That same year, 1957, baseball did something hugely controversial: It gave the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants permission to relocate to California, which they did the next season, in a seismic move that ended a golden age of New York City baseball and infuriated millions of fans. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Celler, a Democrat from Brooklyn, NY who had held the baseball hearings at the beginning of the decade, was among the heartbroken rabid Dodgers fans.
“In one breath, they say baseball is a sport, not subject to antitrust regulations,” he said, in announcing a fresh round of hearings. “In another breath, they say they have the right to move franchises in the interest of dollars, selling to the highest bidder. If that isn’t business, I’d like to know what is.” He introduced legislation to put baseball under antitrust laws.
As Capitol Hill considered his bill, the issue of relocation cut a little closer to home for every member of Congress when the Washington Senators considered leaving town. Sen. J. Glenn Beall, a Maryland Republican, implicitly used that bill as leverage in a telegraph to American League president Will Harridge, warning that it would be “unthinkable” for baseball to desert the nation’s capital.
Faced with resistance from fellow owners who were worried about Congress revoking the exemption, the senators dropped the idea, at least for the time being. In 1961, they moved to Minnesota and renamed themselves the Twins, but the American League mollified Congress by awarding an expansion team to DC
As with many monopolies, baseball has used its power to do whatever suits it in the moment. In the 1950s and ’60s, it permitted a steady stream of teams to move to the growing states in the west and south; in recent decades, it has enforced stability by largely quashing team movement (in contrast to the NFL, NBA and NHL, where a number of teams have changed cities). A few years ago the city of San Jose tried to lure the A’s from Oakland, but was stymied by MLB, because under the sport’s constitution, Santa Clara County, where San Jose is located, is part of the San Francisco Giants’ territory.
San Jose sued MLB for conspiring to block the move, once again challenging the sport’s antitrust exemption. But the Supreme Court in 2015 turned away the case, affirming a 3-0 decision of a US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit panel in San Francisco, in which Chief Judge Alex Kozinski had concluded, “Like Casey, San Jose has struck out here.”
The roots of the exemption lie in a strange decision by a deeply respected American jurist. The Baltimore Terrapins (aka the Baltfeds) were a member of the upstart Federal League, which challenged the major leagues (the National and American Leagues) in the 1910s. After the 1914 season, the Federal League sued the major leagues for monopolizing baseball, and the case went to federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in the Northern District of Illinois—who would go on to become MLB’s first commissioner.
Federal antitrust laws were still relatively new — Congress had passed the first such law, the Sherman Act, in 1890 — so the Federal League probably saw an opportunity to hold baseball to this recently enacted standard. Although Landis was known as a trustbuster, he tipped his hand in the case when he said at the trial that “any blows at … baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution.”
Before he could rule on the case, a settlement was reached in which “several Federal League owners accepted buyouts, a couple more were permitted to buy franchises in the major leagues, and three franchises” — including Baltimore — “were left to twist in the wind,” as Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a lively 2009 Journal of Supreme Court History article on the origins of baseball’s antitrust exemption.
That settlement prompted the Baltimore ballclub to sue the big leagues and several former Federal League executives, accusing them of conspiring to destroy its team by monopolizing the baseball business. The Baltimore franchise won at the trial level, but the ruling was reversed on appeal, and that ruling was affirmed unanimously by the Supreme Court on May 29, 1922 in Federal Baseball. In that opinion, Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote that baseball games are matters of the state where they’re played, not interstate commerce subject to federal antitrust law.
Fifty years later, the Supreme Court had another chance to overturn the ruling, but just as it did in the 1950s, it refused to do so. In the 1972 case, Flood v. Kuhn, the court rejected an antitrust challenge to baseball’s reserve clause — which bound a player to his team — by baseball star Curt Flood.
Justice Harry Blackmun acknowledged that the 1922 ruling was an aberration, but called it “an aberration that has been with us now for half a century, one heretofore deemed fully entitled to the benefit of stare decisis, and one that has survived the Court’s expanding concept of interstate commerce. It remains on a recognition and an acceptance of baseball’s unique characteristics and needs.”
Although Oliver Wendall Holmes’s 1922 opinion has been mostly panned over the past century, there’s one justice who has defended it — Alito, not especially known lately for his respect for precedents. “Justice Holmes’s unanimous opinion for the Court represented a fairly orthodox application of then-prevalent constitutional doctrine,” wrote Alito, a huge Philadelphia Phillies fan.