In 1951, the future Justice Stevens was a young antitrust lawyer in Chicago when he was tapped to serve as associate counsel to the Monopoly Power Subcommittee of the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee by Edward H. Levi, who was the dean of the University of Chicago Law School and serving as Chief Counsel to the subcommittee. (It was not the last time that Levi would steer Stevens's career path. A quarter-century later, as President Ford's Attorney General, Levi would be instrumental in securing Stevens's nomination to the Supreme Court.) Among the industries targeted for congressional investigation--along with such glamorous headline-grabbers as newsprint, paper pulp, and aluminum--was organized baseball.
The inquiry had been triggered by baseball's own request for legislation to codify and immunize from any future judicial attack the antitrust exemption that the Supreme Court had extended in 1922. That year, the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by the usually, but not invariably, great Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., ruled that professional baseball was not subject to federal antitrust law because the sport was not engaged in interstate commerce. Although Holmes recognized that professional baseball teams obviously traveled across state lines to play out their schedules, he reasoned that such travel was incidental to the playing of the games themselves, which were local affairs, conducted within the borders of a state.
Holmes thereby provided the legal--or perhaps more accurately the extra-legal--framework for the entire development of organized professional baseball thereafter. Although the case decided by Holmes involved a clash between two rival baseball leagues, the most notable effect of that decision was to bar players from mounting challenges under antitrust law to the "reserve system" under which major league teams agreed to respect each other's right to a perpetual claim on the services of its players and not engage in competitive bidding for playing talent.
Thirty years later it could hardly be doubted that, as baseball's own executives privately acknowledged, "professional baseball... is BIG BUSINESS." And the sport's ruling councils plainly feared that courts might revisit that ruling in light of present day economic realities. So beginning on July 30, 1951 and continuing into the fall, the top officials of the national pastime found themselves on a congressional hot seat that was more usually occupied with accused Communists, mafiosi, and labor racketeers. The 1950s would be without parallel as the decade of congressional investigations, which with the advent of television provided something of a new national pastime, and the other national pastime's own "grand inquest" was now at hand.
As curious crowds thronged the Capitol amidst a crush of reporters and newsreel cameras, a diverse lineup of baseball notables took the witness table, including major and minor league officials, team owners, ball players, even sports writers, and associate committee counsel Stevens was asking many of the questions. Not always with success in getting clear answers, as press accounts of his persistent pursuit of a characteristically elusive Branch Rickey show. And Stevens also had to confront a rather forthright rebuke from one witness: sports columnist Red Smith insisted "that in these times I think there are graver matters. I think there are more pressing matters to deal with." Perhaps relieving any frustration and sting from such encounters, Stevens did have the chance to engage in a more amicable interchange with Phil Wrigley, owner of his own beloved Cubs.