Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption Survives U.S. Supreme Court Appeal

The U.S. Supreme Court left intact the antitrust exemption it conferred on professional baseball almost a century ago, rejecting an appeal stemming from an effort to move the Oakland Athletics to San Jose, California.

San Jose tried to sue Major League Baseball for thwarting the city’s courtship of the A’s. Two lower courts rejected the 2013 lawsuit, pointing to Supreme Court rulings that insulate pro baseball from antitrust liability.

The rebuff leaves intact an exemption that the high court itself has described as an “aberration.” Baseball is the only sport that enjoys antitrust immunity, and critics say that special status gives teams too much leverage over communities.

The Supreme Court last considered baseball’s status in 1972, when outfielder Curt Flood challenged his trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood said baseball’s “reserve system,” which at the time barred free agency, violated U.S. antitrust law. The court in that case said it was bound by a 1922 decision immunizing the sport.

In its appeal, San Jose called the antitrust exemption “a relic from another era.” The city, which began wooing the A’s in 2009, says Major League Baseball was improperly trying to shield the San Francisco Giants from competition.

MLB considers San Jose to be part of the Giants’ “operating territory,” even though the state’s third-largest city is actually closer to Oakland than to San Francisco. The definition means no team can move to San Jose without the consent of three-quarters of the 30 clubs.

The A’s have shifted their focus away from San Jose toward efforts to build a new ballpark in Oakland. The team’s current ballpark, the O.co Coliseum, is among the oldest in baseball, plagued in recent years by sewage problems.

The case is City of San Jose v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, 14-1252.

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