Orioles' run-ins with law historic

Institution: One of the stranger minglings of sports and politics is baseball's longstanding exemption from federal antitrust laws.

April 03, 2005|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

The Capitol Hill hearings that recently captivated baseball fans with their all-star lineup of witnesses had special resonance in Baltimore.

On one side of a long table sat the Orioles' newest star (Sammy Sosa), potentially the next Oriole after Cal Ripken Jr. to be inducted in the Hall of Fame (Rafael Palmeiro) and an Oriole lost years ago in the worst trade the team ever made (Curt Schilling). On the other side sat Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, among the inquisitors on the House Government Reform Committee.

Another Baltimore connection was more obscure but involved Congress' biggest weapon -- its ability to repeal the 1922 Supreme Court decision that granted Major League Baseball an exemption from antitrust laws.

Lawmakers threatened to do so if baseball fails to police steroid use by players. Congress invokes that warning from time to time, whenever baseball does something that offends the voting public. It's just Congress "crying wolf," but the mention always gets baseball's attention.

One of the stranger intersections of sport and politics, baseball's waiver from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 has long baffled legal scholars. The court decision that established the exemption has been described as "Not one of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s better days."

Like the Billy Goat Curse that bedevils the Cubs in Chicago or the ball that found its way between Bill Buckner's legs in a World Series, the exemption has practically become part of baseball lore -- an oddity taken for granted but one that no one seems able to explain.

The ruling has nevertheless shaped professional baseball as we know it. And the parallels between the 1922 case at its origin and baseball headlines today are so eerie that the old Twilight Zone theme music should swell in the background when they are discussed.

Peter G. Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, argued through the past year that this region can't support two pro baseball teams. He was boxed out by other owners, who decided to move the Montreal franchise to Washington. The new Washington Nationals throw their first pitch tomorrow, ending a roughly 30-year drought of pro baseball in Washington.

Some 90 years ago, the owner of the then-Baltimore Orioles, which had relocated from Montreal, also resisted when it had to share this region with a second team. Within a few years, both Baltimore teams were gone and Baltimore wandered in the desert without major-league baseball for more than 30 years. In 1953-54, the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles, who begin their 52nd season tomorrow.

Before the Supreme Court's antitrust decision, baseball teams moved like gypsies. In the early 1900s, the original Baltimore Orioles relocated to New York, where they were renamed the Highlanders and later became the Yankees. Baltimore soon got a new team, again called the Orioles, in the minor International League, but it competed against major-league teams and often beat them.

In 1913, a new league formed to rival the National and American leagues. Baltimore was pleased to get a team in the new league, according to Robert W. Creamer's rich biography of Babe Ruth. The city and its newspapers were breathless about the arrival of the new Federal League Baltimore Terrapins. The House of Delegates voted to make their arrival a state holiday.

Orioles' owner Jack Dunn knew his team was in trouble when 1,500 fans showed up to watch the Orioles play the champion New York Giants, with local star Ruth pitching, while the Terrapins attracted 30,000 that same afternoon.

Financially hobbled, Dunn was forced to unload his stars. Ruth went for a reported $30,000 to the Boston Red Sox, who later couldn't afford him either and had to sell him to the Yankees. Dunn would have sold Ruth eventually because that was how minor league teams like his made money, before major league baseball created its own farm system. But Ruth presumably could have played in Baltimore years longer than he did, as Dunn was known for holding onto his stars. Disillusioned by the lack of support, Dunn moved his depleted squad temporarily to Richmond, Va.

After two years of battling with the established leagues, the Federals folded, too. All its teams except Baltimore reached a settlement with the established major leagues. Baseball owners sniffed that Baltimore was only "minor league" anyway -- not the last time the city would suffer some insult over the comings and goings of its pro sports teams.

Ned Hanlon, owner of the Terrapins and before that the Orioles, sued. He argued that the other owners colluded to destroy his league and his team.

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