Media Beat, Mar. 15, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Baseball Players Strike Out on Capitol Hill

Spring is here. The baseball strike has entered its eighth month. And day after day, journalists churn out thousands of words about the strike, one of the most-written-about labor disputes in history.

But something is missing from coverage of this battle between wealthy players and even wealthier owners. Reporters have failed to follow the money.

Though the owners have been stung by an unfair labor practices complaint, they have won the more important game played on Capitol Hill. In that game, the key statistics are not home runs and RBIs but the number of dollars donated to big-league politicians.

The owners' impressive stats are documented in a report issued by the independent, Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics -- and ignored by the mass media.

Since 1987, Major League baseball owners -- along with their companies and family members -- have donated $ 2.3 million to the Democratic and Republican parties and their candidates for Congress. Meanwhile, players donated a measly $ 7,250, while union lobbyists contributed $ 140,000.

Even more telling, owners enjoyed a huge cash advantage in the ''late innings'' leading to the strike: They and their firms or families pitched $ 836,000 to Capitol Hill in 1993-94. The players mostly struck out during this key period of the game -- with a total of $ 1,700 in donations.

Many team owners enjoy congressional clout well beyond their baseball franchises -- with political action committees that donate big bucks to politicians. The St. Louis Cardinals' owners also own Anheuser-Busch, whose PAC contributed $ 280,000 during the past two years. The Kansas City Royals' CEO is the chairman of Wal-Mart Stores, whose PAC donated more than $ 100,000.

You may ask: How is Congress relevant to the baseball strike? Or, what right does Congress have to interfere in baseball's affairs?

These are the same questions that House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole keep asking.

As insiders, Gingrich and Dole know better. They know that Congress is already a major player in the strike -- and a major cause of it.

Thanks to Congress, and the leverage owners wield with that institution, baseball -- unlike other sports -- remains exempt from antitrust laws. Employees in any other industry can sue under antitrust codes to protect their labor rights. Baseball players can't -- and that fact emboldens the owners to collude brazenly.

Baseball's antitrust exemption is a 75-year-old relic. It stems from a bizarre court ruling by Chicago federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis that professional baseball was not interstate commerce. Soon after, the owners rewarded the anti-labor judge by making him commissioner of baseball.

In 1972, the Supreme Court called the antitrust exemption an ''aberration confined to baseball'' -- and pretty much encouraged Congress to repeal it. But Congress has not acted, in part for the same reason that Landis became baseball commissioner: Team owners know how to reward their friends.

For their part, the players have already voted to end the strike as soon as Congress takes the step of limiting the owners' antitrust immunity.

If only it were a simple step! Bills to repeal or limit the exemption have repeatedly been introduced on Capitol Hill. They don't get out of committee.

Just-retired Sen. Howard Metzenbaum had this to say about the power of one lobbyist for the baseball owners, Thomas Korologos: ''He's very effectively prevented me from getting the votes that I need to get the antitrust bill on baseball out of committee. I know he's said it (to me) three or four times: 'You've taken care of the college education of not only one of my kids but all of my kids.' ''

With Metzenbaum's retirement, the senator leading the battle to limit the owners' antitrust exemption is Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) -- rarely a foe of management -- who blasts the ''big business'' mentality of owners he blames for prolonging the strike: ''They've been using that exemption, it seems to me, to not negotiate in good faith.''

Last month, President Clinton's effort to get the strike settled through binding arbitration -- which the owners oppose -- was blocked by congressional leaders. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida offered an explanation: ''The owners have a significant amount of political clout and feel in control of the situation. They don't want to have Congress mucking around.''

It turns out the Major League players so skilled with bats and balls on the diamond are distinctly minor league when it comes to the money-and-power game on the Hill.

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