Image courtesy of SABR.org

“We have no established church, but base ball is an institution whose welfare our courts will jealously guard.”

– A law student in the Columbia Jurist, 1885.

Professional baseball was still very young in 1885, when our Columbia Law student all but declared baseball the religion of the law. The National Association played its first season in 1871. The National League, formed with teams from the defunct National Association, began play in 1876 and was less than a decade old. But our anonymous law student’s assessment appears to have some merit, as a look at a couple of major cases in the early 1900s suggests.

The first was one of organized baseball’s few major victories in early fights for the reserve clause, which allowed clubs to effectively exercise a perpetual club option on their players. As Stuart Banner covered in his book, The Baseball Trust, baseball players were effectively unable to challenge unless there was another major league willing to pay them to break their contracts.

In 1901, the challenging league was the American League, prior to the effective merger of the American and National Leagues in 1903. Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie attempted to shirk the reserve clause and jump from the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies to the American League’s Philadelphia Athletics. The reserve clause had already been beaten in a couple of recent cases: pitcher Jack Harper jumped from the Cardinals (NL) to the Browns (AL), and catcher Deacon McGuire jumped from the Superbas (later Dodgers, NL) to the Tigers (AL). In both cases trial judges refused baseball’s request for an injunction to force the players to return to their original teams, claiming the reserve clause was unenforceable.

The Phillies, like the Cardinals and Superbas before them, lost in trial court, but they appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. There, the Phillies drew Judge William F. Potter, who just may have been one of the acolytes in the law’s church of baseball.

The Philles’ case rested on the idea that Lajoie’s talents were irreplaceable. Precedent from cases in both England and New York had seen courts place injunctions on such exceptional employees to keep them from moving onto other employers (more commonly with opera singers and dramatic performers than athletes at the time). Judge Potters was very receptive to the argument. From his decision:

“The court below finds from the testimony that the defendant is an expert baseball player in any position; that he has a great reputation as a second baseman; that his place would be hard to fill with as good a player; that his withdrawal from the team would weaken it, as would the withdrawal of any good player, and would probably make a difference in the size of the audiences attending the game.

We think that in thus stating it, he puts it very mildly, and that the evidence would warrant a stronger finding as to the ability of the defendant as an expert ball player. He has been for several years in the service of the plaintiff club, and has been re-engaged from season to season at a constantly increasing salary. He has become thoroughly familiar with the action and methods of the other players in the club, and his own work is peculiarly meritorious as an integral part of the team work which is so essential. In addition to these features which render his services of peculiar and special value to the plaintiff, and not easily replaced, Lajoie is well known, and has great reputation among the patrons of the sport, for ability in the position which he filled, and was thus a most attractive drawing card for the public.”

Note particularly the judge’s next sentence:

He may not be the sun in the baseball firmament, but he is certainly a bright, particular star.”

Perhaps this doesn’t come off as particularly flowery or religious language in the 21st century, but in terms of 20th century law language, it was practically gushing. The ruling didn’t end up making much of a difference — it only applied to games within Pennsylvania’s borders, so American League president Ban Jonson arranged a trade to the Cleveland Bronchos (who changed their name the Cleveland Naps, affirming Potter’s stance that he was a “bright, particular star; the Naps later became the Indians). But it was one of the few cases of the reserve clause era to favor the owners, and it is unlikely that Potter’s baseball fandom had no impact on the ruling.

All this serves as prelude to the National and American Leagues’ fight with the Federal League in the mid-1900s. The Federal League filed suit in one Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s court against “Organized Baseball, the 16 club presidents and the three members of the National Commission being cited by names as defendants” under the Sherman Anti-trust laws.

Landis seemed an obvious choice for the Federal League. He made his name as a trustbuster in 1907, when Landis levied the largest fine in court history of $29,240,000 — or close to $700 million in today’s terms — against Standard Oil Company in 1907. As J.G. Taylor Spink wrote in a biography of Landis, “The decision made Landis many enemies among the conservative element in Washington, who called him a radical, a grandstand player, and ‘Chicago’s showboat judge.’” And thus, some might think, the perfect man to bust the baseball trust

But emotion ruled in Landis’s courtroom. He attempted to try the German Kaiser in his court following World War I. Again, from Spink:

“Landis actually hoped to try Kaiser Wilhelm in his own Chicago Federal court at the end of World War I. The plan was to indict the former German Emperor for the murder of a Chicagoan who lost his life in the sinking of the Luistania in 1916. The plan failed to materialize, as Secretary of State Lansing of the Wilson administration informed Gresham’s old secretary that existent treaties prevented the extradition of the Kaiser. On receipt of this communication, he screwed up his face as though smelling a Limburger cheese and uttered a most passionate ‘Bah.’”

And Landis carried out these emotions in his decisions, as well. Landis privately referred to members of the International Workers of the World as “scum,” “filth,” and “slimy rats,” and on multiple occasions the IWW suffered severe losses in his courtroom (some of which were later overturned on appeal).

It turned out Landis had a bit of a soft spot for organized baseball. He was a season ticket holder for the Chicago Cubs — he had, according to Spink, been a fan “since his days as a Logansport newsboy.” At one point in the trail, Landis declared, “Both sides must understand that any blows at the thing called baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution.”

Landis never did make a decision. As Spink wrote, “When reporters… asked: ‘When are you going to decide on that baseball business, Judge?’ he merely looked the other way and said nothing.”

The case came to Landis’s court in January of 1915. By December, Landis had yet to rule, and in the wake of World War I, the Federal League (with some financial incentives from the National and American Leagues) folded before a ruling could take place. As such, Landis was never forced to make a decision, and Spink writes “Landis confided to intimates that he had put off rendering a decision, feeling that sooner or later the rival factions would come together.”

The suggestion here is simple — Landis knew the Federal League had a case, and he knew said case threw the future of organized baseball and his beloved Cubs into doubt. Refusing to rule was effectively the same as ruling on the side of Organized Baseball, as the Federal League needed the ruling in order to successfully convince players from the American and National Leagues to defect and make the Federal League competitive.

The previous case law — most specifically, a case in which the New York Supreme Court had held Highlander’s first baseman Hal Chase‘s contract as an “unquitable document” — suggested the Federal League had a case, and a strong one. By refusing to rule, Landis let finances rule the day, a decision that would favor the American and National Leagues in every possible situation.

It shows the special kind of power baseball held with the upper classes. Baseball built up a massive trust behind the money and power of its owners. But it never could have held up — the very structure of professional sports in America could not have held up — without the almost religious power baseball had over some men in the courts. Perhaps it wasn’t an established church, but our anonymous Columbia Law Student was perfect in his suggestion: the base ball institution was most jealously guarded in its biggest moment by a man of the law.