“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” quipped Winston Churchill as he was working to form the United Nations after World War II. Since we are inundated with recurring crises these days, Churchill’s warning might better be adapted to, “Never let a good anniversary go to waste.” One hundred years ago in May, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld a decision by the federal Court of Appeals that the Sherman Antitrust Act did not apply to what is now known as Major League Baseball. The high court ruled that the league was a “state affair,” not interstate commerce and therefore did not fall under the Sherman Act. It was a unanimous decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Teddy Roosevelt nominee and a favorite among progressives at the time.
Right on cue – though to be fair, it’s been a concern of his for some time – Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal has started to make more noise about the unfairness of that exemption, which baseball alone enjoys among the major professional sports leagues.
In June, he co-authored a letter, signed by a bipartisan collection of heavyweights in the Senate, to Advocates For Minor Leaguers, an organization that sticks up for those on the lower rungs of professional baseball’s hierarchy, asking for information about how the exemption “is impacting competition in the labor market for minor league ballplayers as well as the operations of minor league teams.”
Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also sent a bipartisan letter from committee members to Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred demanding answers and a possible resolution.
According to an ESPN analysis, the letter “represents the most thorough questioning of MLB’s antitrust exemption at the federal level.” After the original ruling, the matter eventually found its way to the Supreme Court in 1952 and 1972, with a 2017 challenge failing in a federal circuit court.
As is the case with many progressives interested in this issue, Blumenthal has focused on the minor-league labor problems associated with the exemption – and for good reason.
As ESPN notes, minor league players must sign something called the “uniform player contract,” which essentially controls the rights of players for up to seven years in the minors and seven years in the majors. Even if the minor leaguer leaves the sport before completing his seven years, “the team still owns the rights to the player and he cannot play the sport professionally unless he is released from his contract.”
Fans of the Boston Red Sox can relate to an oft-cited example of such abuse. Wade Boggs, one of the best pure hitters ever to step up to the plate, spent six years in the Red Sox minor league system and was not called up permanently to Boston until he was 24. During those years, the Red Sox were happy with their third basemen, one of whom was 1981 American League batting champion Carney Lansford, so they let Boggs languish in the minors because they knew he couldn’t go anywhere else. Without the antitrust exemption, Boggs could have signed with another organization and probably could have begun drawing a Major League salary much earlier.
Speaking of wages, Blumenthal pointed out at a press conference (he likes press conferences) at Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford last week, minor league players who are not on the 40-man roster of their major league organization make between $4,800 and $14,700 per year and are paid only during the baseball season. This would include most of the players on the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats, who play in the very stadium Blumenthal was standing in.
“Major League Baseball has the absolute right to do what’s best for their teams, their leagues, their players,” Blumenthal said, adding in reference to the antitrust exemption, “But they should not enjoy this unique advantage, allowing them to exploit minor league players.”
To that I might add, the low pay for minor leaguers disadvantages those whose families don’t have the means to support them while they work for pennies for a long-shot chance to make millions in the big leagues.
In its latest effort to stave off the removal of the exemption, Major League Baseball last month settled for $185 million an 8-year-old lawsuit brought by former minor league players. The suit alleged that MLB’s 30 team owners “have openly conspired to underpay Minor League baseball players” and that “players are required to provide between six and nine months of free labor each year.”
Blumenthal is also concerned that MLB has in recent years eliminated more than 40 minor league teams, including the single-A Norwich Sea Unicorns, which then played in the now-defunct New York-Penn League.
The move further saved money for MLB but it also means there are fewer places where local fans can watch accessible and community-focused professional baseball games that they can actually afford. Blumenthal likened the move to a farm family “eating its seed corn” – and I’m hard pressed to disagree with him.
“The contraction, the strong-arming, the power-playing, it’s added to a picture of compulsion and misuse of monopoly power,” said Blumenthal, who was one of 19 state attorneys general to file an antitrust lawsuit against software giant Microsoft in 1998.
The original Supreme Court decision to uphold Major League baseball’s antitrust exemption might have been understandable, coming as it did only three years after the infamous Black Sox scandal, the conspiracy to fix the 1919 World Series, and at a time when minor league teams operated independently and merely “sold” players to MLB.
I have my differences with Blumenthal but he was right 24 years ago, and he’s right now. If the exemption is revoked, it could be the biggest change for labor since Curt Flood began the fight against the reserve clause and the era of free agency subsequently began. Let the fun begin.