No discussion of baseball history is complete without robust examination of Major League Baseball’s anti-trust exemption. As touched on a couple weeks ago in this series, the exemption is one of the oddest quirks in the sporting world, and one of the most critical in guiding baseball’s development to where we are today.
As legal historian Stuart Banner writes in the introduction to his book The Baseball Trust, “Scarcely anyone believes that baseball’s exemption makes any sense.” Regardless of sense, it was a powerful aid to major league baseball as it grew from a small collection of teams into the most powerful sporting entity in the United States for at least half a century.
But if it didn’t (and doesn’t) make any sense, how has it lasted for nearly a century? Quite simply, by the time anybody challenged it, the National and American leagues had a well-oiled influence machine, ready to bury any challenges in rhetoric and lobbyists.
The first real political challenge to the “baseball trust,” as it was referred to then, came from Illinois congressional representative Thomas Gallagher in 1912. Gallagher proposed, according to the New York Times, an investigation of the “baseball trust, the most audacious and autocratic trust in the country.” The trust was accused of attempting “to control the baseball game,its officials announcing daily through the press the dictates of a governing commission, how competition is stifled, territory and games apportioned, prices fixed which millions must pay to witness the sport, how men are enslaved and forced to accept salaries and terms or be forever barred from playing.”
August Herrman, president of the National Baseball Commission, responded harshly. From the Lewiston Daily Sun:
“I don’t know what he means,” said Herrmann, “unless it is a joke. There is no baseball trust, and from the nature of the game, there never can be. The Commission doesn’t fix prices. Different prices are charged in different cities. There can be an investigation at any time without any objection from the National Commission.”
The resolution never reached a vote. Gallagher was unfazed, however, and brought a similar resolution the very next year. This time, Gallagher and Georgian Senator Hoke Smith had a copy of Ty Cobb’s contract to examine. Cobb was involved in one of his typical holdouts, searching for a raise from $10,000 to $15,000 — he eventually settled on a $12,000 payday, roughly equivalent to $280,000 in 2013 dollars.
Herrmann again sprung into action to defend the National Commission. From the Boston Evening Transcript:
“All of the actions of the National Commission are open and above board. Nothing is concealed. The principles of the national agreement protect all who are interested in the game — the players, club owners, umpires and officials as well as the patrons. Without the provisions of the national agreement the game could not and would not be the national sport of the country such as it is.”
However, once Cobb resolved his contract dispute, the politicians from Georgia necessary for the investigation to go through lost interest. Once again, the resolution petered out. The anti-trust issue didn’t go away — it was a key part of the Federal League’s attempt to overturn the stranglehold the American and National Leagues held on the sport. But in Herrman’s rhetoric, you can see some fear on this issue. Particularly in the second statement, Herrman makes it clear — regardless of whether or not professional baseball is a trust, the current agreement is absolutely necessary to its business life. For some, like Herrman and many others within the baseball industry, that is far more important than whether or not the National Commission formed a trust.
This rhetoric may be a century old, but it’s awfully familiar to what NCAA President Mark Emmert has deployed in the recent salvo against his organization’s archaic amateurism rules. Observe:
From September 2013, at a forum at Marquette University
“One thing that sets the fundamental tone is there’s very few members and, virtually no university president, that thinks it’s a good idea to convert student-athletes into paid employees. Literally into professionals. Then you have something very different from collegiate athletics. One of the guiding principles (of the NCAA) has been that this is about students who play sports.”
Similarly, from a few years prior at a meeting of the Knight Commission, an independent nonprofit college sports reform group: “When we move to professionalize our student athletes, in my opinion, we’re just throwing in the towel,” he said. “I don’t know where that takes us other than a very bad road.”
Changing the way the NCAA operates with respect to amateurism would threaten the NCAA and change it into something unrecognizable — its very survival would be put at stake, much like changing the “provisions of the National Agreement” would do to baseball.
Finally, from the NCAA’s website, on the “Who We Are” page:
“The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a membership-driven organization dedicated to safeguarding the well-being of student-athletes and equipping them with the skills to succeed on the playing field, in the classroom and throughout life.”
Just like Herrman, the NCAA insists it is not only doing these things for the survival of its own organization, but for the benefit of the players under its umbrella as well. It protects, if you believe its administrators and executives, “all who are interested in the game.”
Professional baseball managed to weather the storm brought by the Federal League, and other assaults on the anti-trust exemption in later years. It’s unclear if the NCAA will be so lucky. But in both organizations responses to threat, even 100 years apart, we see the same tools deployed. Survival, they will tell you, is at stake. The survival of the game you love so much. Maybe some players are getting screwed. But these are just the costs of doing business, whether in 1912 or 2014.