Beneath the tension threatening baseball lies a complex history

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It was really happening. The Bleacher Report notification, with its obnoxious breaking news siren icon, glared at me from my phone’s home screen: “MLB Cancels Spring Training, Delays Regular Season amid Coronavirus Concerns.” Shivers of despair and utter disbelief reverberated down my spine. After the initial shock abated, I realized I was also somewhat relieved. I had planned a trip to Florida to see my Yankees ramp up for what promised to be an exciting follow-up to their Championship Series run last season, but had been flip-flopping in recent days as to whether traveling was wise. No longer faced with a dilemma, my relief also rested on the belief that I’d be able to see baseball again in a short while. Boy, was I wrong.

Less than two weeks later, on March 26, things seemed to be trending in the right direction: The players and owners reached a promising preliminary agreement. It gave Commissioner Rob Manfred the power to mandate a return to play if negotiations reached a stalemate, as long as the owners paid players full prorated salaries. “Prorated” in this sense meant that whatever fraction of the season was played, players would receive that same fraction of their initially agreed upon salary. 

Now fast forward to June 23. After three tumultuous months of reported deals and proposals falling apart, Manfred had no choice but to unilaterally implement a 60-game season. The main point of contention had been that owners were refusing to pay prorated salaries to the players, despite the initial agreement saying that they should do so, on the grounds that playing games without fans would significantly hinder their ability to dole out the full salaries. The players often countered by saying that they would be remiss to put themselves and their loved ones at risk of contracting the virus by playing for anything less than prorated salaries.

Manfred’s action brought an end to the exhausting cycle of hope and dismay I experienced as each round of negotiations began and fell apart, replacing it with a familiar sense of quasi-relief. These past three months, my only taste of summer ball has been in reading the ubiquitous, angry editorials from beat writers (Casey Drottar’s “MLB, Players Should be Ashamed of the Current State of Baseball”), college journalists (JMU’s “No 2020 season would be disastrous for MLB”), long-time analysts (Buster Olney’s “How shortsighted greed is tearing baseball apart”) and everyone in between. There had been some question as to whether a season would happen at all, and any season is better than none for the players, owners, media and fans.

However, the road leading to Manfred’s decision was extremely rocky, and the bitterness of the writers was completely understandable. In the midst of a pandemic in which an estimated 40 million lost their jobs as of the end of May, they hoped to have a season to write about in order to avoid being added to that statistic. But was the anger they were expressing on behalf of the fans or just for their own sake? Surely, many fans have been eagerly awaiting the return of our national pastime; watching games, even if only on TV, will provide a much-needed escape from our chaotic world. Most fans always seemed more than willing to accept such a season over nothing, despite questioning the legitimacy of any records that might be broken. 

Instead, all they got for a while was what at first glance appeared to be a tone-deaf, money-centered tug-of-war between millionaire players and billionaire owners, which prevented the season from commencing. At the same time, fans seem to be more understanding of the current circumstances than they were during the last baseball work stoppage (and its own tone-deaf struggle): 1994’s strike. Back then, they were enraged. But now, as one fan said about the current delay, “The world is just out of control weird right now, so at this point if you have 50 games…or…nothing…I’d take [the 50 games].” It’s encouraging to hear that fans are willing to give baseball something of a mulligan this time around. But it’s also a shame that baseball wasn’t able to get its act together sooner. While some of that was due to the vagaries of the virus, baseball could have drastically increased its viewership with everyone staying at home, especially with all other sports in the United States coming to a halt. This perhaps could have made up for lost revenue and rendered the infighting a moot point. But now, baseball is set to return at around the same time as the NBA and NHL playoffs. There is much to be exasperated with, but for any fans looking to aim their baseball or life-related frustrations somewhere at this time, I’d recommend going a bit easy on the players.

As one fan put it, because players are ephemeral and teams are (mostly) eternal, and players are getting paid very handsomely to “play a kids’ game,” it makes sense that players would end up bearing the brunt of fans’ grievances during a work stoppage. I’m here to tell you that that should not be the case. In fact, when examining the broader context of owner-player relations throughout baseball’s history, the “petty” squabble between the two parties actually starts to make sense; baseball players have historically faced an uphill battle in attaining rights.

