Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Cliff Lee and the Constitution

December 22, 2010 by Sarah Winski


As our name states, we are the National Constitution Center. But sometimes we can’t help letting our hometown pride shine through. That was the case last week when news broke that the Philadelphia Phillies had signed a deal to bring back pitcher Cliff Lee, causing a buzz of excitement across the city and many of our sports-loving staff members.

Cliff Lee during his first stint in Philadelphia.

So we challenged ourselves: Can the Cliff Lee signing be tied to the Constitution? The Answer: Of course it can!

One of the most interesting constitutional connections to our national pastime is Major League Baseball’s anti-trust exemption. The exemption stems from a challenge to the monopoly of the National and American Leagues by a club from the Federal League – a failed competitor – in 1922. Congress had used its power to regulate interstate commerce to pass the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890, which limited businesses from forming monopolies across state lines. In Federal Baseball Club v. National League, however, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that interstate travel was incidental, not essential, to the business of baseball. Therefore, the Sherman Act’s regulations of interstate commerce did not apply to Major League Baseball.

Curt Flood & the birth of free agency

Fast forward to 1969 – Curt Flood, a Gold Glove centerfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, decides to challenge an unwanted trade to the Philadelphia Philles. Flood argued that baseball’s reserve clause, which prevented him from negotiating and signing a contract with a team of his choice, violated anti-trust regulations. Taking his case to the Supreme Court, Flood v. Kuhn acknowledged that baseball’s anti-trust exemption was an anomaly and, like other professional sports, it was a business engaged in interstate commerce. But the Supreme Court still decided 5 –3 against Flood, ruling to uphold Federal Baseball Club v. National League and a 1953 challenge Toolson v. New York Yankees. The majority opinion reasoned that it was up to Congress through legislative action – not the Court by overturning its earlier rulings – to close the exemption loophole.

So what does this have to do with the Phillies signing Cliff Lee?

Thank Curt Flood and the fact that he really, really didn’t want to be a Philadelphia Phillie

Though Curt Flood lost his case, the ruling helped to pave the way for establishing free agency in baseball. Major League Baseball had claimed in their arguments during Flood v. Kuhn that the reserve clause was a product of collective bargaining. As a result, the clause became a point of negotiation for players in the 1970s to win salary arbitration. It wasn’t long after that it was struck down all together, ushering in the free agency system that exists today.

Thus, after six years of Major League service, Cliff Lee earned the right to be a free agent and choose what team he wanted to play for. So the next time your hometown team makes a big free-agent signing – or perhaps looses out on your favorite player – you can think of Curt Flood and the fact that forty some years ago he really, really didn’t want to be a Philadelphia Phillie.


Sign up for our email newsletter