Baseball and Justice Sotomayor or Flood v. Kuhn revisited

Anyone who loves baseball and history will love this story.  I found it on NPR reported by Nina Totenberg who covers the Supreme Court.  It is about a combination moot court and historic re-enactment.  The case is Curt Flood v. Bowie Kuhn from 1972.  Law school often do this kind of re-enactment, but this one was sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society.  Justice Sotomayor presided from the seat of the Chief Justice.

For those who don’t remember, the case was brought by St. Louis Cardinals great Curt Flood, who challenged baseball’s reserve clause — the provision that allowed teams to virtually own players, set salaries and conduct trades, with the players for all practical purposes never able to negotiate freely with other teams. That meant that at the time Flood brought his challenge in 1970, he was earning what was then considered a top salary of $90,000. This, for a player who had signed with the Cards at age 18, with no agent or lawyer, and who in six of the next 12 seasons batted .300 and won seven Gold Glove awards. So, when he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, a definitely lesser team at the time, he refused to go, and could not play for any team.

He wrote to the then-baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, protesting that he was “not a piece of property to be bought and sold.” Kuhn denied his request for free agency — a concept unrecognized by baseball back then — and Flood sued, seeking to block the perpetual use of the reserve clause.

Flood lost, but baseball changed forever as the free agency system was put into place anyway.

In 1994, however, nearly two decades after the Flood decision and the ensuing changes in baseball, the owners sought to effectively nullify the free agency system, and the baseball players struck, wiping out the playoffs and the World Series. The National Labor Relations Board went to court, contending that the owners were negotiating in bad faith, and the case came before a young federal district court judge named Sonia Sotomayor.

She agreed that the owners were colluding illegally to fix salaries and granted a temporary injunction barring them from doing that. Sotomayor, a wildly dedicated Yankees fan, issued her opinion in time to allow the new baseball season to begin as scheduled on opening day, with the old baseball contract in effect. She thus earned the title, “the judge who saved baseball.”

The arguments in the re-enactment veered between history and current day baseball.

Representing Flood at the re-enactment was Stanford Law professor Pamela Karlan, a frequent Supreme Court advocate, and ironically, a former Blackmun law clerk. And representing Major League Baseball was another frequent Supreme Court advocate, Roy Englert.

Karlan opened, noting that the Supreme Court’s 1922 and 1953 decisions upholding baseball’s antitrust exemption were outliers and that the court had not permitted such an exemption for any other professional sport.

Sotomayor asked why the court should “break with tradition,” thus depriving the owners of their “reliance” on previous decisions.

Karlan shot back that if the court were to side with the owners for a third time, it would amount to something done in baseball only once before — three errors on a single play.

Sotomayor, with a straight face, opined that the court could apply another baseball rule: three strikes and you’re out.

Karlan, undaunted, replied, “I’m swinging for the fences here, your honor.”

Sotomayor is escorted onto the field by New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the New York Yankees game against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 26, 2009.

The next exchange con free agency and salaries management to get in a dig at Sotomayor’s favorite Yankees.

Sotomayor asked what would happen if the court were to take away the antitrust exemption. Wouldn’t the players move around so much that fans would have no team loyalty?

No, rejoined Karlan, the owners would just have to pay the players what they are worth in order to hold on to them, and instead of year-to-year contracts that leave players with no leverage, the owners would have to negotiate longer-term contracts.

Sotomayor, in mock horror, said that if the antitrust exemption were abolished and owners could no longer collude to set player salaries at will, the Yankees might have to pay Reggie Jackson $1 million a year!

Worse, replied Karlan, would be if the Yanks paid Alex Rodriguez a quarter of a billion dollars not to play.

“I can’t imagine such a thing!” answered a shocked Sotomayor.

Next at bat were the owners.

Next up to the lectern was Roy Englert, representing the baseball commissioner and owners. He noted that some 50 bills had been introduced in Congress over the years to eliminate the antitrust exemption, and none had passed. The court, he said, should leave the question to Congress.

But Sotomayor asked, “Where are the rights of the players?” Quoting Curt Flood, she said that the baseball system was a form of “involuntary servitude” that does not exist in any other industry.

Englert replied that “these young men are making on average $28,000 … as much as Supreme Court justices.” Moreover, unlike other sports, he observed, baseball puts enormous investment into training players in the minor leagues.

The case does involve some serious legal questions, some raised by the decision written by Justice Blackmun.  It appears that Blackmun was reluctant to overturn the prior decisions, but wrote his opinion in such a was that everyone understood that baseball did in fact fall under that anti-trust laws and does engage in interstate commerce.

Justice Sotomayor concluded

‘There are Supreme Court decisions that are wrong,” she said. The court’s 1896 decision upholding segregation was wrong, and the Supreme Court was right to reverse it in 1954. But sometimes, she said, the question is not whether the decision was wrong, but whether this is the right time to overrule it.

Today, she observed, we see as “horrible” the reserve clause that deprived players of any real negotiating power. But at the time, what both sides thought they were arguing about was “the very survival of baseball.”

2 thoughts on “Baseball and Justice Sotomayor or Flood v. Kuhn revisited

  1. Pingback: Baseball and Justice Sotomayor or Flood v. Kuhn revisited | I am an Author, I Must Auth

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