Baseball. There is something magical about watching a game. The crack of a bat hitting a ball; the tactics for the defense; and the fact the game is both a team and individual sport simultaneously. Hard not to love it.
I have great childhood memories of playing catch with my grandfather as a boy. I still have the glove from those evenings we would throw the ball around after he got home from work.
My grandfather played baseball in his youth in Iowa. Even in his 90s, he still has a good arm to the delight of dogs that play fetch. Back in 2005 he demonstrated he was still the “natural” at a Giants and Rockies game where he caught a foul ball launched into the upper deck bare handed. A hush fell over AT&T Park for all of those who witnessed the 84 year old’s “play” on the Jumbotron.
They even sent a camera crew up to get footage of him holding the baseball.
I also love the law. I was curious about what the cases from the 19th Century involving America’s favorite pastime. There are many contract and a few patent cases.
Patenting the Double Herring-Bone Stitch
The first up to bat is a case from 1884 over an action for a failed injunction over the reissue of a patent for the leather covers of baseballs in Mahn v. Harwood.
We need baseballs in order to play baseball. On May 21, 1872, John Osgood was issued a patent relating to “base-balls and other similar articles.” Mahn v. Harwood (1884) 112 U.S. 354, 355. Osgood assigned his rights to Louis H. Mahn, who was reissued the patent on April 11, 1876. Id.
The Court stated that it was contrary to law to reissue of a patent for the purpose of enlarging claims, especially after a four-year gap, and not even by the inventor. Mahn, at * 360-361. As such, the Court held the reissue of the patent was void, and dismissed the claims against the alleged infringer. Mahn, at * 363-364.
What is very interesting is the original patent describing the process how a baseball is made:
1. A ball exterior, composed of two crimped hemispherical covers, A and B, having their respective seams x and y break joints, substantially as set forth.
2. In combination with a ball whose exterior is composed of two hemispherical covers A and B, with their respective seams x and y breaking joints, I claim the double herring-bone stitch formed of two threads, in the manner herein set forth.
Mahn, at * 365.
Pitching a Preliminary Injunction on Negative Rights
Next up, a baseball club that tried to get an injunction against a baseball player from playing ball for the entire season of 1890 with any club but the plaintiff.
The New York Base-Ball Club and John M. Ward had a contract for Ward to play baseball for the 1889 season. The contract included a provision to “reserve” Ward for the 1890 season. Metropolitan Exhibition Co. v. Ward (Sup.Ct. 1890) 9 N.Y.S. 779, 779. The case turned on the definition of the word “reserve.”
It is further understood and agreed that the said party of the first part shall have the right ‘to reserve’ said party of the second part for the next season ensuing, the term mentioned in paragraph 2 herein provided; and said right and privilege is hereby accorded the said party of the first part, upon the following conditions, which are to be taken and construed as conditions precedent to the exercise of such extraordinary right or privilege, namely: First. That the said party of the second part shall not be reserved at a salary less than that mentioned in the 20th paragraph herein, except by consent of the party of the second part. Second. That the said party of the second part, if he be reserved by the said party of the first part for the next ensuing season, shall be one of not more than fourteen players then under contract.”
Metropolitan Exhibition Co., at *781-782.
The Court did NOT enjoin the Defendant from playing baseball in 1890. The contract only had a reserve clause; this did not include required contractual terms such as payment. The Court explained the issue of seeking an injunction for undefined contractual rights:
As before said, this is a suit in equity wherein the court has no power to enforce the affirmative covenant claimed to exist, which would compel the defendant to play ball with plaintiff; but the court is asked, in effect, to decree the specific performance of a negative covenant, claimed to have been made by the defendant that he should not play ball with others.
Metropolitan Exhibition Co., at *781.
The Court denied the Plaintiff’s preliminary injunction, because it effectively would have been a final verdict for the Plaintiffs. The Court instead ordered a trial to determine the rights between the parties before the start of baseball season.
The final case up to bat is from 1885 and concerned the 1883 baseball season. A player sued his employer for breach of contract and recovered damages of $431.12. Oberbeck v. Sportsman’s Park & Club Asso. (1885) 17 Mo.App. 310, 311. The Defendant appealed.
The parties contracted for the Plaintiff’s services to play baseball in 1883 for $785 to be paid semi-monthly. The Defendant effectively fired the Plaintiff in June of that baseball season by prohibiting him from playing. The breach of contract suit followed. Oberbeck, at *311-312.
The original contract between the parties contained terms of payment and performance. The Defendants claimed that the first contracted needed to be approved by American Association of Base Ball Clubs, which never approved the contract. The Defendants produced a second contract that contained a clause the Defendant could terminate the Plaintiff at anytime. The Plaintiff claimed he nevered signed the second contract. Oberbeck, at *312.
The jury found for the Plaintiff. The Defendant’s appeal was rejected and the judgment affirmed. The evidence was on the side of the Plaintiff and the appellate held he was “safe” on appeal.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame
Baseball is a field of dreams. It is a game of strategy, supreme concentration, and some interesting off the field lawsuits. There is adventure in going to the games or watching it from the comfort from home. In the end, I just really loved playing catch with my grandfather.