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Break Major League Baseball's Monopoly

Ending baseball's antitrust exemption could lead to teams with more diverse ownership, moderate player salaries, and maybe even daytime ballgames

By Warren Goldstein. Warren Goldstein teaches American Studies at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury and is the author of "Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball, " to be published by Hill & Wang. / June 14, 1993

BASEBALL is in trouble. The major leagues themselves could be teetering on the brink of collapse in the next few years. Fans of the national pastime are understandably worried.

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But the best thing we can do is celebrate and help Major League Baseball (MLB) over the edge. I made the mistake of saying something like this just before opening day in front of my nine-year-old son, who burst into tears. He thought I meant baseball should go down the tubes. Quite the contrary; professional baseball should be liberated from MLB's current monopoly.

Many fans like to recall a great hitting performance, or read about a Nolan Ryan no-hitter. Fewer care to learn the details of how Barry Bonds' salary is structured. Fewer still can or would want to follow the broadcast and payroll economics of a professional team.

Fans nevertheless sense that what's wrong with the game has something to do with money: with the price of hot dogs and peanuts at the ballpark; with the astonishingly high salaries; with the decreasing number of games on network television. This is not a happy sequence of thoughts, especially for those who, like me, sided with the players over the reserve rule and free agency.

It was so much easier to be on the side of the angels in years past. The reserve rule was an unjust labor contract. It was fun to watch owners thunder about Armageddon while writing unprecedented checks to savvy stars like Reggie Jackson, Oscar Gamble, Dave Winfield. Even the big salaries were defensible: When Geraldo Rivera, Vanna White, and corporate lawyers are brought down to $50,000 a year, so should a long reliever with an ERA over 4.00.

But Bobby Bonilla's $29 million last year and Barry Bonds' $42 million have been unsettling. And why should baseball's corporate leadership have so much power that it could - at the behest of the New York Mets - veto a franchise coming to my county on Long Island, 35 miles from Shea Stadium?

Fortunately, the solution to baseball's troubles is percolating in Congress. On the heels of the major leagues' extremely limited, highly publicized, high-rolling expansion, and the airing of dirty laundry occasioned by the firing of Commissioner Fay Vincent, a growing number of senators and representatives are talking about lifting baseball's antitrust exemption. Even the United States Supreme Court, when it last upheld the waiver, invited the legislative branch to recognize baseball's status as interst ate commerce and therefore subject to rules about fair trade and monopolistic behavior. Congress could do no better than in one swing of the legislative bat to nullify the exemption (the only one in pro sports) and break MLB's control over the baseball business.

Such a move would bring dramatic changes. The only reason there are 28 major league teams now is that the baseball cartel has restricted their number (otherwise known as controlling the supply). Demand, interestingly, has soared; minor-league attendance alone has risen two and a half times since 1975.

So franchises would bloom wherever local businesses, municipalities, and fans wanted to put up the money to have one. Leagues would multiply. No one would have to ante up $95 million for the privilege of joining an existing league's cellar (which is what the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins had to do) because no one league would have enough power to extract that price. Currently, MLB exercises its right of approval over potential baseball owners, markets, stadium contracts, even the structure of owne rship.