Baseball Before the Bar, Part 4
Moving past free agency, though on a related track, baseball became roiled by a series of strikes from the early 1970’s through the mid 1990’s. Some, like the 1972 strike, were tiny, while the 1981 strike forced a one year restructuring of the entire baseball playoff system. Of course, they all pale before the strike of 1994. That strike, unlike all that had gone before, cancelled the World Series and dragged all the way into the beginning of the next season. Once again, the strike made baseball return to the courts. Following in the earlier footsteps of Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, enter Sonia Sotomayor.
In 1995, Sotomayor was a District Court judge in New York City. On March 30, 1995, the MLBPA brought a case before her against the owners, arguing that the owners were violating labor law by suspending free agent negotiations while in the midst of renegotiating the collective bargaining agreement. After two long hours of arguments, Sotomayor ruled comprehensively for the players in 15 quick minutes in Silverman v. Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee, Inc. The owners ignored the relevant case law and attempted to change a collective bargaining agreement unilaterally. Unsurprisingly, she found this unacceptable. A few days later, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld her injunction. With the owners forced back to the table, play resumed in early May. For Sotomayor, saving baseball from itself was an important on the path to the Supreme Court.
Notice the arc of these cases. In the Lip Pike Case, the player wins. In the Lajoie case, the player and owners basically split. In the two Federal League cases, the owners win decisively. In the Seitz decision and in Silverman, the players win decisively. These cases give you an interesting overview of the history of baseball. In the earliest years of professional baseball, players were important partners in running the game. From 1900-1975, owners dominate absolutely (especially if you consider Commissioner Landis to be essentially on the side of the owners). From 1975 on, the players have once again had important say in the running of the game. This history is necessarily cherry-picked, and the narrative arcs are much smoother than the real history. Nonetheless I think these cases are a useful overview of the way professional baseball has worked, and they do an especially good job at highlighting just how different baseball is since the demise of the Reserve System.