For a vast number of Washingtonians, nothing is more likely to enchant the senses than a whiff of major league baseball headed this way again. Heady stuff. How intoxicating. Washington with a team to call its own again. God is good. God is just.
The big push is being plotted for the Dec. 2 major league meetings in Houston, with the National League indicating it is expansion-minded. And the Washington delegation this time is accoutered with great gobs of ready money with which to show good faith, the important ingredient that was missing in the District's previously feeble attempts to woo the pleasure of the baseball magnates.
Underwriting this effort is Jack Kent Cooke, of countless millions. He has squarely pledged his heart, his mind and as much of his sacred fortune as is necessary to bring a team here. Besides the Redskins, Cooke owns the Chrysler Building, a part of downtown Phoenix and some of Northern Virginia, among various possessions. He needs no partners.
In this matter, Cooke is not grandstanding. He has a valid history as a baseball man, a successful club owner in Toronto before he became a U.S. citizen. His zest for baseball may even exceed his passion for owning the Redskins.
In Houston, seven other cities will be petitioning for franchises: Phoenix, Denver, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Columbus, Ohio, and Florida's Tampa and St. Petersburg. They have a head start in presenting their cases, including solid money up front. But in any contest for a team, their demographics are puny, their charms scanty compared to the case Washington can make.
The baseball owners will be made aware that Washington and its environs comprise the nation's seventh-largest "city," about 3,365,000 souls. It is the No. 8 television market in the land, sixth in spending income. Are they baseball fans? They are willing to schlep the 80-odd miles to Baltimore and back in traffic, to account for 20 to 25 percent of the Orioles' attendance.
Here, too, is a stadium in waiting, one of the nation's finest, built for baseball and promising a sweetheart lease to a club owner. Plus all those shiny new Metro trains to bring thousands upon thousands to its very gates. What a plus.
But now, some of the hard truths.
It is a cruel joke to suggest that Washington contingent's will come away from Houston with a franchise. Sorry, but a team for Washington is not just around the corner. That "expansion" the National League has been talking about is three, four years down the road, certain club owners have cautioned.
"Yes, we've had serious discussions about expansion," said Peter O'Malley of the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of baseball's most respected owners. But he was careful not to say when it would happen. "It's under long-range planning," was the response of Bob Lurie, president of the San Francisco Giants.
Also, it is not as easy as it used to be to obtain a franchise. In a not very highly publicized vote taken in Boston 18 months ago, the two leagues took steps to protect further each other's territory. Used to be that an NL team could move into American League territory without asking permission, or vice versa. Now, it's different. They voted that each league must have the approval of the other before making such a move. The old autonomy was cast aside, and each league now is beholden to the other.
Thus, it is no longer so simple for the National League to put a team in Washington. Since the action in Boston, Washington's hopes bump against the Orioles' 75-mile zone of territorial rights.
What used to be a unilateral decision now requires not only National League approval by a majority vote but 75 percent approval by the American League. Thus, only four negative votes in the 14-club American League could deny Washington a franchise, on the principle that an NL team might not be good for the AL. Business is business.
Nevertheless, there may have been a tilt toward a team for Washington in recent weeks. It came from the direction of the Supreme Court of the United States, and, oddly, in a football case. The court slapped down the National Football League in its appeal of its failed case against the move of Al Davis' Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles, tacitly affirming that the NFL was guilty of antitrust violations in opposing the move. Unlike baseball, the NFL does not have antitrust immunity.
Nevertheless, organized baseball has to be newly sensitive to its own antitrust exemption given by the Supreme Court in 1922, and such actions as denying franchise moves could bring it under new scrutiny. Many learned jurists believe that Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' ruling 62 years ago, that baseball was "not interstate commerce," was a flimsy judgment and may not withstand another test, even if it has been upheld twice since.
The last time the court upheld baseball's immunity, Justice William O. Douglas declared in his dissent, "The court should correct its own mistakes." And the premise that baseball is not interstate commerce also has been undermined by its enlarged coast-to-coast broadcast activities and travels, and freighted-in concession goods. One federal judge has declared, "The court should acknowledge that his baseball ruling was not one of Justice Holmes' happiest days."
It is remembered that organized baseball once backed down from a threat to take it to court for opposing a franchise move by one of its own team owners. In 1953, the late Lou Perrini dared the National League to try to stop him from moving his Boston Braves to Milwaukee, after being turned down. "I'm moving and you come to Milwaukee and play me," was Perrini's defiant challenge to fellow owners.
They decided on discretion instead of valor and the Braves went to Milwaukee. The suggestion there, and bolstered by court approval of the Raiders' move to Los Angeles, is that any franchise seeker who wants to buy a club need only find one for sale and then thumb his nose at any league that would forbid a move. That could be Washington's ace in the hole.