Independent Baseball Leagues

What does it mean to be independent? The simple answer found in the dictionary is not dependent. Read down a little further and Merriam-Webster states that it means to not be affiliated with a larger controlling unit. Simple and easy to understand.

Independent Baseball Leagues Become Outlawed

So what does independent mean to professional baseball? Well, let’s start from the beginning. Before the National League and American League (A.K.A Major League Baseball) took control of professional baseball at the close of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there was only independent professional baseball. Up until that point, there was no “controlling unit” dictating rules and regulations over the national game. Leagues and teams were allowed to do what they pleased when they pleased.

Then came Major League Baseball.  It began with the National League in 1876.  The Senior Circuit, as the NL has come to be known, was joined by the Junior Circuit, or the American League, twenty-five years later. At first, the National League wasn’t very happy about the American League moving in on its territory.  And the “Baseball War” of 1901- 1902 ensued. Both leagues tried to lure players away from the other league with the promise of more money. Eventually, the two leagues settled and agreed to a “peace pact” in which they standardized contracts, agreed not to poach each other’s players, and settled on a new tournament called the World Series.

Up until this point, the National League considered the American League to be an outlaw league. But now that peace had been reached, the AL was accepted as a “Major League” along with the NL. With these two leagues at the top, there was (and still is) no room for anybody else. Since this point, Major League Baseball has despised anything independent, in secret of course.

That Sounds Like a Monopoly

The AL and NL continued in happy marital bliss, more or less, until 1914 when a third party tried to break up the happy couple. And who was this tempter? The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs.

The Federal League

In 1913 John T. Powers started the Federal League and by 1914 it began operating as a third major league in direct competition with the AL and NL. The Senior and Junior Circuits immediately started calling the Federal League an “outlaw league” and did whatever they could to shut it down. But why would these nice big businesses not want to share the wealth? Because they did not want their profits diluted by some “Outlaw League.” One of the things that the Federal League did that made the MLB so mad was to ignore the restrictions of the reserve clause.

The Reserve Clause

The reserve clause allowed teams to retain rights to a player once their contract had expired. The clause didn’t allow players to enter into a contract with another team. The player either had to negotiate with the same team (which never went in their favor monetarily) or ask to be traded or released. Simply put, the clubs held all the power and the players had virtually none. The only thing the player could do was hold out for more money, but that typically meant not playing nor being paid.

The Federal League, Continued

So the Federal League was ignoring the reserve clause, meaning they were offering players more money than they were making in the AL and NL. This caused AL and NL owners to offer more money to players to keep them from jumping over to the Federal League. This was essentially free agency and the owners of the American and National Leagues were not too happy about it. So what do good business people do to those threatening their livelihoods? They crush the competition out of existence. Consequently, after the 1915 season, it was “goodbye Federal League.”

The Federal League wasn’t going to go down without a fight, or at least one team from the league wasn’t. Here’s the deal: most of the Federal League owners had been bought out or compensated in one way or another, except for the owner of the Baltimore Terrapins. He wasn’t happy about not getting his due. So, it was time for a federal lawsuit aptly named Federal Baseball Club v. National League. The owner of the Terrapins claimed that the NL, AL, and others involved conspired to monopolize baseball by annihilating the Federal League.

The final Supreme Court ruling was that the Sherman Antitrust Act doesn’t apply to Major League Baseball. This means that the MLB is not considered interstate commerce. So what is it? It is recreation and entertainment. It is a game. This allowed (and still does allow) the MLB to operate as a legal monopoly. They are allowed to crush the competition with no legal recourse. The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs is the last league to seriously challenge the AL and NL as a third major league.

Legal Monopoly

While there are many independent minor leagues and teams in operation today, they are no match for the might of the MLB. And if they were to ever try to compete as a major league they would surely find themselves going in the same direction as the ill-fated Federal League.

Major League Baseball is a legal monopoly. Baseball as a sport, as a game, is slowly being engulfed by the machine that is MLB. Their control has been slowly expanding since the inception of the NL in 1876 and continues to this day. This control reaches, or will eventually reach, all the way back to Little League baseball, where MLB will be able to mold players from childhood. By doing this they will create the kind of baseball, and baseball players, that they want. The game won’t be our game, it will be their game. If you want to play baseball, you have to play by their rules. Is this a bad thing? You decide, but in this decision, independence hangs in the balance.

 

 

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