THE FIRST inning in the baseball strike that began yesterday was played 94 years ago. That's when the long-gone Metropolitan Exhibition Co. invented what became known as the "reserve clause." The reserve clause bound professional baseball players for life to the team with which they first signed a contract. As long as the clause existed, a player could perform only for the team that "owned" his contract, and that contract (and his services) could be traded by his owner at will.
Organized baseball has come a long way since then. The reserve clause is gone -- but its memory lingers on.The way the men who own the big ball teams tell it, this strike is baseball's ninth inning. Without the re-establishment of some remnant of the reserve clause, they contend, the nation's oldest big-time sport will price itself out of the market and become extinct.
The issue in the strike that has shut down the ballparks across the country this weekend is not money. It is what should happen if, say, a star pitcher plays out his current contract with one team, declares himself a "free agent" and signs a contract with a second team. In most of American business, nothing (except recriminations) would follow if similar events were to take place. But in baseball, as a result of the reserve clause heritage, the owner who lost this player would be entitled to "compensation" from the owner who hired him. The strike concerns what form this compensation should take -- the transfer of a choice in the annual draft of amateur players (which the owners now get) or the transfer of a professional player from the roster of the owner who had the audacity (and the money) to sign the free agent.
For those who wonder why the old reserve clause and even its modern-day descendants shouldn't be considered forms of peonage or, at least, violations of the antitrust law, suffice it to say that the grip organized baseball had on people for years was not confined to players.Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in one of his most memorable lapses, declared for the Supreme Court in 1921 that baseball was not covered by the antitrust laws because it was not in "interstate commerce." Later-day justices and judges accepted this decree in a whole string of cases, even though one justice once remarked that the distinction the court had drawn between baseball and other professional sports, which the justices said were in interstate commerce, was "unrealistic, inconsistent and illogical." Even the Supreme Court finally conceded in 1972 that the Homes decision was an "aberration." Five justices clung to it, nevertheless.
Those were good innings for the people who own baseball teams. The players finally began to score in 1973. They first cracked the reserve clause by getting the owners to agree that a 10-year veteran of the major leagues could veto any trade of his contract. Then a labor arbitrator ruled -- and he was sustained in court -- that a player who played a season without a signed contract became a free agent who could sell his services to anyone who wanted to buy them.
Thus began "free agentry," which, like everything else in baseball, quickly became formalized when an annual "free-agent draft" was created. Teams now announce which of each year's crop of free agents they want to negotiate with. The big winner in that exercise so far has been a player named Dave Winfield, who signed a contract last winter with the New York Yankees that will yield him somewhere between $13 and $20 million for playing 10 years.
The complaint of the owners, as best we understand it, is that this business of "free-agentry" is going to bankrupt them. They can't restrain each other, and they can't restrain themselves, from offering such absurdly high salaries because of their desperate desire to win. Sooner or later, the argument goes, the richer teams (and owners) will hire all the best players.
Admittedly, the contractual arrangements of organized baseball are a little more complex than we have made them out to be. After all, the Supreme Court kept talking for all those years about baseball's "unique characteristics and needs." But it seems to us that this strike comes down to two simple questions: Should the players help each owner from the greed of his fellow owners? Is baseball really so different from other big businesses that all those who participate in it need to adopt a grandson of the reserve clause so it can function without absurdly high ticket prices?
This strike may be settled temporarily without answers to those questions, but baseball's labor problems won't go away until both owners and players agree on what the answers should be. The ninth inning, if that is what baseball is now playing, could go on for a long time before someone throws the right pitch across that negotiating table.