This Day in Baseball History: May 29th, 1922

All the sports have this, don’t they?

On May 29, 1922:

The Supreme Court upholds Major League Baseball Anti-Trust Exemption.

At the turn of the 20th century, Progressivism was at its height. A response to the Industrial Revolution and the Robber Barons, politicians such as William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson demanded reforms, especially in the economy, and the monopolies were main targets. Roosevelt would be the most active in his pursuit of trust-busting. But before he could do anything, he had to have a legal basis, and fortunately for him, it came in 1890, about a decade before he entered into office. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was signed into law in 1890 by Benjamin Harrison. Though aimed at monopolies, it had an interesting loophole. Anyone who did whatever they did better than anyone else and thus gained a monopoly was not in violation. The Act was there to avoid artificially raising prices by restricting trade.

As for baseball, it was at a turning point at the turn of the century as well. In 1903, the National League and American League combined the two most competitive professional leagues into one, essentially creating a monopoly. However, the Federal League had other ideas, and by the early part of the next decade, it was a powerhouse as well. In 1915, the Federal League sued Major League Baseball, contending that the leagues conspired to prevent players in between contracts from signing with them. This would break the Sherman Anti-Trust Act as it restricted trade. Kenesaw Landis was the judge overseeing the case, but before the future commissioner and Cubs fan was forced to make a decision (one he didn’t want to make because he knew the Federal League had a case), the Federal League was absorbed into the MLB.

Part of the deal was compensation for the Federal League owners, but Baltimore was left out. They weren’t very happy. In 1919, the Baltimore owners sued the MLB for conspiring to destroy the Federal League, not a bogus accusation, and the first judge agreed, giving them $240,000 (wow!). Of course, the MLB appealed, and eventually, it made it to the Supreme Court in 1922. In the case of Federal Baseball Club v. National League, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was up for debate. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that Major League Baseball was simply a “state affair” and did not violate any anti-trust acts. Although teams crossed state lines, money did not (technically), which would have violated the anti-trust acts, and the MLB was not “interstate commerce”.

As you might expect, baseball probably got a bit of a break here, but it was the nation’s pastime. Thirty years later in 1953, another case came to the Supreme Court. In Toolson v. New York Yankees, George Toolson (a pitcher for the Yankees’ AAA team) thought he could pitch in the majors, but because of the reserve clause, he was unfairly bound to the Yankees, challenging the restriction of trade clause of the Sherman Act. The earlier courts followed Federal, but the case appeared in the Supreme Court. Not swayed, the Supreme Court shot it down 5-2. A lawyer for baseball? Future baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

Almost twenty years later, Flood v. Kuhn (sound familiar) challenged it again. The Supreme Court once again ruled in favor of baseball, but it made an interesting statement. The original ruling, in their minds, was tenuous at best, and the MLB did in fact violate the interstate commerce clause. Though it technically didn’t do anything, it cracked baseball’s armor, and the reserve clause was about to go.

Trivia Time
What justice changed his mind from Toolson to Flood?

Yesterday’s Answer –> In order: Nolan Ryan (491 of 497 – 98.8%), George Brett (488 -98.2%), and Robin Yount (385 – 77.5%).

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One Response to “This Day in Baseball History: May 29th, 1922”

  1. Ron Rollins Says:

    Warren Burger

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