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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Best Efforts in Base Ball (Circa 1919)

Speaking of best efforts, consider the following standard-form language from the 1919 contract between "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and the Chicago White Sox (more precisely, Charles Comiskey, who owned the White Sox):

The player agrees to render for the club owner, at such times and places during the term of this contract as the club shall designate, his best services as a ball player; and he agrees to keep himself in the best possible physical condition from the date hereof until the termination of the contract; and a violation of either of the foregoing provisions of this paragraph shall be such a breach of contract as shall entitle the club owner either to terminate this contract forthwith, by written notice, or to suspend the player, by written notice, without pay until the club owner is satisfied that the player is ready, able and willing to resume his services in the manner in this paragraph provided.  The player further agrees that, during the term of this contract, he will not, except with the consent of the American League, engage, either during the American League season or at any other time, in any game or exhibition of base ball, foot ball, basket ball, or other athletic sport, except as herein provided.

Form 1919, American League Player's Contract ¶ 3 (emphasis added).  As baseball-savvy readers and those who heard my presentation at February's Fourth International Conference on Contracts at McGeorge School of Law know, several members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox arguably did not render their best services as ballplayers during the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.

The final sentence of Paragraph 3, which served to make the player-team contract exclusive on the player's part, also reinforced the effect of Paragraph 9 -- the 1919 version of the so-called "reserve clause," a later version of which former St. Louis Cardinals great Curt Flood unsuccessfully challenged when he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season.

Whenever, in the sole judgment of the club owner, it is to the advantage of the club that such action be taken, the club owner may transfer the player to another base ball club and assign the rights and obligations of the club owner hereunder to the owner of such other base ball club ....

Form 1919, American League Player's Contract ¶ 9.

In Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reserve clause -- which institutionalized, to paraphrase Flood, well-paid slavery.  But major league baseball's hard-fought victory was fleeting, as the reserve clause met its demise following the 1975 season at the hands of arbitrator Peter Seitz, who ruled in favor of all-star pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, declaring them to be "free agents" who could play or refuse to play for any major league baseball team that wanted their services.

[Keith A. Rowley]

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