Baltimore made baseball a sport Play ball: Baseball's exemption from federal antitrust law started with a lawsuit by a Baltimore team against the major leagues.

March 31, 1996|By JOHN STEADMAN

IT WAS A LANDMARK decision that separated baseball from all the rest. No other sport has enjoyed the same preferential treatment since that May morning in 1922 when it gained permission to play under its own rules. A rather ambiguous condition, then and now, but the Supreme Court, with an assist from a team that was only in Baltimore for two years, ruled that baseball was not interstate commerce and not subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The ruling -- which made it possible to treat baseball as a sport, not a business -- was a 9-0 shutout delivered by a veteran starting pitcher named Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Baseball's exemption from the antitrust laws makes it the envy of all the other play-for-profit games, including professional football, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse and mud wrestling. It's particularly appropriate, with the Orioles opening another season tomorrow, to point out the significant role Baltimore played well over a half-century ago in perpetuating the status quo.

The ruling began with the Federal League, which emerged in 1914 as a challenger to the established National League and American League. It proclaimed itself "the third major league," except there wasn't adequate room or a reason for it to exist.

Eight cities, including Baltimore, were represented. In Chicago and St. Louis, three teams were vying for the public patronage. What hurt the new league's credibility from the outset was that it had no franchise in New York, then as now the media capital of the hemisphere.

Eighty-one big-league players jumped to the Feds, as they were called; 140 from the minor leagues. In Baltimore it presented a difficult problem. The newly formed Terrapins of the Federal League were in competition with the team that played across 29th Street, the Orioles of the International League. Orioles owner Jack Dunn's club, however, was being painfully ignored because the fan interest focused, in the main, on the Terrapins, these bogus major-leaguers. Things became so difficult for the Orioles that Dunn had to sell the greatest player the game has ever known -- home-grown Babe Ruth, then a rookie -- and Ernie Shore and Ben Egan to the Boston Red Sox. Ruth, sold for $2,900, was to become the game's most proficient performer and its greatest individual attraction.

Furthermore, Dunn, facing the pressure from the Terrapins, literally had to get out of town. He moved the Orioles to Richmond in 1915, staying until the Terrapins faded from the picture as the Federal League disappeared into the twilight.

Major-league baseball provided a convenient solution for itself. It took the clubs it wanted to select, created mergers in some instances and let others die a natural death. But Baltimore didn't want to fold, even if it was being blatantly ignored.

That's when the Terrapins' owners and directors, including Ned Hanlon, L. Edwin Goldman and Carroll Raisin, encouraged by their attorney from a prominent Maryland family, one Stuart S. Janney, filed a suit against baseball. It was a provocative position. After all, wasn't baseball, the national pastime, ranked almost right up there with the sanctity of motherhood?

How could anyone sue baseball? Wasn't it so sacrosanct it was in a league by itself? But Baltimore wasn't going to be given short shrift. It sued. It lost in district court, only to get a different umpire, in circuit court, that awarded damages of $80,000.

The original opinion in U.S. District Court that dismissed the Baltimore action was by a man who was to become familiar and, yes, respected in baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the same judge, who, after showing he was a friend of the game, became its first and most effective commissioner in 1921, after the infamous Black Sox scandal, when Chicago White Sox players entered into a betting arrangement to fix the 1919 World Series.

Landis' decision regarding Baltimore was first overthrown. Then came the $80,000 award -- with triple damages -- but major-league baseball was determined to prevail. It took it a step higher, all the way to the Supreme Court, where seven years after the Federal League died, Holmes determined that the Without a doubt, this has been the most important (and helpful) legal interpretation that any sport -- or business for that matter -- in this country has ever received. The baseball establishment held it against Hanlon because he initiated the action. His record of achievement with the Orioles of the 1890s was extraordinary, but he did not get into the Hall of Fame until this year.

"There's no way you can write the history of the game without offering immense credit to Hanlon for his innovations and contributions," commented the erudite Leonard Koppett, formerly of the New York Times, a baseball historian and one of the latest additions to the 15-member veterans' committee of the Hall of Fame. But, again, Hanlon had initiated a lawsuit against baseball and his peers were resentful; they held it against him.

In the cold light of day, . The Supreme Court made it so.

Play ball.

John Steadman is a columnist for The Sun. He has played professional baseball and served as an executive with the Baltimore Colts.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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