Baseball's 73-year-old exemption from antitrust laws sustained at least a temporary jolt yesterday when the Senate Judiciary Committee, for the first time ever, sent to the full Senate a bill calling for partial repeal of the exemption.
The legislation, approved by a 9-8 vote, would repeal the antitrust exemption in labor matters, freeing the players to use the courts as players in other sports have done. It would not affect the minor leagues, the amateur draft or franchise relocation.
Committee members said afterward that a vote in the full Senate would be close, but that the measure might pass.
"It stands a very good chance, partly because the people in baseball today are their own worst enemies," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who voted in favor of the bill. "The argument I made was very simple: If we didn't have an antitrust exemption and they came to Congress today asking for it, do you think they'd get more than five votes?"
There was no immediate indication of when the bill would reach the Senate floor. When it does, it will be the target of an intensive lobbying effort by major-league owners, who desperately want to retain the exemption the U.S. Supreme Court granted baseball in 1922.
The owners have aggressively lobbied members of the judiciary panel since the bill was introduced last January.
A similar bill was rejected by the committee, 10-7, in June 1994. Three members who voted for the bill last year and two who voted against it are no longer on the committee.
Three other members switched their votes. Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, who became the committee chairman last November and is a co-sponsor of the bill, and Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts voted for the bill this time. Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa changed to a no vote.
Wisconsin Democrat Herbert Kohl abstained from yesterday's vote because he owns the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team. He also is a lifelong friend of Bud Selig, baseball's acting commissioner.
Deprived of the chance that Kohl's vote would have created a 9-9 deadlock and stalled the legislation, Selig said in a statement: "The game of baseball was not positively served by the Senate committee action today."
The players association, which has conducted a lobbying campaign of its own, adopted a low-key approach in its reaction to the committee vote. Executive director Donald Fehr spoke, like Selig, of the need for a new labor agreement and the promotion of the game.
"Removing the antitrust exemption," he said in a statement, "is a significant push in the right direction. We urge the full Senate and the House of Representatives to pass this bill promptly."
In approving the legislation, the committee produced a split-party vote: three Democrats and six Republicans in favor, four Democrats and four Republicans opposed.
When the committee rejected the bill last year, future prospects for legislation to repeal the exemption looked bleak. Democrat Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, who was the moving force behind the bill, was retiring from the Senate, and no other senator on the committee appeared ready to pick up where Metzenbaum left off.
But as the labor dispute between the players and the owners wore on and the players' strike seemed endless, Hatch became the bill's champion on the Republican side.