Author: Luke Hasskamp
This article—the third in a series—focuses on the Supreme Court’s decision in Federal Baseball Club v. National League, in which the Court unanimously held that federal antitrust laws did not apply to professional baseball. It is a curious decision, indeed, preceded by two prior decisions that helped to set the table.
Despite the focus of this series of articles on baseball’s unusual treatment under the antitrust laws, the first two articles did not actually address antitrust law. Instead, the focus was, primarily, contract law. Despite the clear anticompetitive implications of baseball’s reserve clause, which owners used to tie players to a team in perpetuity and to suppress player salaries, the initial challenges to these provisions were based on the law of contracts. And the initial lawsuits did not involve affirmative litigation brought by players but were instead brought by the owners, with the players raising these arguments in their defense.
Now the stage was set for the antitrust laws to enter the picture full force, and not just as a shield to protect players from teams’ requests for injunctions, but also as a sword to affirmatively attack professional baseball as an unlawful trust.
You can find the other parts to this series below:
The antitrust laws and baseball finally intersect: the Hal Chase case
The first antitrust baseball case fully litigated on the merits was American League Baseball Club v. Chase, 149 N.Y.S. 6 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1914), a dispute involving Hal Chase, a star first baseman who moved from the Chicago White Sox of the American League to the Buffalo Buff-Feds of the Federal League.
The suit was brought in New York by the White Sox, who sought to enjoin Chase from playing for Buffalo. At the conclusion of the matter, Judge Bissell rejected Chase’s “novel argument . . . presented with much earnestness” that baseball violated federal antitrust laws. The Sherman Act makes it unlawful to “monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States . . . .” Judge Bissell had no doubt that baseball was a monopoly, but he concluded that it was not involved in interstate trade or commerce. Instead, he reasoned: “Baseball is an amusement, a sport, a game that . . . is not a commodity or an article of merchandise subject to the regulation of congress . . . .” (Congress is constrained by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Thus, the connection to interstate commerce was essential. If baseball did not affect interstate commerce, Congress had no power to regulate it.)
Interestingly, Judge Bissell did rule that baseball had violated New York state law, meaning that the preliminary injunction initially granted could no longer be maintained. And his reasoning suggested that he also would have found baseball to have violated federal antitrust laws had it affected interstate commerce:
“A court of equity insisting that ‘he who comes into equity must come with clean hands’ will not lend its aid to promote an unconscionable transaction of the character which the plaintiff is endeavoring to maintain and strengthen by its application for this injunction. The court will not assist in enforcing an agreement which is a part of a general plan having for its object the maintenance of a monopoly, interference with the personal liberty of a citizen and the control of his free right to labor wherever and for whom he pleases; and will not extend its aid to further the purposes and practices of an unlawful combination, by restraining the defendant from working for any one but the plaintiff.”
Thus, with his legal victory, Chase was able to play with Buffalo for 1914 and 1915. While it was not a devastating blow for organized baseball—because “the question of the dissolution of this combination on the ground of its illegality” was not before the court—it must have seemed like an ominous conclusion to the ruling.
Chase ended up having a remarkable career for several reasons. Many players, including Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, considered him the best first baseman ever, and he is sometimes considered the first true star of the franchise that would eventually become the New York Yankees. But Chase was also ultimately exposed as a notorious cheater, betting extensively on games and paying and receiving money to fix games. Indeed, he was indicted as part of the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal (though his role is disputed), but the State of California refused to extradite him due to a problem with the arrest warrant. He was ultimately blackballed from professional baseball and spent his remaining years on the west coast.
The Federal League takes on Organized Baseball: Round 1
In 1913, the Federal League emerged as a serious competitor to the National and American Leagues. And it intended to do so in court, as well as on the field, where it would wield the threat of a serious antitrust challenge. Indeed, in January 2015, the Federal League finally filed its affirmative suit against the National and American Leagues in federal court in Illinois, alleging that they amounted to a combination in violation of federal and state antitrust laws.