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[Detail] Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Baseball’s Reserve Clause

The reserve clause in a baseball player’s contract requires that he stay with the team with which he signs until the team owner decides to trade him. This inability to freely move from one team to another has been a part of professional baseball since 1876. In 1917, a lawsuit, aimed at removing the reserve clause, claimed that baseball owners had an unfair monopoly on their product. The lawsuit failed, however, and the reserve clause remains a part of baseball today.

Antitrust legislation in the early twentieth century broke up monopolies such as Standard Oil. However, professional baseball became exempt from such laws when the Supreme Court ruled in 1922 that professional baseball was a sport and not a business. Despite the fact that all other professional sports are subject to antitrust legislation (which prompted them to institute salary caps and other rules that prohibited one team from snapping up all of the best players in a league), baseball still enjoys this antitrust exemption.

Robinson in Dodger Uniform

Jackie Robinson in Dodger Uniform, From Comic Book, 1951.

Jackie Robinson ended his ten-year career in major league baseball when he retired in 1956. Around the same time that he announced his retirement, he learned that he was being traded from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Giants. During his April 14, 1957 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, reporters questioned Robinson about his opinion of the reserve clause, quoting Congressman Emmanuel Celler: "'The few who own the Major League clubs aren't trying to benefit the public but only to make all the money they can by moving players around like pawns and chattels.' You were one of the players who was moved around. Do you think that statement is true or false?" Despite his personal experience, Robinson defended the reserve clause as the best available means by which club owners could keep from losing players to other teams:

At the present time I would have to go along with it, because there has to be some sort of protection. Until they find some other way to handle all these situations, I think that - it is a personal observation, but I think they have to continue it. In all my years of baseball I have always expected to be traded. I never liked the idea. I expected it because that is the way baseball has been run all along, but I don't see at this time any way that they can handle the situation. . . .

I don't know why I'm defending this reserve clause . . . so, I will just say here, for the players' benefit certainly something should be done, but I hope it doesn't have to be done through the courts.

  • Why does Robinson defend the clause?
  • Should a policy be defended simply because it is the only system currently available? Why or why not?
  • How does this attitude compare with Robinson breaking the color line?
  • Is the reserve clause fair to players? Why or why not?
  • Is major league baseball a business or a sport? Explain.
  • Should the league be exempt from antitrust legislation?
  • Why are other professional sports leagues subject to antitrust legislation?

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