In 1969 the St. Louis Cardinals traded their centerfielder Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies in a multiplayer deal. Flood didn’t want to be traded and was only told about the deal after it had occurred. He complained to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and asked that he be made a free agent and given the ability to strike a deal with another team. Kuhn denied his request, citing baseball’s reserve clause that stated that a player could not change teams without the consent of the team that he played for previously, essentially tying him to his original team until they chose to trade him to whomever they wanted.
Flood sued Major League baseball charging violations of the federal antitrust laws and civil rights statutes and the imposition of a form of peonage and involuntary servitude that violated the Thirteenth Amendment. Flood lost his case in both the district and the appeals courts, but the Supreme Court accepted the case for review in 1972.
Major League Baseball had been granted an exemption from federal antitrust laws in the case of Federal Baseball v. National League, where the court had decided that baseball was not interstate commerce and could not be regulated. In 1953, the Court heard Toolson v. New York Yankees, where they declared that the Federal Baseball decision was probably out of date but chose not to specifically overrule it, instead declaring that the antitrust status of baseball should be left up to Congress. In several other cases involving major sports the Court also chose not to declare the Federal Baseball decision void.
This emphasis and this concern are still with us. We continue to be loath, 50 years after Federal Baseball and almost two decades after Toolson, to overturn those cases judicially when Congress, by its positive inaction, has allowed those decisions to stand for so long and, far beyond mere inference and implication, has clearly evinced a desire not to disapprove them legislatively.
Accordingly, we adhere once again to Federal Baseball and Toolson and to their application to professional baseball….If there is any inconsistency or illogic in all this, it is an inconsistency and illogic of long standing that is to be remedied by the Congress and not by this Court. If we were to act otherwise, we would be withdrawing from the conclusion as to congressional intent made in Toolson and from the concerns as to retrospectivity therein expressed. Under these circumstances, there is merit in consistency even though some might claim that beneath that consistency is a layer of inconsistency.
The Court ruled 5-3 to uphold Toolson by once again totally copping out and declaring that baseball’s status under federal antitrust laws fell under the discretion of Congress.
The really interesting thing about this decision is the fact that Justice Blackmun chooses to open his opinion by citing baseball’s place in America and giving a history of the game. He then namechecks almost fifty baseball players, declaring that these names “celebrated for one reason or another, that have sparked the diamond and its environs and that have provided tinder for recaptured thrills, for reminiscence and comparisons, and for conversation and anticipation in-season and off-season.” He even goes so far to place a footnote at the end of this list stating: “These are names only from earlier years. By mentioning some, one risks unintended omission of others equally celebrated.” Blackmun even goes on to mention Ring Lardner, Casey at the Bat, and Tinker to Evers to Chance.
While this little bit of judicial fanboyism is kinda cool to read, I think it also helps to place us into the minds of the justices and possibly gives us a reason why they came to the decision that they did. The members of the Court love baseball and want to keep it the way it is. They also didn’t want to shoulder the blame for using their power to alter America’s pastime irrevocably, instead choosing to delegate that little issue back to Congress.
The reserve clause was eventually discarded thanks to the McNally-Messersmith case that took place under salary arbitration in 1976. While the reserve clause may be gone and free agency reigns, baseball is still exempt from federal antitrust laws.