Baltimore's most significant contribution to...


January 02, 1993

WHAT MAY BE Baltimore's most significant contribution to baseball goes unheralded here. The exemption from federal anti-trust laws, unique in professional sports, has its roots at Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street.

There, across the street from the International League Orioles, played a team called the Baltimore Terrapins. It was a member of a short-lived rival to the two major leagues called the Federal League.

The Federal League was short-lived because it was initially successful and touched off a bidding war with the National and American leagues for ballplayers. After two years of escalating salaries, the major leagues decided in 1916 to eliminate the interlopers, either by allowing the Federal owners to buy into their clubs or by paying them off.

Baltimore was treated shabbily, in part by two major league owners whose names were later enshrined in venerated baseball parks: Charles Comiskey of the Chicago White Sox and Charles Ebbets of the Brooklyn Dodgers. According to Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist in his recent book, "Baseball and Billions," Comiskey disparaged Baltimore as "a minor league city, and not a hell of a good one at that." Ebbets agreed, adding an ugly comment about the size of Baltimore's black population.

Terrapin owners spurned the $50,000 they were offered and went to court. They filed suit under the Sherman Act, which prohibits restraint of trade. They won the case initially, but the victory was reversed by an appeals court in Washington.

Six years after the Federal League was disbanded, the U.S. Supreme Court also rejected the anti-trust argument in the decision that has protected major league baseball ever since. It was the legal underpinning for the reserve clause, which bound players to their original teams for life unless the owners traded or released their serfs of their own volition. The reserve clause gave way to free agency, but the Supreme Court decision still shelters baseball from some federal restrictions imposed on all other professional sports.

Most judges today -- undoubtedly including a majority of the present Supreme Court -- would agree that the 1922 decision was rooted in sentiment, not law or logic. One reason can be found in the lineup of judges who denied baseball is a business.

One of them was a federal jurist in Illinois who heard an early challenge to the baseball monopoly. He professed himself "shocked because you call playing baseball 'labor.' " He was Kenesaw Mountain Landis, later the first, great commissioner of baseball.

When the Baltimore case reached the Supreme Court, it faced a bench with former amateur baseball players at key positions. Ex-player Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the opinion, now regarded as an exercise in illogic and inconsistency by his successors. The chore was assigned to him by a former Yale third-baseman, Chief Justice William Howard Taft. The decision was a shutout -- 9-0.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.