It all started in 1913, when an upstart league, the Federal League, created disarray by poaching minor and major league players. There was even some discussion among the minor leagues of abandoning the majors in favor of backing the Federal League. When this plan did not come to fruition, the Federal League took note and changed tactics: They brought the major leagues to court. In January 1915, they filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the major leagues. Ultimately, seven of the eight Federal League teams folded that year in exchange for concessions from the majors. But one team, the Baltimore Terrapins, stayed the course and filed its own lawsuit. The Terrapins accused the American and National Leagues (the major leagues, or majors) of monopolizing the baseball industry illegally; these two entities had been stealing players from other leagues, after all, and usually only agreed to stop when the other leagues folded or chose to recognize the majors as superior. The Terrapins’ case was only furthered by the majors’ ultimately successful attempt at driving their own Federal League out of business.

The suit reached the Supreme Court in 1922, which ruled unanimously in favor of the majors over the Terrapins. They stated that professional baseball was not subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act on the grounds that baseball did not, under a very narrow interpretation of the phrase, engage in “interstate commerce,” and thus was beyond the scope of the law. Despite crossing state lines to play games, each game was held within one state and teams did not produce any physical products at the time. Unsurprisingly, this head-scratcher of a ruling was challenged in the 1950s after the definition of “interstate commerce” was widely expanded. 

Why does any of this matter? For one, owners of major league teams were able to corner the market for a sport growing exponentially in popularity with relative ease. This empowered them to institute or continue exercising other unjust policies, such as the notorious reserve clause, which was the subject of the 1950s challenge to baseball’s antitrust exemption. The reserve clause, contained in the first contract that a player signed, held that while a player could be drafted by another major league team after spending a certain amount of time (which varied throughout the years) in the minors, their contract was otherwise subject to indefinite renewal or trades on a whim. However, teams were loath to draft such players because upon doing so, they had to immediately place them on their limited-capacity active roster. What’s more, teams moved unsuspecting players between secret minor league affiliates so that it would appear they hadn’t spent enough time in the minors and were thus exempt from being drafted by other teams.

In the 1940s, there were rumblings that the Supreme Court’s 1922 ruling might be overturned. Consequently, Organized Baseball (a label which describes the major and minor leagues together) settled out of court with outfielder Danny Guardella, who sued them when he had been blacklisted after signing with the rival Mexican League while still being under reserve with the New York Giants. George Toolson, a pitcher for the Yankees, was encouraged by this result and decided to sue as well. Toolson had been demoted from the Yankees’ highest minor league affiliate to one of their lowest in 1950. He refused to report and tried to sign with a different team in the high minors, despite still being under reserve, and was consequently blacklisted himself. 

But after reaching the Supreme Court, Toolson’s suit was surprisingly dismissed as well. The Court ruled again in favor of the major leagues because it insisted on not holding them retroactively liable for monopolizing tactics in the previous thirty years. If action were to be taken, Congress would have to do it, since their decisions could apply strictly to future cases and shield baseball from countless more lawsuits. 

This ruling wasn’t challenged again for nearly 20 years. But in 1972, the reserve clause allowed for all-star outfielder Curt Flood to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia against his will, and he wished to be made a free agent, bringing the major leagues to court. Yet again, the Supreme Court deferred to their prior decision and shut Flood down, despite having refused to grant the same antitrust-exemption to the National Basketball Association or the National Football League. While free agency was effectively instituted in 1975 by an independent arbitrator, baseball’s antitrust exemption remained in law until, you guessed it, baseball’s 1994 work stoppage (remember the one fans were so enraged by?) resulted in an agreement between owners and players to seek a limited repeal of the exemption. This ultimately led to the Curt Flood Act of 1998, which permitted baseball players to file antitrust litigation without fear of being blacklisted, finally placing them on the same footing as other professional athletes in the United States. When the players held out in 1994, it resulted in lasting, meaningful change. There’s no question that they had that precedent in mind when negotiating this time around.

So fans: Give the players a break. They carry on their shoulders the burden of undoing a troubling legacy. They had to stand their ground, a tried-and-true method for them, in order to avoid imperiling decades of hard-fought progress. The initial March 26 agreement was on their side; if they had caved in, it could have led to a slippery slope, opening the door for challenges to other agreed-upon players’ rights. Fellow baseball writers: Let’s stop bashing the game so much. Yes, baseball squandered an opportunity to grow their fanbase, but we won’t help them gain more opportunities with denigration. Baseball is likely coming back. Let’s all just revel in that.

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