Colonel John Henry Wigmore’s Puzzling Proposal


John Henry Wigmore was born in San Francisco in 1863 to immigrant parents. He would eventually graduate near the top of his class from Harvard Law School, a founding member of the Harvard Law Review. Wigmore practiced law briefly in Boston before moving to Japan, where he was appointed the first professor of American law at Keio University. In his three years there, Wigmore taught himself Japanese and played shortstop on what was—by his account—the first baseball team in Tokyo.

Wigmore moved back stateside in 1893 and joined the faculty of Northwestern University’s School of Law, where he was later named the first full-time law school dean in 1901. In 1904-1905, Wigmore published a four-volume treatise on evidence that would quickly gain renown as the seminal authority, hailed as “unrivaled as the greatest treatise on any single subject of the law” by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.

During World War I, Wigmore took a leave of absence from his duties as dean to serve as a major in the office of the Judge Advocate General of the United States Army. He was promoted twice, and eventually returned to the Law School in 1919 as a colonel.


While Wigmore was stationed in Washington, D.C., the case that would forever cement Major League Baseball’s status as the only legal monopoly in America was winding its way through the courts. When the Federal League folded after its two years of operations in 1915, the member clubs executed a “Peace Agreement” with the National and American Leagues that resulted in the dissolution of the Federal League and its clubs—save the Baltimore Terrapins—in exchange for a reported $10 million settlement (approximately $238 million today) divided among the seven settling clubs. Instead of taking part in the settlement, however, the owners of the Baltimore club chose to sue the National and American Leagues under the Sherman Antitrust Act, claiming that defendants were operating an illegal monopoly—principally through the “reserve clause”—that foiled their efforts to contract with desirable players. Presumably, Wigmore took notice.

The case went to trial and Terrapins won, with the Baltimore club being awarded treble damages in the amount of $240,000 (approximately $3.2 million today). The National and American Leagues appealed the verdict, however, claiming that their operations were not subject to the Sherman Act because baseball was not engaged in interstate commerce. The Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia agreed with ownership and reversed in an opinion published December 6, 1920. Predictably, the Baltimore club ownership was not pleased and sought redress with the Supreme Court.


On September 9, 1921, Babe Ruth clobbered his 54th home run of the season in Philadelphia, tying his single-season record set the year before. At Comiskey Park, the White Sox out slugged the Tigers 20-15 in a game that featured just a lone home run by Chicago first baseman Earl Sheely. That same evening at his suburban Evanston home—just months removed from the acquittal of the Black Sox scandal participants in a Chicago courthouse—Col. Wigmore gathered colleagues and reporters to propose his elegant plan to “save” baseball. While easy to agree with his declaration that baseball was “the greatest national game in the world,” the rest of Col. Wigmore’s plan was not so assured.

Col. Wigmore proclaimed that just like the United States Postal Service, baseball “should be declared a public service and be taken over by the state for management” so the sport could be “deloused from top to bottom.” He proposed exploiting the power of eminent domain to “let the state expropriate for public purposes the property in franchises of the league clubs, expelling the mercenary cynics who exploit it for private gain, putting all league players on the salaried civil service merit list and conducting the game as a public enterprise for the public good.”

To accomplish this bold publicization plan, Col. Wigmore advocated for the establishment of a federal Department of Sport with a seat on the presidential cabinet. Not surprisingly, Col. Wigmore recommended Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis—baseball’s newly-minted commissioner—to be the first “Secretary of Baseball.”

“Since the management of our national game now is a virtual monopoly and since its service is deemed a popular necessity, let the legislature now declare that the business of baseball is now a public service, impressed with a public interest, and therefore subject to expropriation for public purposes.”

-Col. John H. Wigmore, Chicago Tribune, September 10, 1921.

Col. Wigmore’s halcyon vision of baseball was evident in his ambitious plan to “retain and cultivate local and state pride by letting each city have its own team, made up solely of residents, and each state its own team, selected by competitive promotion from the city teams. City will play against city and state against state.”


Col. Wigmore’s grand plan was mentioned again in the October 8, 1921 edition of the Chicago Eagle but seems to have, otherwise, fallen on deaf ears.

As for the Federal Baseball case, the Supreme Court affirmed the appellate decision in favor of the National and American Leagues on May 29, 1922. The opinion, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes for a unanimous court, held that baseball was not engaged in interstate commerce because baseball games were simply local exhibitions and were not “trade” or “commerce” as defined by the Sherman Act.

One can only ponder what baseball would look like today if the keys to the national pastime had been turned over to the federal government.

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