When President Obama introduced federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, he made note of the fact that she was from the Bronx and a fan of the borough's home baseball team. He joked that he hoped being a lifelong Yankee fan "will not disqualify her in the eyes of the New Englanders in the Senate."
Sotomayor's connection to sports goes much deeper than her rooting interests, however. In 1995, Sotomayor issued the injunction that ended Major League Baseball's strike just before team owners were going to send replacement players onto the field to start the baseball season. And in 2004, she presided over a case brought by former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett that challenged the National Football League's minimum age requirement.
As part of a three-judge panel, Sotomayor ruled in favor of the NFL after a U.S. District Court ruled that the age requirement violated anti-trust law. The ruling stated that the union had the right to collectively bargain a different age limit with the NFL, or no age limit at all, and that labor law took precedence over anti-trust law in that regard.
Collective bargaining also was the key to her baseball ruling, although she came down on the side of the players this time. Sotomayor, a District Court judge at the time, excoriated commissioner Bud Selg and baseball's owners for trying to unilaterally implement a new collective bargaining agreement simply because they didn't like the terms of the existing one. Her ruling forced the two sides to play the 1995 season under the previous agreement while working toward a new one.
In his remarks Tuesday morning, President Obama credited Sotomayor with saving baseball, a point that is only slightly less hyperbolic than it might appear. Replacement players wouldn't have killed the game, but it would have created an ugly situation that would have made it much more difficult for the sport to recapture the attention of the American public.
More generally, her faith in collective bargaining, and the onus it puts on both sides working together, is her more lasting legacy to each sport. There's no reason that two sides with competing interests but the same goal can't find a workable middle ground without work stoppages that infuriate sports fans.