Legends On Deck

Baseball and Independence Day (Part 1)

It’s July 4th.  Independence Day.  That time of the year when we celebrate the story of America.  If you were to sum up the founding of America in two words, those words would be “self determination.”  A loose collection of rag-tag British citizens of the American colonies simply had enough.  They no longer wanted to be ruled by a distant authority.  So thirteen distinct colonies banded together to shake off monarchical authority.  That’s what Independence Day is about.

The American story gets me thinking about the game that grew with America from the days of Civil War, through the Industrial Age, to present day.  The game of baseball has been part of the American fabric for over a century and a half.  Baseball and Independence Day.  Now my creative juices are flowing.

Everyone has had this conversation with themselves before; what would you do if you if you could start something completely new.  Do you it your own way.  The formation of the LIV Golf tournament and it’s challenge to the PGA got me thinking in these terms.  Some of the biggest names in golf like Phil Michelson, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka have bolted the PGA for bigger payouts and more favorable schedules on the LIV circuit.  It really got me thinking about how such a scenario might apply to baseball.

Organic Growth and Consolidation

First, I’d argue that the prospects of this happening to MLB are somewhat far-fetched.   Yet, there’s a great case to be made for competition in professional baseball.  First, MLB has been granted an exemption from the Sherman Anti-Trust, based on a Supreme Court ruling from 1922.  As a result, MLB enjoys almost total control over professional baseball in America.  For the past 70 years, this has also included Minor League Baseball.  A closer look into the history of professional baseball in America tells us a story of the organic growth of the game and eventual consolidation.

The National League, for example, predated the existence of the American League by a quarter century.  In 1876, the National League was established with eight franchises.  There were a number of upstart leagues prior to the formation of the American League in 1901.  An agreement took place in 1903, between the NL and AL to create the National Commission, governing the relationship between the two professional leagues.  One of the results was the creation of the World Series, between the two rival leagues.

From 1903-1920, the National Commission would serve as a three member board governing professional baseball in America.  The board was dissolved in 1920, in the wake of the Chicago Black Sox gambling scandal.  It was replaced with the creation of a common Commissioner’s office, dissolving the modern day MLB structure.  Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis would serve as the first Commissioner from 1921-1944.

The Landis Legacy

There are a number of interesting things about the career of Judge Landis.  He served the Judge of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois from 1905 through 1922.  During his early years he ruled on many high profile anti-trust cases, including a major case against Standard Oil.  Ironically, while Landis gained his reputation as judge opposing the consolidation of industry, his legacy as Commissioner was essentially one of centralization.  Prior to being named Commissioner, Judge Landis sat on a suit from the Federal League, a start up league that was designed to compete with the AL and NL.  The league would sue the National League under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1915.

Landis decided not to rule on the case and the Federal League would go defunct following the 1915 season.  Many of the players from the Federal League would be selected by NL and AL teams.  The Federal League would be the last real challenge to the monopoly status of MLB.

Past, Present and Future

A while back, I wrote that America needed more independent baseball leagues.  In 2020, I reviewed a book called the Will the Big Leagues Survive?  The crux of the book is that MLB has not always been the sole player in professional baseball and the future may also offer something different as well.  The Negro League operated until the 1950s, which included some of the top players in the game.  Prior to the relocation of the Brooklyn Dodgers (Los Angeles) and New York Giants (San Francisco) the Pacific Coast League existed as a professional league for cities on the west coast.

For many years, minor leagues existed outside of MLB franchise affiliation.  In fact, it wasn’t until 1962 that minor league teams would become entirely affiliated with MLB, thus creating an official farm system.  Today, it’s difficult for most people to imagine a different relationship.  In 2021, MLB forced Minor League Baseball to drop over 40 teams and eliminated the governing structure that made each league unique.  In short, the entire history of professional baseball has been the story of gradual, yet definitive consolidation.

Big League Breakup

There’s been some talk among lawmakers of challenging the MLB’s legal monopoly.  In a recent article in America Magazine, author John W. Miller presents a persuasive case that MLB should lose it’s legal protections.  Miller writes:

“The problem is that baseball is monopolistic business that overcharges, underpays and doesn’t give fans enough choices.”

He also ponders what might happen if MLB were to lose it’s anti-trust exemption.  Miller suggests the following:

“Franchises could move more often, breaking hearts but creating a more organic business environment; if fans wanted to keep their team, they would have to attend games. You might have three or four major baseball leagues. I might become a fan of the rebooted Baltimore Terrapins. There would be many more minor and regional minor leagues all over the country. Without ownership collusion on minor-league salaries, those players could make a liveable wage. New teams might be able to sue and win the right to use publicly funded stadiums.”

So, what if Major League Baseball wasn’t the only game in town?  Yes, there’s an emerging trend of independent leagues like the USPBL.  There’s also the growth of college baseball and summer collegiate leagues.  But, what if players has a real alternative (or alternatives) for making a living playing professional baseball outside of MLB?  Is it likely to happen?  No.  But, let’s have fun.  In part two of this article, I will discuss what I would do if I were an eccentric billionaire who wanted to invest in a new professional baseball league.  Welcome to the American Baseball Federation!

Brian Koss
%d bloggers like this: