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Major League Baseball Faces Republican Wrath

The Chicago Cubs take batting practice in 1969, the year before Curt Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s Anti-Trust exemption. Three Republican Senators want to challenge it again. (Photo by William S. Bike)

By William S. Bike

After Major League Baseball pulled its All-Star game from Atlanta, Georgia, because the state passed restrictions on voting, Republican Senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Mike Lee drafted legislation to end MLB’s anti-trust exemption.

Why does MLB have such an exemption, anyway?

Major League Baseball received its anti-trust exemption from a 1922 Supreme Court ruling that said MLB’s operations did not constitute “interstate commerce,” making it exempt from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which prevents combinations in restraint of trade. Since then, MLB’s anti-trust exemption has faced a major challenge only once.

After the 1969 season, St. Louis Cardinals’ outfielder Curt Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. He didn’t want to go, so he sued to eliminate baseball’s reserve clause, which bound a player to a team and/or a contract and did not allow him to negotiate with another team, as a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The case, Flood vs. Kuhn (Bowie Kuhn was MLB’s commissioner) made it to the Supreme Court.

The court in 1972 ruled against Flood and upheld MLB’s antitrust exemption, but admitted in the decision that the original grounds for the exemption were questionable, that MLB’s operations actually were interstate commerce despite the 1922 decision, and that the exemption was an “anomaly” that other sports did not hold.

The decision was criticized in legal circles for putting way too much stock in the doctrine of “stare decisis,” following precedent, even when that precedent may have made little or no sense. Privately, Justice William O. Douglas, who dissented from the Flood v. Kuhn decision, criticized Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the decision, for spending too much time “playing with baseball cards.”

The point became moot in 1975, when arbitrator Peter Seitz threw out the reserve clause, and MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association negotiated a new agreement that allowed player free agency after a player’s first few years with one team’s organization.

So MLB’s anti-trust exemption has been on shaky ground since 1972 and doesn’t do a lot for MLB anyway. The National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, and other major sports do just fine without it.

Three Republican Senators are not going to get legislation stripping MLB of its anti-trust exemption through the Senate or through a Democratic House, so their threat is more of a demonstration to other industries that they should to stay out of the voting eligibility battle or face the Republican wrath that MLB now is facing.

William S. Bike is an historian, media consultant, and author of the book “The Forgotten 1970 Chicago Cubs: Go and Glow,” a history of the Chicago Cubs’ 1970 season.

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