I don’t usually look to Politico for Supreme Court coverage, and I definitely don’t read it for baseball stories. Yet the two fields happily intersected this morning with Andrew Glass’s recent piece, titled “Supreme Court exempts baseball from antitrust law, May 29, 1922.”
The main purpose of the Sherman Antitrust Act was to prevent monopolies. The government used it to dissolve gargantuan trusts such as Standard Oil and the Great Northern railroad merger, which were dominating their respective industries, and recommend investigations into trusts. Companies violated the law if they interfered with interstate commerce.
In January 1915, the Federal League of Professional Base Ball Players was floundering. Ticket sales were declining, star players left for other leagues, and team owners were just really darn frustrated. The Federal Club of Baltimore, Maryland opted to sue the rivaling American and National Leagues for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act, claiming that these leagues were monopolizing professional baseball by buying out top Federal players.
The Federal lawyers cleverly filed the case before Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, since he was known as an enthusiastic trustbuster. They failed to consider that Landis was a rabid Chicago Cubs fan. He loved baseball dearly, and he hated to see it attacked in any form. Any blow to the sport, wrote the future MLB commissioner, “would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution.”
The poor, miserable Federal League collapsed later in 1915. Its lawyers battled through the court system until reaching the Supreme Court seven years later.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. struck a decisive blow against the Federal League. The Court held that the Sherman Antitrust Act did not apply to Major League Baseball because professional teams weren’t engaging in interstate commerce. Although fans traveled across state lines to attend games, this was “a mere incident, not the essential thing.” In other words, professional baseball games didn’t implicate interstate commerce just because people traveled to watch them.
From Ryan Murtha’s Medium piece on the subject:
If this ruling doesn’t seem to make sense to you, that’s okay. It hasn’t made sense to generations of legal scholars either. Some suggest that the court was worried losing the case would be the death knell for professional baseball in the wake of the Black Sox scandal. Others have pointed to Chief Justice William Howard Taft’s history as a ballplayer at Yale, and the fact that he was related to Chicago Cubs owner William Wrigley, as probable reasons for the decision.
It seems that even the court itself has realized it erred in this case. It has never allowed Baseball Club v. National League to be used as precedent in other arguments, even by other sport leagues making identical ones. So according to U.S. law, professional baseball is not interstate commerce, but professional basketball and football are. Though the ruling has been challenged in subsequent cases, the court has used the legal principle of stare decisis to defend it, basically admitting that the ruling was wrong, but that too much now rests on the faulty ruling for it to be overturned. But this series of challenges to baseball’s monopoly power throughout the second half of the twentieth century would slowly chip away at baseball’s iron grip on players’ rights.
Though the league lasted just two seasons, the Federal League had an important impact on the game. The rise of the outlaw league led to increased player leverage with the clubs, allowing them to negotiate higher wages. Additionally, the Federal League gave us Wrigley Field, which was originally constructed for the league’s Chicago franchise. Finally, though Hanlon lost his lawsuit, Federal Baseball Club v. National League was ultimately the first step towards ballplayers achieving true free agency over a half century later.
I wonder how many other Court decisions are considered “anomalies,” meaning that they’ve never been used as precedent. Korematsu is a famous example, but are there less high-profile ones?