Free agency is a fact of life in baseball, but it’s a relatively recent fact of life in the context of the game’s 150-year professional history. Indeed, it began only 40 years ago today when baseball arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled, in a landmark decision, that pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were free agents.
There were precursors, of course. Precursors which muddy the history in the minds of many. Curt Flood’s famous case seeking to allow him to refuse a trade to Philadelphia and, instead, choose his own team is often cited as groundbreaking, but most forget that Flood lost that case. Some people talk about Catfish Hunter leaving the A’s and heading to the Yankees for a million dollar contract following the 1974 season, but that was an oddity based on Charlie Finley neglecting to pay an insurance premium, not anything precedent setting. It’s greatest legacy is a Bob Dylan song that wasn’t good enough to make the “Desire” album.
No, the real watershed moment for free agency came on December 23, 1975, when Seitz ruled that baseball’s infamous “reserve clause” did not allow a club to perpetually retain the services of the players it signed as amateurs or, later, drafted.
The reserve clause was a century-old provision — or set of provisions, really, found in the boilerplate of player contracts and baseball’s official rules — via which owners restricted the right of players to switch teams and, necessarily, killed any bargaining power the player had to increase his salary. Specifically, the player could negotiate only with the club that listed him on its “reserve list.” The only team-switching came via trades, releases or the sale of a contract to another club. The most pernicious part of it was that the clause purported to act in perpetuity. A player could sign 15 single-year contracts or a single multi-year contract (not that those really existed) and never be out of the team’s control. Even if he retired and came back to the game later he was the property of his club. The fact that it extended to retired players ended up being pretty significant and, ultimately, may have sunk the owners.
Following the 1975 season Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith couldn’t reach a deal for the following season. This happened frequently in baseball and it is where the reserve clause showed its power: the Dodgers just decided to unilaterally renew Messersmith at the rate they chose. Messersmith and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association filed a grievance. It may have been possible that this grievance would never be heard, of course. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley was a shrewd businessman and, if he was worried about losing the grievance, he could’ve simply bowled Messersmith over with a big deal for 1976, contingent on Messersmith dropping the case. So the MLBPA decided to hedge its bets and add a second plaintiff.
Dave McNally won 181 games for the Orioles between 1962 and 1974 and, for a time in the early 70s, was part of one of the greatest rotations the game had ever seen. He was declining by the mid-70s, however, and the Orioles traded him to the Montreal Expos for Ken Singleton and Mike Torrez before the 1975 season. In 1975 McNally was clearly toast and he retired in the middle of the season with no intention of returning to the game. Because the Expos still controlled his playing rights even following retirement, however, he had standing to file a grievance. And he did so, joining Messersmith.
With McNally as something of a ringer, there was no way an owner could buy his way out this case. The grievances were filed on October 1, 1975. Hearings were held on November 21, 25 and December 1. Before and during the hearing Seitz implored the sides to settle, likely realizing that the decision he going to have to make would, either way, be extraordinarily significant. If he ruled for the players, baseball would be forever changed. If he ruled for the owners things would stay the same but the relationship between owners and players would be far more set in stone than it had been previously. Which would be odd in that, in an era in which great strides were being made in workers’ rights, he would be establishing what he knew to be a decidedly retrograde precedent. Neither side was budging. Seitz’s decision came a little over three weeks later.
Ultimately it was strictly a matter of contract interpretation: did the language in the reserve clause allow for perpetual one-year renewals or did it allow for one single one-year renewal on the part of owners? The plain language won out. Seitz ruled that one year meant one year and that’s all the owners got. Messermith and McNally were free agents. As was every other player not yet under contract for the 1976 season who had already been renewed previously.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fired Seitz as soon as he issued his decision, accusing the arbitrator of having “visions of the Emancipation Proclamation dancing in his eyes.” Quite the quote from Kuhn in that it somehow simultaneously insulted both actual Emancipation and workers’ rights, but Kuhn wasn’t a Hall of Famer for nothing. Either way, Seitz knew he was going to be fired. That’s part of the deal when you serve at the pleasure of either side of a contentious issue as baseball’s arbitrators do.
Major League Baseball appealed the ruling to the federal courts but didn’t get anyplace, as appealing arbitrations is insanely difficult. Ultimately baseball and the union settled. Rather than have everyone become a free agent a new labor agreement was reached heading into the 1976 season in which players could become free agents after six years. With changes regarding arbitration and qualifying offers and stuff notwithstanding, it’s essentially the system we have today.
It didn’t have to be that way, of course. At the time of the Seitz decision Charlie Finley — the A’s owner who neglected to pay Catfish Hunter’s insurance premium — suggested to his fellow owners that they give the players exactly what the Messersmith-McNally grievance asked for: annual free agency. For everyone. Just let them all out of their deals. He didn’t suggest this out of the goodness of his heart, of course. He suggested it because if there were 600 or so free agents each winter the market would be flooded and bargaining power and salaries would necessarily go down. He was probably right about that — union head Marvin Miller actually feared the owners would do this — but the other owners shot the idea down. That probably ended up costing them a lot of money in salaries even if it led to a far more workable system.
As it was, new free agent Andy Messersmith went on to sign a three-year, $1 million deal with the Atlanta Braves before the 1976 season, which was really darn rich for the time. He was also the first free agent bust, as he pitched horribly for the Braves. He was eventually sold to the Yankees and then ended up back with the Dodgers at the end of his career. For his part Dave McNally stayed retired and sold cars with his brother in Montana until he died in 2002.
Free agency lives on and has made players very, very wealthy. And, for as hard as they fought it and continue to try to limit it, baseball owners have gotten insanely wealthy despite free agency as well. Some might argue that some of that owner wealth is because of free agency and the way in which it allows a team to improve relatively quickly and how it generates interest on the part of fans on a year-round basis. It’s hard to say, really. All that can be said for certain is that players were horrifically underpaid prior to the Seitz decision and their increased salaries afterward didn’t cut into owners’ pocketbooks as much as was feared. One suspects that the idea of labor costs and profits being wholly at odds is a fiction in businesses other than baseball too, but that’s probably the topic of another essay in another forum.
As it stands, free agency is now 40. And, for all of the complaining some folks still do about it, it looks really good for its age.