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Albert "Happy" Chandler

1891 - 1991

Member of the Baseball Hall of Fame


The public career of Albert B. "Happy" Chandler began in 1928 and spanned a fifty year period, highlighted by two terms as Governor of Kentucky, six years as United States Senator and a tenure as Commissioner of Baseball. Both controversial and beloved, Chandler was always a charismatic figure.

Albert Benjamin Chandler, son of Joseph Sephus and Callie (Saunders) Chandler, was born July 14, 1898, in Corydon, Kentucky. His formative years were difficult. Left to the sole care of his father at age four, Chandler and his younger brother spent time with friends and relatives while their father worked.

His school years were busy with studying, sports and working odd jobs. After graduating from Corydon High School in 1917, Chandler entered Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. There he starred in football, baseball, basketball and track, joined a fraternity, sang in the glee club and worked part-time jobs to pay tuition, room and board. In 1921 Chandler emerged with a bachelors degree in history and political science and the lasting nickname of "Happy."

Chandler entered Harvard Law School in the fall of 1921, but after one year returned to the University of Kentucky to complete his legal education. While at the University of Kentucky, Chandler sang in the glee club, affiliated with Pi Kappa Alpha and coached women's basketball. He also coached football at Versailles High School and was assistant football coach at Centre College in the nineteen-twenties.

Chandler set up a law practice in Versailles, Kentucky, in 1925. The same year he married Mildred Watkins of Keysville, Virginia, a teacher at Margaret Hall School for Girls. They had four children: Marcella, Mimi, Ben and Dan.

Chandler's public career began with his appointment as Master Commissioner of Woodford County in 1928. The next year he was elected state senator representing the twenty-second district. At the 1931 Kentucky Democratic convention Chandler was selected to run as Lieutenant Governor on a ticket with Ruby Laffoon. By this time his political activities had come under the guidance of Ben Johnson and J. Dan Talbott of Bardstown. He was also aided immeasurably by his politically astute wife, Mildred. In the 1931 election he was elected Lieutenant Governor over Republican John C. Worsham, 426,247 to 353,573, while Ruby Laffoon became Governor.

Chandler and Laffoon split over Laffoon's sales tax bill, and in the Governor's absence from the state in 1935, Chandler called a special session of the legislature to enact a compulsory primary law. This law required that party nominations be made by a primary election and not by a convention, which Laffoon and his supporters might well control. Chandler trailed Tom Rhea in the first primary of 1935 but won the runoff, then defeated Republican King Swope, 556,262 to 461,104, to become Governor of Kentucky.

Noted for the reorganization of Kentucky State government, Chandler's first gubernatorial administration is also known for saving the state from fiscal bankruptcy and recruiting young professionals to government careers. Chandler had the new sales tax repealed and through reorganization, reform, frugality, and higher excise and income taxes, financed far-reaching improvements in schools, roads, health and welfare programs, and penal institutions. The Government Reorganization Act of 1936 created a more efficient administration and Chandler was able to pay off much of the state's debt. Among the most significant innovations were the free textbook program, participation in the federal rural electrification program, establishment of a teachers' retirement system and an old-age assistance program, and the start of a special rural roads program.

Although friendly to labor, Chandler opposed closed shops and sit-down strikes, and he sent the National Guard into Harlan County to curb labor-related violence there.

Prohibited by law from succeeding himself as governor, Chandler challenged Alben Barkley, United States Senate Majority Leader, in the 1938 primary. Facing astounding odds, Chandler launched a vigorous but unsuccessful campaign to unseat the New Deal Senator who had the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Chandler then took aim at the U.S. Senate seat vacated in October 1939 when M.M. Logan died. Chandler resigned as governor, and on October 10, 1939, when Lt. Gov. Keen Johnson succeeded him, Johnson appointed Chandler to the U.S. Senate. In 1940 Chandler won a special election for the rest of Logan's term, and in a controversial 1942 campaign he defeated John Y. Brown, Sr., and won a full six-year term.

In Washington Chandler usually backed the Roosevelt administration although he opposed some of the New Deal fiscal policies and the decision to give priority to the war in Europe over the Pacific conflict during World War Two. Chandler toured the Aleutian Islands and was instrumental in strengthening U.S. defenses in the Alaskan Area and was one of six senators selected to make a world-wide tour of U.S. military installations in 1943.

On November 1, 1945, Chandler resigned from the Senate to become national commissioner of baseball. During the next six years, black players entered the major leagues for the first time and a players' pension fund was established. Chandler's bid for a second contract was defeated by baseball owners in 1951, after which he returned to Versailles, Kentucky, to practice law. He was president of West Virginia Fuel Corporation, belonged to the Boards of Directors of the Coastal States Life Insurance Company and Irving Air Chute Company, and served as president of International Baseball Congress in the early 1950s.

In 1955 Chandler won the Democratic nomination for governor over Bert T. Combs, despite the opposition of many of the party's most powerful leaders. He achieved victory in the gubernatorial election over Republican Edwin R. Denney, 451,647 to 322,671. In his second term as Governor of Kentucky, Chandler achieved substantial improvements in the highway program using a $100 million bond issue, the schools, and other public institutions. Addition funding went to the public schools' Minimum Foundation Program and the teachers' retirement system. His proudest accomplishment was the establishment of the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Medical Center. He attracted national notice in 1956 when he used state police and National Guardsmen to enforce desegregation in the public schools. Chandler failed in bids for the nomination for governor in 1963, 1967 and 1971.

In 1967 he supported the Republican nominee, Louie B. Nunn. He remained deeply interested in politics and was especially close to Gov. Wallace Wilkinson (1987-1991), who restored voting rights to Chandler's lifetime honorary membership on the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees in January 1988. Two incidents in the late 1980s involving alleged racial slurs led to unsuccessful demands for Chandler's resignation or removal from the board. In 1989, in collaboration with Vance H. Trimble, Chandler published his autobiography, Heroes, Plain Folks, and Skunks.

Chandler died on June 15, 1991, at his home in Versailles and was buried in the cemetery of Pisgah Presbyterian Church in Woodford County, Kentucky.

Biographical information supplied by University of Kentucky Division of Special Collections and Lowell H. Harrison.

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