Four Minor-League Clubs Sue Major League Baseball After Big-League Affiliations Chopped

Four minor-league clubs sued Major League Baseball on Monday after their big-league affiliations were cut before the 2021 season.

Parent companies of the Staten Island Yankees, Tri-City Valley Cats, Norwich Sea Unicorns, and Salem-Keizer Volcanoes filed an antitrust lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, accusing the baseball commissioner's office of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits monopolistic practices, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The teams are represented by a law firm that has previously represented players' unions. Listed on the lawsuit are lawyers David J. Lender, Eric S. Hochstadt, and Zachary A. Schreiber from Weil, Gotshal & Manges, along with James W. Quinn, a former Weil head of litigation, and Emily M. Burgess of Berg & Androphy.

After the minor-league seasons were canceled due to the pandemic, in late 2020, MLB ended the Professional Baseball Agreement, which regulated the relationship between the majors and minors. Affiliates were slashed from a minimum of 160 to 120. The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues that presided over the minors since 1901 was ended as well, with the MLB taking over governing the minor league.

The lawsuit alleged MLB decided to keep minor-league teams based on if they were owned by parents clubs or political owners, noting Ohio Governor Mike DeWine's interest in North Carolina's Class A Asheville Tourists.

"The takeover plan is nothing less than a naked, horizontal agreement to cement MLB's dominance over all professional baseball," the lawsuit said. "There is no plausible procompetitive justification for this anticompetitive agreement."

At the time, MLB said the changes would decrease travel and better conditions for minor-leaguers. The league had no comment Monday, according to the Associated Press.

MLB, Lawsuit, Minor League, Sherman Antitrust Act
In late 2020, MLB ended the Professional Baseball Agreement, which regulated the relationship between the majors and minors, after the minor-league seasons were canceled due to the pandemic. In this photo, the Tri-City Valley Cats and the Oneonta Tigers square off at Doubleday Field during Baseball Hall of Fame ceremonies July 24, 2004, in Cooperstown, New York. A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Staten Island was a Yankees' affiliate, Norwich (Connecticut) a Detroit farm team and Tri-City (Troy, New York) a Houston affiliate, all in the short-season New York/Penn League, and Salem-Keizer (Oregon) was a San Francisco farm team in the short-season Northwest League.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted baseball an antitrust exemption in a 1922 case involving the Federal League when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a decision that baseball was not interstate commerce but exhibitions exempt from antitrust laws. The Supreme Court reaffirmed the decision in a 1953 case involving New York Yankees farmhand George Toolson and in the 1972 Curt Flood decision, saying any changes should come from Congress.

Congress passed the Curt Flood Act of 1998, which President Bill Clinton signed, to say antitrust laws apply to MLB affecting the employment of major league players at the major-league level.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

MLB, Lawsuit, Minor League, Sherman Antitrust Act
The National Associated of Professional Baseball Leagues that presided over the minors since 1901 was ended in late 2020; the MLB took over governing the minor league. In this photo, infielder Ryder Jones #20 of the Amarillo Sod Poodles signals as he rounds the bases after hitting a home run during the game against the Frisco RoughRiders at Hodgetown Stadium on September 19, 2021, in Amarillo, Texas. John E. Moore/Getty Images