Price fixing, union busting, collusion and criminality—and that’s just the beginning of this inside-baseball footnote to baseball history.
Banner (Law/UCLA; American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own, 2011, etc.) opens by calling professional baseball’s almost total exemption from antitrust law “one of the oddest features of our legal system,” not least because other sports—to say nothing of other industries—are governed by that body of law. Consider a system whereby a recent college graduate in computer programming would have to work for Microsoft, in a city of Microsoft’s choice; the illegal nature of such an enterprise would be immediately evident, even in our age, when corporations rule. Yet, because the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1922, ruled that baseball was exempt from the Sherman Act, “because baseball was not a form of interstate commerce,” baseball players can be scooped up and sent wherever the owners deem best. But is not baseball a form of interstate commerce? Of course it is. Banner closely examines the origin of the idea that it is not, which represents yet another triumph of the owners. To call the author’s presentation opinionated is to risk understatement—at one point, he writes of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who delayed one antitrust suit, that pro baseball “was lucky enough to get a judge who put his love of the game above his professional obligations to follow the law”—but it is clear where his sympathies lie: with the players, the fans and the game itself, anywhere, it seems, except with the owners, who are the sole beneficiaries of the exemption. America’s game? The legal morass surrounding that exemption is as American as it gets—and, writes Banner, “it shows no signs of weakening.”
Baseball fans of a legal bent will find this lively study both maddening and illuminating.