Why does baseball have an antitrust exemption?

The history behind current events.
July 19 2002 10:36 AM

Baseball's Con Game

How did America's pastime get an antitrust exemption?

(Continued from Page 1)

In October 1998, in a belated effort to address the labor problem, President Clinton signed into law the so-called Curt Flood Act, which stipulated that baseball's antitrust exemption didn't apply to player employment issues after all. But with the players faring well through collective bargaining, and with free agency embedded in baseball's practices, the point was now moot. On the other hand, the 1998 act explicitly left untouched such issues as team relocation, minor-league play, the employment of umpires, broadcasting agreements, and league expansion—suggesting that the exemption did in fact apply in these areas.

Some of these issues continue to grate on players, owners, and fans. Minor league players, unlike major leaguers, continue to be tied to the club that signs them. The antitrust exemption essentially gives the league veto power over team relocation. NFL teams move frequently, settling in to new homes with bigger, richer fan bases. But baseball can block any franchise relocation—no team has moved for 30 years—preventing small-market owners from finding baseball-friendlier cities.

The antitrust exemption is also likely to let Selig and the owners get away with shrinking the league. Last year the Major Leagues suggested eliminating the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos in order to raise other owners' profits and competitive prospects. The idea met stiff resistance and provoked members of Congress (especially Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone) to make noises about further limiting the antitrust exemption. Under this pressure, the idea was tabled. But Selig and the owners are still urging contraction, and an arbitrator is supposed to rule soon whether the players' union—which opposes contraction and the loss of jobs it would entail—is entitled to a say in the decision.

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Abolishing the antitrust exemption wouldn't bring peace to baseball. Conflict is hardwired into the player-owner relationship, as it is in any labor-management arrangement where gross inequities persist. (Although lavishly paid, most ballplayers in their lifetimes earn a mere fraction of what the baseball CEOs reap.) But since 1922, baseball's ownership has treated its gift from Justice Holmes as license to act arrogantly. Curtailing the exemption might humble the owners and Commissioner Selig, and that would certainly please baseball's increasingly unhappy fans.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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