- The Baseball Trust: A History of Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption by Stuart Banner
Professional baseball in the United States has a notorious reputation for being the one sport to which federal commerce regulations do not seem to apply. Seen through a variety of events throughout the sport’s history, from the birth of the reserve clause to the strike of 1994, baseball’s exemption from antitrust laws has made its position in American sport and legal history a curious one indeed. In The Baseball Trust: A History of Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption, Stuart Banner presents an in-depth look at the history of how organized professional baseball initially came to be regarded by the Supreme Court as a game, but not a form of interstate commerce, and how it managed to maintain this exemption.
Banner begins with a thorough discussion of baseball’s reserve clause, first enacted in 1879. As an agreement between team owners, the clause essentially gave those owners complete control over their players’ contracts. Included on every player’s contract, the clause stated that, upon that contract’s expiration, the rights to the player were retained by the team. Banner discusses the birth of the reserve clause and the formation of the first labor union among baseball players. He also describes the birth of the Players’ League in 1890 and the Federal League in 1914, both of which came under attack by the National League (NL) (and, later, the American League [AL]) when NL and AL players jumped [End Page 407] leagues to play for these new organizations. Team owners sued, arguing that players were under contract to stay with their teams. The owners lost the bulk of these cases, due to a lack of mutuality and indefiniteness in the reserve clause, and these players were allowed to jump to the newly formed leagues. In the end, however, both the Players’ and Federal Leagues folded, and players were forced to return to their original leagues and the world of the reserve clause.
Banner recounts several court cases that impacted the reserve clause and baseball’s immunity against the Sherman Antitrust Act. While most cases revolved around teams suing players, the players themselves had little incentive to attempt to sue Major League Baseball over the reserve clause. Doing so, they feared, would cause them to be blacklisted and jeopardize their baseball careers. Banner does a tremendous job of clearly explaining the implications of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and how baseball’s defenders argued that the National Agreement, which governed baseball, was not a contract in restraint of trade. Critical cases revolving around the definition (or not) of baseball as a trust included the 1922 Supreme Court case Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League, which deemed that federal antitrust laws did not apply to baseball; the 1972 Flood v. Kuhn decision that declared baseball’s exemption even from state antitrust laws; and several cases from the 1950s involving other professional sports, which made clear that the exemption applied only to baseball, and not to all sports.
Banner points out that these rulings were not influenced by the Court’s romantic notions about baseball but rather that they ruled according to their understanding of interstate commerce laws at that time. Baseball, Banner argues, hired the best lawyers and legal experts and was savvy enough to play its hand in a way that consistently brought the most beneficial outcome for the sport’s business interests. Throughout the book, Banner convincingly argues that baseball’s position as the “National Pastime” was not the primary reason behind its exempt status.
While it does present a long and convoluted history revolving around the business practices of baseball in the legal spotlight, The Baseball Trust does not bog the reader down with overly technical language. It is highly readable and relatively easy to follow. Banner exposes the nonsensical nature of baseball’s exempt status from antitrust laws in a manner that is engaging and that can appeal to even the...