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BASEBALL OWNERS HAVE ABUSED POWER OF ANTITRUST EXEMPTION

SHARE BASEBALL OWNERS HAVE ABUSED POWER OF ANTITRUST EXEMPTION

The owners who control what no longer is the national pastime are about to get acquainted with what still is a national premise: Unchecked power will be abused and so must be prevented. A controlling cabal of owners has abused such power, so Congress probably will repeal one prop of their domination, baseball's exemption from antitrust laws.

By actions first dilatory and then provocative, the owners engineered a strike by the players. Because of the exemption, the players had no other recourse for defense of their hard-won right to sell their services to the highest bidder. Since the strike started the owners have rejected many player concessions, including proposals to tax payrolls to exert a "drag" on players' salaries. The owners prefer to use the power they think the exemption gives them to impose a "salary cap," which is really a payroll ceiling. It would limit the owners' need to compete and would do what they say they cannot do - control their incontinent spending.The safest way to predict the weather is to predict that tomorrow's weather will resemble today's. You usually will be right. The safest way to gauge baseball disputes is to assume the owners are wrong. You usually will be right.

Many owners opposed radio and then television broadcasts of games because they thought attendance would collapse. All owners opposed free agency - before it, a player was a team's chattel until traded or released - on two grounds: Player mobility would destroy fan loyalty, and the best players would be monopolized by rich, big-market teams, thereby destroying competitive balance. But since free agency came 19 years ago, average per-game attendance has doubled and there has been unprecedented competitive balance, as measured by the number of different teams winning pennants.

The owners may believe that Republican control of Congress makes repeal less likely. Wrong again. The issue is freedom, for individuals and market forces.

Since the strike started, some teams have substantially increased ticket prices. Owners do with their tickets what they say players have no right to do with their talents - charge what the market will pay. Owners say players' salaries drive ticket prices. Actually, baseball's surging revenues have enabled owners to bid up salaries. Since the strike started, the Phillies, Angels and Astros have signed three players to contracts worth $51 million for a total of 10 years.

When the owners come to Congress to urge retention of the antitrust exemption, they will say: Continue to trust us to run the nation's last unpoliced cartel because we are doing so splendidly, and because repeal of the exemption would - trust us on this - injure baseball. Can Congress legislate the repeal while being convulsed by laughter?