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Needed: A Home Run on Capitol Hill : It’s time for Congress to jump in with legislation to help end the baseball strike

“Play ball!” Will we never hear those words again? Barely six weeks before pitchers and catchers normally would report to spring training, major league baseball’s greedy owners and stubborn players union refuse to make a deal.

Perhaps Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) can get their attention. On the first day of the new Congress, he and Republican co-sponsor John W. Warner of Virginia introduced a bill that would remove baseball’s federal antitrust exemption. That protection, enjoyed by no other professional sport, allows owners of major league clubs to control the game and players in ways that ordinarily would be considered unfair and against the law. Repeal is long overdue.

Baseball has enjoyed the exemption since the U.S. Supreme Court created it in 1922. In doing so, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that baseball was a sport, not a business, and that because the owners were not engaged in “trade or commerce” they were not subject to the antitrust law.

That was then. This is now. Baseball presently is a billion-dollar business, raking in revenues from radio and television, licensing of merchandise, marketing, tickets--not to mention the peanuts and Cracker Jack.

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Because of the antitrust exemption, players cannot legally challenge working conditions that other workers would see as akin to slavery. Even with free agency, for example, the average player cannot move to another team without meeting onerous conditions.

The owners complain that if they lose the antitrust exemption they will lose the minor leagues and the farm teams needed to develop players for the majors. If the owners compromise--and they have shown little willingness to do so--Congress should allow them to retain a modified reserve system in the minor leagues.

The players, many of whom earn millions, should keep in mind that the people who ultimately generate the money that provides the big salaries--the fans--for the most part work far harder for far less. The union should be willing to meet some of the owners’ demands, at least giving a little on salary restrictions.

There is plenty of blame to go around in the baseball strike. This work stoppage has already stolen the 1994 World Series from fans and has done perhaps irreparable harm to the game’s image. Congressional action to help end the standoff surely is something that Democrats and Republicans can agree on. It’s time for Congress to play hardball.

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