“Never allow the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.”
New York Yankee Slugger Babe Ruth
There will be new professional baseball ownership as the 2023 season gets underway with the Minnesota Twins’ home opener on Friday, April 7, at Target Field against the defending major league champions, the Houston Astros.
Meanwhile, the Twins’ minor league affiliate across the river, the St. Paul Saints, are gearing up to get their International League AAA season underway at CHS Field in the capital city’s Lowertown.
No, it’s not the Twins franchise that has new leadership. Its ownership has been remarkably stable over the years, with the Pohlad family concluding its fourth decade at the helm after nearly a century of Griffith family ownership, which dated back to the early days of baseball at the turn of the 20th century. The team was the Washington Senators until it transferred here in 1961 and morphed into the Twins.
It’s the Saints who will have new ownership. The team was sold by its original ownership, which started the reincarnated independent minor league 30 years ago, to Diamond Baseball Holdings, a national organization that has a stable of a dozen profitable minor league teams, including another Twins affiliate, the Wichita Wind Surge.
The transfer of ownership, which occurred earlier this year, marks the end of an era for the prior owners, led by Mike Veeck, son of the iconic baseball impresario Bill Veeck.
The younger Veeck introduced a number of quirky features, first at the antiquated Midway Stadium (more about that later) near the State Fairgrounds until the state-of-the art CHS Park was inaugurated in 2015.
Those festivities and frivolities included pigs delivering baseballs to the home plate umpire, haircuts and massages in the stands, on-field weddings, the first woman pitcher (Ilya Borders) and a host of other unusual undertakings. Those events came with the younger Veeck’s family lineage. His father’s autobiography tells it all: “Veeck, as in Wreck,” recounting his career in baseball, highlighted by his deployment of a dwarf, Eddie Gaedel, who walked on four pitches way out of the batter’s tiny strike zone; allowing fans in the stands to vote on strategic plays; exploding scoreboards after home team homeruns; and other novelties. The selling ownership, along with the younger Veeck, included another showman, actor/comedian Bill Murray, a Chicago-born baseball fanatic.
As the current version of the Saints heads into its fourth decade, it draws upon a long lore of baseball litigation in this state, including one oddball case 20 years ago involving the same Saints squad, whose baseball roots trace back to 1884.
Minnesota’s earliest baseball litigation took place in St. Paul more than a century ago, a lawsuit that was filed over job security. In Eagan v. Winnipeg Baseball Club, 96 Minn. 345 N.W.2d 947 (1905), a baseball manager sued his team for unpaid salary after he was fired in midseason. The lawsuit was brought in Ramsey County District Court, an anomaly because the ballclub he sued was centered some 60 miles north of the border in Winnipeg, Manitoba. However, the league administration at that time was centered in St. Paul, which explained why the case was brought here.
The manager, who also doubled as a player, was ousted with 2½ months to go in the season, ostensibly because he was too ill to continue managing. The St. Paul jury entered a verdict in favor of the displaced manager, and the judge then declined a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The state Supreme Court took the case and affirmed the jury verdict, noting that the contract was “something more than the ordinary contract for personal services.” The early 20th century jurists exhibited familiarity with baseball terminology in reaching the conclusion, explained that a term in the contract proscribing the team from giving the manager a “release,” was equivalent in “baseball circles to barring an employment discharge.”
St. Paul also played a key role in a pair of antitrust actions against baseball. One of them was brought by Attorney General Mike Hatch, pursing a claim in Ramsey County District Court seeking an inquiry under the state antitrust law, Minn. Stat. § 325D.49, regarding the operation of the Minnesota Twins, who were threatening at that time to leave the state. The attorney general’s investigation into potential antitrust implications of the Twins’ arrangement with Major League Baseball, which was threatening to extinguish the team after a purported effort to move the team to North Carolina failed, was squelched by economic considerations: The purported buyer lacked the resources to buy the club. The Ramsey County District Court refused to allow the case to proceed, and the court of appeals concurred. The Supreme Court, with one recusal, unanimously agreed, holding that the Twins did not have to respond to the investigation because the sport was not subject to state antitrust laws. In doing so, it relied upon the oft criticized, but never repeated ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court holding the game to be exempt from antitrust litigation at the federal level.
The nail in that coffin was driven by a St. Paul born jurist, Harry Blackman, who authored the decision for the U.S. Supreme Court in Flood v. Kuhn, 92 U.S. 2009 (1972), that upheld on stare decisis grounds a prior ruling by the high court that deemed baseball to be outside the scope of interstate commerce and thus not subject to the federal antitrust laws in Federal Baseball Club v. National League, 259 U.S. 200 (1922).
