creating a state Department of Industrial Relations and supporting the federal Child Labor Amendment, though it was never ratified. During his tenure as governor, he earned Doctor of Laws degrees from Transylvania in 1936 and the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1937.

Service in the United States Senate

In 1938, while still serving as governor, Chandler challenged Senate Majority Leader (and future Vice President) Alben Barkley in the Democratic primary for Barkley's seat in Congress. Though Chandler lost to the very popular Barkley, President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to make a trip to the state to support Barkley's candidacy.

Chandler would get his chance at the Senate soon enough, however. In 1939, the state's junior Senator, M. M. Logan, died. Under an arrangement with Lieutenant Governor Keen Johnson, Chandler resigned his position, elevating Johnson to the governorship. Johnson, in turn, appointed Chandler to fill Logan's seat in the Senate. Chandler retained the seat in a special election in 1940, and was re-elected to a full term in 1942, defeating former ally John Y. Brown.

During his tenure in the Senate, Chandler usually backed the policies of President Roosevelt. As a member of the Senate's Military Affairs Committee, he was vocal in his opposition to prioritizing the European front over defeating Japan in World War II. He and five other senators toured American military bases, successfully lobbying to strengthen those in the Aleutian Islands area. It was also during his time in the Senate that he developed a friendship with comedian Bob Hope.

[edit] Commissioner of Baseball

When baseball's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, died in 1944, an official in the War Department began campaigning for Chandler's election to the post. Despite being the last candidate put forth in the April 1945 meetings, he was elected by a unanimous vote of the team owners, and resigned his Senate seat in October of that year.

Chandler clashed with Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo "the Lip" Durocher over Durocher's association with gambling figures and his marriage to actress Laraine Day, which came amid allegations from Day's ex-husband that Durocher had stolen her away from him. Before the start of the 1947 season, Chandler suspended Durocher for the entire season, citing "conduct detrimental to baseball." The Dodgers went on to win the pennant that season under replacement manager Burt Shotton.

Chandler became known as "the players' commissioner" for his work on their behalf. During his service, he presided over the establishment of a pension fund for players, but his most significant contribution was overseeing the initial steps toward integration of the major leagues, beginning with the debut of Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. This move was controversial with some team owners, who voted 15-1 against integrating the sport in a secret January 1947 meeting. The Dodgers' Branch Rickey met with Chandler, who agreed to back the team's move. Chandler's stance was credited by many in the sports community with Chandler's failure to be selected for another term as Commissioner after the expiration of his first one in 1951.

Chandler was fully aware that he was jeopardizing his own commissionership by stewarding the integration process. Chandler's attitude was a simple one, which he conveyed to Branch Rickey, and later recounted in his autobiography:

"I've already done a lot of thinking about this whole racial situation in our country. As a member of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, I got to know a lot about our casualties during the war. Plenty of Negro boys were willing to go out and fight and die for this country. Is it right when they came back to tell them they can't play the national pastime? You know, Branch, I'm going to have to meet my Maker some day. And if He asks me why I didn't let this boy play, and I say it's because he's black, that might not be a satisfactory answer.
If the Lord made some people black, and some white, and some red or yellow, he must have had a pretty good reason. It isn't my job to decide which colors can play big league baseball. It is my job to see that the game is fairly played and that everybody has an equal chance. I think if I do that, I can face my Maker with a clear conscience."

Second term as governor

After being forced out as Commissioner of Baseball, Chandler returned to Versailles and continued to practice law. His hiatus from public life would be short lived, however. While prohibited by the Kentucky Constitution from serving consecutive terms as governor, nothing prohibited Chandler from seeking a second gubernatorial term in 1955, twenty years after his first bid. He secured the Democratic nomination over challenger Bert T. Combs, and took the general election from Republican Edwin R. Denney by landslide.

Much had changed in the years since Chandler's first term as governor. In 1948, he had embraced the "Dixiecrats," a Southern faction that had broken from the national Democratic Party, and their segregationist presidential nominee, Strom Thurmond. This move had alienated him from some in his own party at the state level as well.[4] Nevertheless, he was able to make positive changes in the state in his second term, continuing his themes of improving education and public works. He oversaw the establishment of the University of Kentucky Medical Center which bears his name. Having already integrated baseball, in 1956, Chandler used National Guard troops to enforce racial integration of schools in two Kentucky towns.
Later career

Chandler remained active in Kentucky politics long after his final term as governor ended. He lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Edward T. Breathitt in 1963, and to Henry Ward in 1967. After the 1967 primary loss, Chandler jumped parties to support Republican Louie B. Nunn, who won the election.

George Wallace considered Chandler as his running mate in his 1968 campaign for the Presidency as a third party candidate; as one of Wallace's aides put it, "We have all the nuts in the country, we could get some decent people – you working one side of the street and he working the other side." Wallace invited Chandler, but when the press published the prospect, Wallace's supporters, especially the John Birch Society objected: Chandler had supported the hiring of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers, and had protected black children from violence during the integration of the Kentucky schools. Wallace retracted the invitation, and chose Curtis LeMay instead.

In his last years, Chandler remained active as a member of the Boards of Trustees of both Transylvania University and the University of Kentucky.
Legacy

Chandler was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. At age 89, he collaborated with author Vance Trimble to pen his autobiography, Heroes, Plain Folks, and Skunks. Kentucky governors still host a breakfast at the Governor's Mansion on the morning of the Kentucky Derby, a tradition started by Governor and Mrs. Chandler in 1936.

Chandler died in Versailles, Kentucky on June 15, 1991. According to his family, he died of a heart attack. He was buried at the Pisgah Church Cemetery in Versailles,KY. At the time of his death, Chandler was the earliest U.S. governor of any state still living; he had held that distinction since the death of Alfred M. Landon. He was also the last surviving U.S. Senator from the 1930s.

Happy's grandson, Ben Chandler, is currently a member of the United States House of Representatives and formerly served as Kentucky State Auditor and Attorney General of Kentucky. Ben Chandler ran for Governor of Kentucky in 2003 as the Democratic nominee but lost to Republican candidate Ernie Fletcher. According to Ben, until he was 13 he aspired to be a baseball player just as his grandfather.
SubjectAuthorDate Posted
cantorjoeocho 4 Jun 2009 3:02AM GMT 
Kristin Cox 23 May 2012 3:35AM GMT 
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