Don't Wait Till Next Year

September 16, 1994

The ancient lament of baseball fans whose teams have lost a pennant is now being uttered by all fans. Every team lost the pennant this year, thanks to the incredibly stupid negotiations and relations between the major league team owners and the players. But we think it would be a great mistake for anyone concerned about baseball's future to wait till next year. Next year could be worse.

Congress needs to act ASAP. That means holding meaningful -- not just showcase -- hearings on baseball's anti-trust exemption beginning Thursday and sticking with them till some sort of legislation is written and passed that will ensure that baseball goes on. Or at least do as much as legislation can do to ensure that.

Had baseball been covered by anti-trust laws, there almost surely would not have been a season-killing strike by the players this year. The owners almost surely could not have imposed a salary cap without having to go to court to justify it. And if owners had had to subject such an act to legal process, the players probably would have played out the season knowing their rights would have been protected even if the outcome they wanted in the dispute was not a certainty.

Baseball's exemption goes back to a 1922 Supreme Court ruling that said the game is a special enterprise which cannot be considered interstate commerce. It was an absurdity then and has become more so with the growth of baseball and other huge nationwide entertainment enterprises. The question was re-examined in the federal courts in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. By then the mistake of 1922 was obvious. The Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that "professional baseball is a business and it is engaged in interstate commerce." But it left the exemption intact on the grounds that Congress had the power to legislate away baseball's special status and had refused to.

At that time there had been only one season interrupted by a labor dispute -- one in 96 years. There have been seven in the subsequent 22 years. The old mind set is inappropriate. It's time to act, and there is legislation to start work on. The day before the strike began, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum and Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced a partial repeal in the Senate. Rep. Mike Synar and Jim Bunning (a former major league pitcher) introduced a similar bill a week later. The House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on Thursday. The legislative process should continue till a responsible, fair and workable way to avoid these chronic stoppages is found.

The first cancellation of a World Series in 90 years emphasizes the urgency of the problem. We say to Congress, don't wait till next year. In fact, given the history of the past two decades, you shouldn't have waited till this year.

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