Justice Blackman, who was born and reared in St. Paul, began his decision with an ode to famous baseball players of past eras, an off segment that drew some criticism from his colleagues as well as academicians and other observers. Justice Blackman’s majority opinion went on, however, to grudgingly apply precedent in refusing to hold that the standard Major League Baseball contracts that bound a player to a particular team without freedom to move from team to team was not actionable as an antitrust violation. That decision, however, while a setback for the ball players, who were in the infancy of unionizing, did not actually have a counterproductive effect. It led to legal action giving rise to “free agency,” which has continued in baseball and spread to other major professional sports organizations, including football, basketball and hockey. But the Kuhn-Flood decision, which had previously been affirmed in Toolson v. New York Yankees, Inc., 346 U.S. 356 (1953), stands for the proposition that precedent can sustain a dubious decision.
The 20-year-old Saints case arose when a fan attending a St. Paul Saints baseball game at Midway Stadium was struck by a ball while returning from a trip to the restroom. The Court of Appeals, affirming a decision by a Ramsey County District Court judge to dismiss the case, held that the claimant’s claim was precluded by the “well-established” doctrine of assumption of risk. Alwin v. St. Paul Saints Baseball Club, Inc., 672 N.W.2d 570 (Minn. Ct. App. Dec. 16, 2003).
Returning from the restroom late in the game, the claimant was walking near a concession stand, not watching the game, and could not see the batter. He was struck in the mouth by a foul ball, knocking out a tooth and requiring extensive dental procedures. He sued the Saints, claiming negligence for failing to provide some type of protective netting around the concession area.
The Court of Appeals’ inquiry began with the determination of whether the baseball team owed the spectator a “duty.” The court concluded that the ballpark has only a “limited duty … to offer the spectator the choice between screened in seats and seats without protective netting” and refused to extend this obligation to non-seating areas of the ballpark. The spectator’s claim that the restroom and concession areas should be protected because “he could not see the batter or game from that area” raised the issue whether he “assumed a risk inherent to the game of baseball,” even though he was not seated in the bleachers when he was struck by the foul ball.
The court concluded that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk barred that claim, although it recognized the “difficulty at times” in applying the principle in tort cases.
Because sporting events necessarily “present inherent risks that are well-known to the public … anyone who attends those events assumes the risk of injury.”
The court cited numerous cases in Minnesota and elsewhere involving injuries to spectators at baseball games, as well as those attending other sporting events. It refused to follow the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Jones v. Three Rivers Mgmt. Corp., 394 A.2d. 546 (Pa. 1978), which permitted a spectator to sue after he was hit by a batted ball during batting practice while standing in an interior walkway rather than seated in the stadium.
That case was distinguishable because the ballpark’s duty was premised on the “specific architectural feature of the stadium.” Midway Stadium, where the Saints played, did not have such a “distinctive architectural feature,” and following the Jones case would lead to a “slippery slope of drawing a line between risk and protected areas” of a stadium. The precise location of the spectator when struck by the ball is not relevant because, as a spectator, the claimant “primarily assumes the risk inherent to the game, which includes being hit by a foul ball.”
Since the fan had attended “many games in his lifetime,” he clearly “understood the risk of being hit by a foul ball.” His awareness of the risk was enhanced by the club providing him the opportunity of having seats behind the protective net behind home plate, printing warnings on the back of admissions tickets and posting “numerous warning signs” informing spectators that they could get hit by a batted ball or bat. These features, while “not necessary” to invoke assumption of risk, “highlight the principle that [the fan] primarily assumed the risk inherent to attending a baseball game,” which includes being “hit by a foul ball while walking near the concession area.”
Summary dismissal represents a rarity in assumption-of-risk cases. Unless the evidence is “conclusive” of the claimant’s awareness of the risk, the applicability of the defense generally raises a jury issue. Rausch v. Julius B. Nelson & Sons, Inc., 276 Minn. 12, 149 N.W.2d 1 (1967). But the multitude of warnings and spectator’s own familiarity with the game created one of those limited occasions in which summary disposition was appropriate.
The Alwin case is the latest in a litany of Minnesota cases involving injuries to spectators at baseball games and other sporting events.
The first and foremost baseball injury case of this type in Minnesota is Wells v. Minneapolis Baseball & Athletic Ass’n., 122 Minn. 327, 142 N.W. 706 (1913).
While attending a minor league game at Nicollet Park in Minneapolis, a woman spectator suffered a broken collarbone when struck by a foul tip. She claimed she was sitting behind the home plate screen and was struck when the ball curved around the net. The ball club contended she was sitting farther down the first base line beyond the protective screen. A jury found the baseball club negligent, and it appealed.
The Supreme Court reversed, deeming it “inconceivable” that the foul ball could have curved around the screen and stuck the fan, and ordered a new trial. Concluding that the spectator must have been seated beyond the home plate screen, the court refused to impose upon the baseball club an obligation to shield the entire seating area. It noted that baseball “is necessarily accompanied with some risks to the spectators” and that many spectators prefer to sit “where no screen obscures the view.” The ball club is “not an insurer against all perils.” Accordingly, management’s duty was restricted to providing knowledgeable spectators with “a choice” between reasonably safe screened-in seating and unprotected or “open” seats.
