Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: The Baseball Trust (2013)

By Stuart Banner

I must have made medical history today. I brought my copy of "The Baseball Trust" to the doctor's office for reading in the waiting room. I must be the only one in history to do so, since a book subtitled "A History of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption" usually isn't a competitor with People magazine in such places.

No matter. I learned a lot from Stuart Banner's book and I would guess most readers would too.

Baseball's relationship with antitrust laws is curious at best. Major league baseball has been a curious business for well over a century. Teams who are competitors on the field work together off it in a variety of ways, and that makes for a unique relationship.

Teams figured out relatively early that a top professional league needed to control the number and location of its franchises as well as the pool of talent in order to become established. The National League opted to create the reserve clause in a meeting in Buffalo in 1879, which held that certain players weren't allowed to jump to other teams when their contracts had expired.

The problem was that antitrust legislation started entering the national business world a few years later. Clever minds figured out that something was wrong with the system, and challenged it in a variety of ways. New leagues formed, players tried to sue for the freedom to play elsewhere, etc. Hal Chase, for example, successfully sued for the right to jump from the White Sox of the American League to the Buf-Feds of the Federal League in the middle of the 1914 season.

Inevitably, one case wound up in the Supreme Court, and the justices ruled in 1922's Federal Baseball Club that the sport was exempt from antitrust laws because it wasn't interstate commerce for the most part but merely exhibitions of talent in a particular state. That overlooked all sorts of factors, and is still considered one of the truly odd decisions in the Court's history.

From there, we've gone on an odd journey that extends to this day. The Supreme Court had a chance to change the situation with the Toolson case in 1953, but opted to throw back in the hands of Congress. The Curt Flood case was a similar story in 1972. Baseball still has most of its exemption to this day, useful in restricting franchise relocations as an example. That's in spite of the fact that other sports tried to have the same rules applied to them, only to be turned down by the courts. The reserve clause did die in 1975 with the Messersmith-McNally case.

Banner is a professor of law at UCLA, and obviously knows the material well. He draws from a variety of sources for this book, even drawing in the story of other sports nicely when appropriate, and his conclusions seem to be right on target along the way. If there's a catch here, it's that some of the writing is unavoidably dry. I wouldn't say a law degree should be presented when purchasing this book (I don't have one), but the reader does have to turn up the concentration level at times here.

"The Baseball Trust" isn't targeted at a particularly large audience and certainly some fans would never be able to get through it. However, others are aware that the background story about baseball's rules and regulations off the field can be almost as interesting as the ones on the field. For that audience, the book certainly will prove rewarding.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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