The Triumph of Bifederal Baseball
T MIGHT SEEM appropriate to attribute the settlement of the baseball war in early 1903 to the vision of the club owners. After all, the final agreement marked the triumph of bifederalism. That is, it established the successful arrangement that now exists in professional sports, with two circuits offering simultaneous competitions followed by a capstone event featuring a match between the winners from each circuit. Professional basketball has two conferences and the final round of the playoffs, professional hockey has two conferences and the Stanley Cup finals, and professional football has two conferences and the Super Bowl. The paradigm for them all was baseball, with its two leagues and a World Series. It seems simple and natural. Weren't the owners foresightful?
The trouble with this story is that it reads history backwards—from outcomes to purposes. The fact is, the settlement of the baseball war was grounded not in the logic or implications of bifederalism or in any notion that a season-ending contest between champions would engender fan interest. (Indeed, many National League owners initially hoped merely to re-expand the league). Rather, the settlement was a product of the owners' desire to eliminate the two chief dangers that experience had taught them could be financially crippling.
One of those dangers was the threat of an unrestrained bidding war for talented players. The reserve clause had been created and refined precisely to deal with this danger. But the reserve clause worked only if all clubs agreed to honor it, and the reason the struggle launched by the American League in 1901 was denominated a “war” is that the new circuit, by not including reserve clauses in its own contracts and not accepting the validity of reserve clauses in the contracts of National League