But this fan was given preferential treatment because of her sex. Since she was a woman, she presumably lacked “full knowledge of the danger from foul balls.” Therefore, the case was remanded for determination of whether the ballclub took reasonable precautions “to warn and protect the spectators from the attendant dangers of which they may be ignorant.”
Upon retrial, the jury was to decide whether the screen was “of sufficient size to afford reasonable protection” and also was to consider the effect of various signs conspicuously posted in the ballpark stating that management “will not be responsible for injuries received from thrown or batted balls.” While the signs would not absolve the club of liability, they would be admissible to show the “type of precautions taken by management.”
The confusing dichotomy established in Wells between “knowledgeable” baseball fans and neophytes raised the prospect of each foul ball injury case turning on the degree of an injured claimant’s familiarity with the game. This specter was snuffed out two decades later in another case emanating from venerable Nicollet Park. In Brisson v. Minneapolis Baseball and Athletic Ass’n., 185 Minn. 507, 240 N.W. 903 (1932), the Supreme Court reversed a verdict for an injured spectator.
An adult man had purchased a grandstand seat for a Millers game but sat in temporary third base bleachers beyond the protective screen because all of the grandstand seats were occupied by the time he arrived. He was injured in the sixth inning by a foul ball that bounced into the stands and struck him in the head. He sued, claiming that the ballclub was negligent for not furnishing a screen along the third base line.
Noting the paucity of cases involving injuries to baseball spectators, the court distinguished the Wells case, framing the issue as whether a baseball club must “provide screened seats for all those who desire them, regardless of the number of spectators who come to see the game.” The answer was no, because the team’s duty was limited to providing a “screen for the most dangerous part of the grandstand and for those who may be reasonably anticipated to desire protected seats, and that they (management) need not provide such seats for an unusual [sized] crowd.”
Not content to rest its decision solely on the club’s lack of negligence, the court proceeded to analyze the case from the standpoint of assumption of risk. Departing from Wells, the court in Brisson stated that risks incident to baseball are a matter of “common knowledge” and that any “adult of reasonable intelligence” would recognize and appreciate the possibility of being hit by a foul ball. Even though the plaintiff claimed to have “limited experience” with baseball, he was deemed to have assumed the risk as a matter of law. Therefore, the baseball club was absolved from liability.
The dual determinations of no negligence and assumption of risk in Brisson did not, however, create an absolute barrier for recovery by injured baseball spectators. A few new twists emerged in Aldes v. Saint Paul Ball Club, Inc., 251 Minn. 440, 88 N.W.2d 94 (1958).
A 12-year-old boy was injured when struck by a baseball that was thrown wildly during infield practice between innings. The boy originally had been sitting in the grandstand but during the game had, at the invitation of a friend who was an usher at the game, moved to a seat in an open area behind first base.
Since the boy was “well-acquainted” with baseball, he would be barred from recovery under the Brisson rule under ordinary circumstances. The court, however, pointed to the lad’s youthfulness as a basis for departing from Brisson and refused to find an assumption of risk as a matter of law. Returning to the reasoning of the Wells case, the court deemed assumption of risk a factual issue in light of the subjective characteristics of the plaintiff.
The court viewed the Aldes case as raising both negligence and assumption-of-risk issues: Was the usher negligent in encouraging the boy to change his seat? And did the injured boy assume the risk of increased likelihood of injury when he changed seats? Both issues were considered factual questions for a jury; thus the case was remanded for trial.
The Wells case was later cited for the proposition that the sole duty owed by the promoter of sporting events to patrons is to provide a “choice” of observing the event from a reasonably protected area or assuming the risk and sitting in an area less protected from inherent dangers of the activity. Grisim v. Tape Mark Charity Pro-Am Golf Tournament, 415 N.W.2d 874 (Minn. 1987).
In Grisim, cited in the Alwin case, the court affirmed summary judgment for golf tournament sponsors sued by a spectator who was struck by an errant ball. It ruled that the tournament sponsors had provided spectators with “reasonable opportunity to view the participants from a safe area.”
Although the claimant struck out in the Alwin case, that setback has not detracted from the growing interest in the Saints baseball team as its new owners build upon its storied history and its legal lore, too.
Some notable St. Paul Saints
- Jack Morris: Hall of Fame pitcher
- Darryl Strawberry: New York Mets, Yankees slugger
- J.D. Drew: Major League All-Star infielder
- Wayne Turwilliger (Twig): Legendary baseball coach; manager
- Roy Campanella: Coaching great broke minor league “color barrier”
Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the Twin Cities Law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.
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