Why Sotomayor Couldn't Really Save Baseball

In 1995, Cal Ripkin did not save baseball, and nor, for that matter, did Sonia Sotomayor. They both helped the game, mightily. But salvation remains elusive.
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Let me add my voice to all the many others -- the President's included! -- who have declared their eternal gratitude to Judge Sonia Sotomayor for doing what she could to save baseball from its self-destructive ways.

Sotomayor, as the world now knows, acted swiftly and decisively in 1995 when she issued the injunction that effectively ended the interminable strike that cost the game and its fans the 1994 World Series. Sotomayor essentially told the team owners that they could not take it upon themselves to turn back the hands of time and renege on their agreements with the players on salary arbitration, collusion rules and competitive free agent bidding.

Such is the state of a sport in which the bar is set so low that a court order against changing the rules of negotiation counts as a victory of historic proportions.

And for that dubious honor we can thank a jurist who otherwise served nobly on the very court Sotomayor has been nominated to join: Oliver Wendell Holmes.

For those who had somehow neglected to note it on their calendars, last Friday marked the 87th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision granting baseball's historic, blanket exemption from anti-trust laws. Holmes, who authored the decision, wrote that although players traveled across state lines to play baseball for money the game did not represent interstate commerce. That decision has left generations of legal scholars scratching their heads at its almost appalling absence of logic. In fact, the ruling is regarded as so nonsensical that in 1953, in a case involving pro football's more limited anti-trust exemption, Justice Tom Clark wrote that Holmes' opinion was "at best of dubious validity." He left it to Congress to take a second look.

It did.

And the exemption endures.

The baseball owners have successfully thwarted every attempt to dilute their monopolistic control over every professional team, game and player in the land, most famously in the late 1950s when the game's great innovator, Branch Rickey, tried to start a third major league, the Continental.

The failure of Rickey's daring plan underscored just how dearly baseball has paid for the absence of competition wrought by the anti-trust exemption. Where baseball entered in the 1960s as if life had not changed since the 1903 merger of the American and National leagues, the National Football League confronted and soon absorbed a rival circuit, Lamar Hunt's American Football League. It was the AFL that introduced the idea of competitive balance achieved through the equal sharing of television money. That idea, so fundamental to football's success, was Rickey's -- Hunt sat in on Continental League meetings -- and was to have been a founding tenet of his new league, had baseball had the foresight to accept it.

Instead baseball, having beaten back a competitor, allowed football to pass it by as the nation's most popular sport. Baseball may be more popular today than it has ever been, but that surge in interest came only after the owners wasted a generation unable to accept the simple and proven notion that what made good business sense for all teams made good sense of each of their clubs.

The owners, meanwhile, continued to insist that they were capable of policing their game themselves. Judge Sotomayor's ruling suggests that, in the view of one wise jurist, this is not the case.

Her ruling set in motion the restoration of play. The owners, understanding that they had once again been bested by their employees, voted not to lock the players out. The games went on. And that September, Cal Ripken, Jr. made everyone feel very good when he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak.

His feat did more than celebrate one man's endurance. It connected the sport to its golden era -- and what could be more fitting, given how relentlessly the game draws upon the past to ennoble the present.

It seems almost churlish to suggest that in 1995 Cal Ripken did not necessarily save baseball, and nor, for that matter, did Sonia Sotomayor. They helped the game, mightily. But salvation remains elusive. Perhaps it will come when another justice, on another court, writes why the time has come to do away with one particularly outdated vestige of baseball's, and the Supreme Court's past.

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