SIDEBAR Summer 2019 - 22

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SIDEBAR FEATURE

George Wharton Pepper, Esquire
The Patrician Gunfighter
Who Saved Baseball
By Joseph Hylan, Esquire

For my grandson, Teddy

W

ith the possible exception of the NCAA's March
Madness, no sporting event packs more high drama,
electric tension, and ferocious competition into three
weeks than Major League Baseball's post-season playoffs. Every
October reaffirms the game of baseball as the national pastime;
however, baseball, at least in part, owes its present stability and
robust revenues to the cool, hard, professional services of the
quintessential Philadelphia lawyer; namely, George Wharton
Pepper.
Pepper was a Quaker City aristocrat. He was born in 1867
into one of Philadelphia's first and finest families. His life,
personal and professional, was one of extraordinary success:
Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and
its law school, law professor, and Chairman of the American
Law Institute. Pepper served as a United States Senator while
maintaining an active law practice. He was an advisor to five
U.S. presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Herbert Hoover;
he corresponded with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and
Judge Learned Hand. Pepper founded one of the bluest of
Philadelphia's blue-chip law firms and was an intimate of
President William Howard Taft with whom Pepper shared a
passion for baseball. Pepper was a clever cartoonist, a devout
vestryman of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, a best-selling author,
a rugged outdoorsman, an equestrian, a sculler and a tennis
player. He was a devoted husband and an affectionate father.
Pepper, impeccably tailored in Brooks Brothers, even looked
the part: lean and perennially tan with close-cropped gray hair
and a bristling gray mustache. He carried himself with a crisp,
robust presence that was frenetic and controlled, both at the
same time.
Pepper was one of those rarest of lawyers, as comfortable
in the hushed precincts of the appellate courts as he was in the
clamorous knife fights of the trial courts. Pepper's briefs and
pleadings, thoroughly researched and elegantly written, were as
effective on appeal as his withering cross-examinations were at
trial.
Pepper's law practice was inordinately eclectic. As counsel
for the Union Traction Company (now SEPTA) he defended
hundreds of tort actions brought by injured commuters and
drivers. For valuable consideration, Pepper provided service
and advice to the titans of corporate America. He was a close
friend of John Johnson, the barrel-chested, walrus-mustachioed
Philadelphia lawyer who bestrode the nation's corporate bar like
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a colossus. The catholicity of Pepper's practice was such that he
successfully sued Bryn Mawr College to reinstate a student who
had been, in Pepper's judgment, unfairly expelled.
At the request of President Warren G. Harding, Pepper
spent three grueling weeks negotiating a collective bargaining
contract with the cantankerous John L. Lewis of the United
Mine Workers, settling the anthracite coal strike of 1922, a work
stoppage that threatened the nation's industrial welfare. Harding
expressed his gratitude by offering to nominate Pepper to the
United States Supreme Court, a singular honor that Pepper
politely refused. Together with Senator Henry Cabot Lodge,
Pepper spearheaded the United States Senate's rejection of the
Treaty of Versailles in 1919, effectively preventing the United
States' entry into the League of Nations.
With the end of World War I, endorsing and adopting the
progressive jurisprudence of Justice Holmes and Justice Brandeis
regarding free speech, Pepper helped to secure the parole of
political dissidents who had been convicted of violating the
Espionage Act, suffering the imposition of draconian federal
sentences during World War I. As an unabashed conservative,
however, Pepper opposed, root and branch, President Franklin
Roosevelt's New Deal programs which, naturally, were anathema
to a man who had earned his fortune representing corporations
and corporate executives who were the fittest of the fit.
Pepper's involvement with baseball commenced in 1915
when the Federal League brought an action under the Sherman
Anti-trust Act seeking a permanent injunction on the grounds
that the National League and the American League constituted
a combination in restraint of trade. Trial was docketed in the
United States District Court for northern Illinois sitting in
Chicago. Pepper briefed and argued against issuance of the
injunction.
The presiding judge was the caustic Kennesaw Mountain
Landis who, sustaining Pepper's position, denied the request
for an injunction, scheduling the matter for trial on the
merits. Landis eventually dismissed Federal's case for lack of
prosecution.
The last half of that decade was swallowed up by the
catastrophe of World War I, a slaughter in which the United
States aggressively, if not happily, participated from 1917 to
1919. Normalcy returned to the United States with sports
in general and baseball in particular coming to dominate the
nation's attention, but not at first.


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