Marge Schott Down Without a Legal Defense

In mid-June, Major League Baseball removed Marge Schott from everyday control of the Cincinnati Reds. A month later the ban was expanded -- Schott can no longer even sit in the owner's box. Yet Schott accepted the ban without challenging it in court. Why?

The answer can be found in a pair of 20-year-old decisions upholding MLB's authority to discipline errant owners. In the early days of free agency, badboy owners Charles O. Finley and Ted Turner tested Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's power to discipline them. Both lost.

Charles O. Finley's A's were especially vulnerable to free agency: everyone on the megatalented Oakland team hated Finley's guts. When an arbitrator ruled after the 1975 season that players could become free agents by playing out the option year of their contracts, many of the AL's best players returned their contracts unsigned and counted down the days to liberation.

But while the baseball establishment shared the A's' contempt for Finley, they had to recognize that he often thought several steps ahead of the pack. Long before any other owner, Finley realized the key consequence of free agency: since the clubs no longer controlled a player for his entire career, player contracts were worth a fraction of their former value. Finley vowed to get what he could for his free-agents-to-be before they walked away without compensation. Even before the 1976 season began, Finley traded the unsigned Reggie Jackson to Baltimore.

Finley hit the jackpot in mid-June. In two days he sold three players for $3.5 million: Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox for $2 million and Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million. (By comparison, three years earlier George Steinbrenner had bought the entire Yankee franchise for $10 million.) On June 18, Commissioner Kuhn voided the sale as "inconsistent wth the best interests of baseball, the integrity of the game and the maintenance of public confidence in it."

Later that year, Ted Turner earned Kuhn's wrath for being too interested in free agents. Before the free-agent signing period began, Turner publicly proclaimed that he would spend as much as necessary to sign Gary Matthews, even throwing a "Welcome to Atlanta" party for Matthews before acquiring the rights to negotiate with him. Kuhn suspended Turner for one year, stripping him of all authority to manage the Braves or negotiate with other major league teams.

Both Finley and Turner sued Kuhn, claiming that he had exceeded his authority. Finley argued that nothing in baseball's rules empowered the Commissioner to invalidate player sales; Turner challenged his suspension by contrasting his one-year banishment with the $5,000 fine given to Cardinals' owner Gussie Busch for violating the same directive. But the courts resoundingly reinforced Major League Baseball's authority over its owners.

As the judge in Turner's case noted, in creating the office of Commissioner the owners themselves had given Organized Baseball's supreme ruler "all the attributes of a benevolent but absolute despot." The Commissioner's office was broadly empowered to "investigate any act...alleged or suspected to be not in the best interests" of baseball and to punish violators. The Court of Appeals reviewing Finley's case went further, enforcing a clause in the Major League Agreement by which the owners agreed not to challenge the Commissioner's actions in court.

The Finley court made clear that when Major League Baseball disciplined an owner, the courts would not interfere except in the most extreme circumstances. Even if the owners hadn't waived their right to sue, "the courts are generally not available to an association or its members to review actions of a voluntary association [Major League Baseball is an unincorporated association] with respect to its own members." The courts will only intervene if MLB's rules or the discipline imposed violates the law or MLB's own bylaws, or if MLB "has failed to follow the basic rudiments of due process of law."

Judged against this standard, any legal challenge by Marge Schott seems doomed to fail. Even if she was disciplined merely for espousing unpopular views, the First Amendment doesn't help her: it bars only the government from punishing unpopular speech. Schott's suspension was preceded by a hearing which satisfied the due process requirement. In short, having accepted Major League Baseball's authority to discipline her, Schott cannot expect the courts to second-guess how that authority has been exercised.

Copyright © 1996 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the August 1996 issue of Boston Baseball.

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