WITH the new baseball season well under way, a family of four may be surprised to find it costs nearly $100 to see their favorite team play this summer. The cost - including tickets, parking, and concessions - is so high because Congress has consistently decided that baseball is not a business and is therefore excused from the laws of the marketplace.
Most people find it hard to believe baseball isn't a business. Television networks pay millions of dollars for the right to broadcast games. Teams pay millions for the best players, and fans spend millions more to see the games. As an industry, baseball has achieved the status allowed to no other American business - it's a full-fledged monopoly.
In fact, the history of organized baseball is sprinkled with attempts by team owners to restrict competition. Despite professional baseball's obvious monopolistic practices, Congress exempted the sport from federal antitrust laws by not technically defining it as interstate commerce.
Since the turn of the century there have been two dominant baseball organizations, the American League and the National League. In 1903, these ``major leagues'' started the modern World Series to determine the best team in the country.
With considerable money to be made, the Federal League was organized in 1914 to challenge the baseball monopoly. From the perspective of the major league owners, something had to be done.
The major league owners offered several Federal League teams the right to buy into baseball's monopoly, effectively breaking up the competing league. But the Federal League's Baltimore team, determined to stay in business, sued organized baseball for restraint of trade. It lost its case when the Supreme Court decided that ``baseball is not commerce,'' and therefore was not subject to antitrust law.
With organized baseball's exemption from antitrust laws firmly established by the courts, revenues over the next decades soared when teams discovered they could sell broadcast rights of their games to radio stations.
In 1953 George Toolson, a player on one of the New York Yankee's farm teams, sued, claiming baseball's labor rules prevented him from selling his services to other teams. The Supreme Court dismissed Mr. Toolson's complaint, however, stating ``the business of providing professional baseball games was not within the scope of federal antitrust laws.'' The court maintained that only Congress could make the final determination. Although Congress held hearings on the issue in 1958, no legislation resulted.
In 1970, another player challenged the baseball monopoly. When outfielder Curt Flood was traded against his wishes from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, he pro-tested. Mr. Flood felt that he, and not the ball club, had the right to sell his services. He took his case to the Supreme Court. Although the court noted the ``inconsistency or illogic in all this, it is an inconsistency or illogic of long standing that is to be remedied by the Congress and not by this Court.'' Congress did nothing.
Finally, in 1975, a labor arbitrator ruled that baseball players did have the right to sell their own services and become ``free agents.'' While this action - and the now regular threat of players to go out on strike - has enabled baseball players to share in the wealth of the game, baseball fans are still left at the mercy of a monopoly. As a result, the cost to attend games has soared.
Last year, when two new teams joined the National League, they each paid existing team owners nearly $100 million for the privilege. Although many other cities wanted teams - and were even willing to pay the steep entrance fee - organized baseball shut them out. Congress held hearings on baseball's antitrust exemption, but no legislation was enacted.
Professional baseball should not be exempt from the laws of the marketplace. While baseball is certainly the country's favorite pastime, protecting it as a monopoly is un-American. Legislation introduced by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio would legally define baseball as a business. Congress must act now to pass this bill and restore competition to the business of baseball. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.