House panel reaches first base in bid to restrict owners' exemption

September 30, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Congress continued its efforts yesterday to restrict the baseball owners' antitrust exemption when the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would apply antitrust laws to any effort to unilaterally impose work rules, such as the owners' proposed salary cap.

The chances of the bill's moving through both houses before Congress' expected adjournment Oct. 7 still are doubtful.

Still, Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., the bill's co-sponsor, remains hopeful the bill could go before the full House during the current session. And Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, still intends to try to attach an amendment similar to the Synar bill to Senate legislation in hopes of getting the language into law.

Yesterday's movement represented a first against an exemption that has stood since being put in place by the Supreme Court in 1922. And that movement came in Congress, where legislators traditionally have protected the owners' immunity as zealously as the baseball clubs themselves.

That alone made the action significant, said Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "Momentum is building and it's building quickly," said Fehr, who was in Grapevine, Texas, conducting the seventh of eight regional meetings with the striking players.

Not surprisingly, the committee's action did little to cheer baseball management.

"Somebody ought to consider legislation that would require this union to bargain for the collective compensation of the bargaining unit, which is the customary practice in collective bargaining," said Richard Ravitch, the owners' chief negotiator. "Maybe a suggestion to that effect might tilt the scales a little more evenly."

And Charles O'Connor, the general counsel for the owners' Player Relations Committee, told another committee exploring the possibility of forcing binding arbitration on baseball's warring parties that such legislative action "has interfered with the collective bargaining process."

The Judiciary Committee acted, anyway, signaling a souring of the mood toward baseball here.

Synar, articulating Congress' anger, warned the game that this is only the beginning. The full exemption, Synar declared, "is on its deathbed."

Other legislators were not so sure that even Synar's narrowest effort will move past either floor. "This bill will probably not pass," Rep. Romano Mazzoli, D-Ky., said of a vote in the House. "It serves no useful purpose to report this bill out."

Such opposition didn't stop the Synar bill, or distress the players. "This is the farthest that the laws have gone in attempting to remove the antitrust exemption," said Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser.

The players' contingent included two New York Yankees, Jim Abbott and Bernie Williams. The latter testified before a House subcommittee on labor management relations, the body now considering a bill calling for binding arbitration and a resultant decision by March 15 should the dispute not be resolved by Feb. 1.

"I want the parties to reach a settlement the old-fashioned way, through bargaining," said Pat Williams, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor and the bill's sponsor. "If owners and players cannot, I assure you that early next year, the Congress will take a look at coming up with a solution."

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