OF ALL THE INCONSISTENCIES in the law, one of the most egregious is the special status granted to professional baseball. It, alone among sports organizations, is exempt from the antitrust laws. The exemption makes no sense -- legal or otherwise -- and Congress should have removed it years ago.Congress has another chance to do so this year in a bill introduced by Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio) and it should seize the opportunity. We say this on the merits of the argument, while conceding a special interest: If Mr. Seiberling's bill became law, it might increase the chances for major-league baseball to return to Washington.
Baseball received its unique status more than 75 years ago when the Supreme Court said it was not a part of interstate commerce. The decision is so far out of the mainstream of legal thinking and so wrong by present-day standards that no one, not even the Supreme Court, defends it any longer. The exemption remains, however, as a monument to the court's reluctance to overrule any decision that has lasted so long and that Congress could have overruled any time it chose to do so.
Mr. Seiberling's bill would not only remove that exemption, but would also bar all professional sports organizations from claiming exclusive territorial rights except in areas where fewer than two million people live. That second provision is aimed specifically at Washington and Los Angeles. The Baltimore Orioles claim territorial rights over the entire Washington.Baltimore area, a claim that inhibits the ability of this city to attract another American League team. In Los Angeles, the Rams are moving their football team to Anaheim but have indicated they will exercise their "right" to prevent any other National Football League team from moving into the vacancy in Los Angeles they are creating. Exclusive territorial rights have always been part of the franchising business, whether the franchises are for baseball teams or fastfood stores, but they should not be tolerated in markets the size of these two.
Congress introduced the airlines to competition last year. It is considering doing the same thing for the trucking and railroad industries this year. If it would apply to professional sports the standards that are guiding its actions in other fields, Mr. Seiberling's bill would pass easily and Washingtonians might have a better chance to see major-league baseball again before the end of the 20th century.