MLB Column: How Sonia Sotomayor saved baseball

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Inspired by DC Staff writer Matt Barresi’s article.

Yesterday, I decided to spend my column this week telling the story of how a sitting United States Supreme Court Justice “saved” baseball more than twenty years ago.

I’ve written a lot about the market structure of Major League Baseball, so I’ll only contribute a brief summary here:

After National League and American League owners blocked the entry of a third league into their market, a court declared that Major League Baseball was “intrastate commerce.” More simply, they somehow came to the ridiculous and illogical conclusion that baseball only makes money within state lines.

This massive industry, complete with multi-million dollar national television contracts, a complicated revenue-sharing system, and an incredibly active international market, only makes money within state lines. The owner of the Red Sox also owns Liverpool FC. The owner of the White Sox owns and global corporation stationed in Nebraska. The former president of the United States was forced to sell his majority share of the Texas Rangers due to the conflict of interest it created. But, sure, baseball is only an individual state thing.

My economic rage aside, this was the decision that was made. Twenty years later, every major American sports league found themselves in the Supreme Court, fighting the reserve clause. The NFL, NHL and NBA were all declared interstate commerce. The significance of this is that interstate commerce means that a company is subject to federal antitrust laws. Essentially, if you make money via interstate commerce, it is illegal to have a monopoly. However, in keeping with precedent, the Court decided that the MLB was still intrastate commerce, which basically granted ownership a legal monopoly and stripped players of their rights. It also ruined Curt Flood’s career, but I digress.

The Player’s Association was eventually able to overcome the effects of this monopoly by virtue of being one of the strongest unions in the world (shout out to Marvin Miller). Ownership, though, is never happy that more and more of their power is being stripped away. While they constantly try to undermine the players, enter Sonia Sotomayor.

It’s 1995. The time for renegotiating the Collective Bargaining Agreement is upon us. The ownership of the MLB decided that during the negotiation process, they would unilaterally eliminate free agency bargaining and arbitration until the completion the new CBA. I know, it sounds ridiculous. What’s more ridiculous is that that’s technically in their power to do. So the players did the only thing that was in their power: they stopped going to work.

If you haven’t figured it out, this is the 232-day strike that wiped out a portion of the 1995 season. When the case went to trial, players and owners found themselves in the courtroom of Sotomayor, judge in the Southern District Court of New York. It took Sotomayor a whopping fifteen minutes to decide that the owners were insane and file an injunction requiring them to maintain free agency and arbitration until the new CBA takes effect. Players went back to work, and 144 games of baseball were fit into the schedule that season.

I’m admittedly biased on this case, so reading my recap is not an accurate reflection of how the greater population felt at the time. Sotomayor took a lot of heat after the case. Writers went as far as saying they would not give their actual opinion because they didn’t have time to deal with the National Organization for Women. Men admitted to censoring themselves because what they had to say may be viewed as insensitive towards women. In reality, taking her gender into effect at all is what is insensitive towards women, but this is the sports industry and you can’t be a woman without a target on your back.

Clearly shaken by uneducated men discussing the legitimacy of her law degree, Sotomayor went on to make the landmark 2004 decision upholding the three-year eligibility requirement for college basketball players to be eligible for the draft, simultaneously allowing for the union to negotiate on behalf of college players who are not yet members of the league.

Basically, this girl was kicking ass and taking names. Now, all those men who insulted her and questioned her intelligence and ability are watching her sit on the highest court in the land, having played massive roles in the direction that two major American sports leagues took.


Rachel Schaefer is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rachel.schaefer@uconn.edu.