The author: Stuart Banner
The vital stats: Oxford University Press, 290 pages, $29.95
The pitch: Andy Messersmith didn’t want out of L.A. He just wanted a no-trade clause in his contract so he could pitch for the Dodgers until the end of his career. The Dodgers and owner Peter O’Malley didn’t seem all that sold on giving that up to the pitcher who in 1974 was an NL All-Star and led the league in wins, and then in ’75 had the most complete games and shutouts.
When the arbitration dust settled, Messersmith (along with semi-retired pitcher Dave McNally) was a free man in 1976 — just three years after the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Curt Flood and his right to refuse a trade, a decision that both Messersmith and O’Malley watched with keen interest.
Messersmith eventually circled back to finish his career with the Dodgers in 1979. But neither he nor the Dodgers got what they really wanted out of the deal.
From page 235 of Banner’s book, an explanation of the aftermath in that Messersmith decision: “The development of free agency had important consequences for baseball’s antitrust exemption. For decades, the exemption’s primary function had been to insulate the reserve clause from antitrust attack, but now the reserve clause was partially gone. … The antitrust exemption was no longer as valuable to organized baseball as it once had been. But the exemption had not lost its value completely. There were people other than major league baseball players who still had reasons to hold baseball to the standard of the antitrust law, and there were still aspects of the game that might be deemed unlawful if antitrust law were to apply. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, baseball would continue to cling to its antitrust exemption.”
Banner, a law professor at UCLA and legal historian who has written about ownership entitlement issues, might be the best go-to person on this ongoing conundrum of what exactly antitrust means and why baseball curiously continues to benefit from it despite years of legal threats. It started with a Supreme Court decision in 1922 giving the game that unique privilege of a true business monopoly. It hasn’t ended yet.
Unfortunately, the simplicity of the rule isn’t so simple in legal terms. Fortunately, Banner as a way of explaining in more in a baseball laymen way, even if at times that doesn’t always make sense.
The introduction is essential to figuring out how Banner sets the scoreboard to tally one of the “oddest features of our legal system.” His detailed account goes into how the rule has been tested over the years, manipulated by judges whose loyalty to the game is unbowed, yet it has not applied to other professional sports for no logical reasons.
“How can we explain the persistence of such a weird state of affairs?” Banner asks. He notes that the “only previous sustained historical treatment of baseball’s antitrust exemption” is from a Jerold J. Duquette book called “Regulating the National Pastime: Baseball and Antitrust” in 1999 (Amazon.com has one in stock for $111.95 if you’re interested).
There are references to people like John Montgomery Ward, Thomas Reed Powell, Whitney North Seymour, Kenneth Keating, Potter Stewart, Harry Blackmun, William Douglas, Emanuel Celler, Arthur Goldberg, Peter Seitz, John Tener and even Jackie Robinson. More referrals to things like the Sherman Act, The Federal League, the International Boxing Club and the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players play into the saga.
There’s a whole chapter on the Flood “piece of property” case in ’72, a decision that sports columnist Red Smith called a “cop-out” and a “disappointment” in how the Supreme Court threw it onto the lap of Congress to figure out. And then there’s the followup, where Messersmith got what Flood couldn’t achieve because “an arbitrator determined that the clause meant something different from the way players and owners alike had understood it for a century.” An arbitrator who didn’t even want to be put in that position, but made the leap anyway.
The leap a reader has to make here is whether he can make heads or tails of history’s bobbling of this decision. It may only make your sound smarter if the discussion comes up in a bar discussion, but you’re less likely to understand the entire cosmos of the verbiage. Flip a coin. That probably has more logic attached to it.