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Free-agency era opens in baseball

A panel shoots down Reserve Clause; players peddle their services for the first time.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 1999


It was called the Reserve Clause. What it was was indentured servitude.

It was the antithesis of free agency, a paragraph in each player's contract that allowed a baseball team to keep him indefinitely until he was sold, traded or released. It was part of baseball's antitrust exemption and allowed the team to renew his contract the following year even if the player refused to sign.

The players insisted the renewal was good for one year; owners said it could be invoked indefinitely.

The Reserve Clause had been unsuccessfully challenged several times. After the 1969 season, 14-year outfielder Curt Flood was traded by St. Louis to Philadelphia. He appealed in vain to commissioner Bowie Kuhn to be declared a free agent, then sued for it, writing that he was not property to be bought and sold regardless of his wishes and that "any system that produces that result violates my basic right as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States." On June 19, 1972, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 against him.

The first chink in the owners' armor came after the 1974 season when Oakland pitcher Catfish Hunter claimed A's owner Charles O. Finley had breached part of his contract. An arbitrator agreed, saying that invalidated the rest of its provisions. Hunter was declared a free agent and, on New Year's Eve, signed a five-year, $3.75-million contract with the Yankees.

The Reserve Clause finally crumbled Dec. 23, 1975.

Pitchers Andy Messersmith, 30, of the Dodgers and Dave McNally, 33, of the Expos had played the 1975 season without contracts, then demanded the right to put themselves on the open market.

A three-man panel heard the case, an owner's representative, a players' representative, and Peter Seitz, an independent arbitrator. Seitz cast the deciding vote, ruling that Messersmith and McNally were free of further obligations to their teams.

Seitz said the owners had claimed that free agency would seriously damage the reserve system, and baseball itself. If there were any legitimacy to their fears, Seitz said, "dislocations and damage to the reserve system can be avoided or minimized through good-faith collective bargaining between the parties."

The owners' response, besides howling that it was the eve of destruction of baseball, was to fire Seitz and take his decision to federal court.

Kuhn, a lawyer, called it "a disaster for the great majority of the players, for the clubs and most of all for the fans. It is just inconceivable that after nearly 100 years of developing this system for the overall good of the game, it should be obliterated this way."

In February 1976 a federal judge upheld Seitz's decision. The door to free agency was thrown open and, in their 1976 collective-bargaining agreement, the players and owners did agree -- after much acrimony, including a spring-training lockout by the owners -- to a system of free agency.

McNally didn't benefit from the Seitz decision. He retired before the 1976 season. Messersmith, however, cashed in, signing on April10, 1976, what his agent, Herb Osmond, called "a lifetime contract" with Atlanta, an odd turn of phrase considering Messersmith and McNally had fought the system that bound a player to one team in perpetuity.

The three-year, $1.75-million contract contained "renewal clauses every year," Osmond said. "Messersmith will pitch as long as he can pitch." Braves owner Ted Turner gushed: "He'll never be traded. He'll be a Brave as long as I am."

After two undistinguished seasons, Messersmith was sold to the Yankees. After an 0-3 record in 1978 in New York, he wound up back with the Dodgers. The 1979 season was his last.


-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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