For 35 years, the men who run organized baseball have huddled under a legal umbrella raised for them by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Supreme Court in 1922 and steadied in their grasp by another high court decision in 1953. The umbrella is now leaking badly.
This was the deeper significance of a 6-3 decision of the Supreme Court last week which was primarily directed at the status of professional football. The court ruled that—whatever else it is—pro football is a business engaged in interstate commerce and therefore subject to the antitrust laws.
It was Justice Tom C. Clark, reading the court decision, who brought up baseball. Were it not for the "umbrella" raised in 1922, he said, "were we considering the question of baseball for the first time upon a clean slate, we would have no doubts." I.e., baseball would be ruled a business too.
While the first effect of the decision was to throw professional football's owners and league officials into a state of near-hysteria (NFL Commissioner Bert Bell delivered a ringing non sequitur that sought to prove there was very little money to be made in the game), there was also an almost immediate flurry of action in Congress.
Accepting Justice Clark's tacit invitation to clarify baseball's special status, Representative Oren Harris, a Democrat of Arkansas, introduced a bill which would not only keep the umbrella over baseball but enlarge it to cover pro football, basketball and hockey as well. "If the federal government sticks its nose into sports," he said, "sooner or later the American people will lose their principal form of entertainment."
But across the floor of the House Representative Patrick J. Hillings, Republican of California, denounced organized baseball as a "horsehide cartel" and introduced a bill to remove the umbrella entirely.
Representative Emanuel Celler, New York Democrat who was chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee that investigated baseball—inconclusively—in 1951, spoke in favor of the Hillings bill. He said that the Supreme Court should now redefine baseball as a business in the same category as football. "You can't," he said, "call one a fish and the other a fowl."
Most baseball men preferred to say nothing. When they did speak, they tried to be brave.
"We are not involved," said Ford Frick, baseball's commissioner.
"As far as baseball is concerned," said Frick's attorney, Lou Carroll, "the Supreme Court decision merely reaffirms the decisions of 1922 and 1953 which declared baseball to be a sport and not a business."