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Suing Commissioner Bud

Thearon W. Henderson

In my favorite coincidence (?) so far, the City of San José is filing a suit against Major League Baseball (.pdf), charging MLB with conspiracy against San José's efforts to attract the Oakland Athletics to a new ballpark. Here's what one Internet expert thinks:

Huh. He would know. Used to be a lawyer and stuff.

As you know, one can't really discuss this without mentioning Major League Baseball's strange antitrust exemption, which has been in place since 1922 and essentially allows MLB to restrict fair trade in various ways, and particularly when it comes to the location of franchises. What makes it particularly strange is that Baseball is alone. Here's a relevant passage from Stuart Banner's outstanding book, The Baseball Trust: A History of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption:

In 1980, when the NFL owners voted unanimously to prevent the Oakland Raiders from moving to Los Angeles, the Raiders brought an antitrust suit against the league. They won, and moved to Los Angeles in 1982. (They would move back to Oakland in 1995). Emboldened by the Raiders' victory, five more NFL teams moved in the next 15 years ... Antitrust law rendered the NBA and the NHL equally powerless to prevent franchises from moving to new cities. Basketball and hockey teams moved even more often than football teams did. By 2002, no major league baseball franchise had relocated in 30 years, while in that period the other three sports had seen a total of 22 moves. "It is not a coincidence," explained Robert Dupuy, baseball's chief legal officer, "that baseball is the only sport with an exemption."

Just on the face of it, there is absolutely no reason for professional baseball to be treated any differently than football, hockey, and basketball. But it is. And recent challenges have been fruitless. Mike Piazza's dad sued Major League Baseball when his attempt to purchase the Giants and move them to St. Petersburg was stymied. The next year, Florida attorney general Robert Butterworth sued MLB, too. In both cases, judges ruled against Baseball.

But before the Anti-Trust Exemption was actually overturned, Baseball settled the cases and ultimately placed the Devil Rays in St. Pete. What's more, later judgement have reaffirmed the antitrust clause. In 2001, a Florida judge wrote, "Flood constitutes an unequivocal, binding decision of the United States Supreme Court, establishing that the business of baseball is exempt from the antitrust laws, as it has been since 1922, and as it will remain unless and until Congress decides otherwise. Period."

Don't hold your breath, San José. Major League Baseball spends hundreds of thousands of dollars every year bribing lobbying Congress. What's more, threatening to revoke the antitrust exemption is far more useful to Congress than actually revoking the antitrust exemption.

Also, it's not clear that the City of San José actually has any real standing here. Which is probably why Craig suggests this is a p.r. move as much as anything. The Oakland Athletics do have legal standing. But owner Lew Wolff has said many times that he's not interested in pursuing his legal options, and in fact it's not clear that he's got legal options. As's Michael McCann explained last year, a baseball owner who wants to sue Major League Baseball has to clear a pretty high bar. And unless MLB has broken its own rules regarding franchise relocations and territorial rights, Wolff probably couldn't clear that bar. Which he undoubtedly knows.

Oh, and the City of San José's suit? The erstwhile Shysterball says it should be thrown out of court.