Marvin Miller and the How Free Agency Came to Baseball, Part II

In Part I we looked at the history of labor unions in baseball, and the changes that Marvin MIller wrought in a short team as the president of the Major League Baseball Player's Association. Today, we see how Curt Flood paved the road for the eventual creation of free agency, and how Miller won this right for the players.

Curt Flood was 31 years old after the 1969 season ended. Flood was an established star for the St. Louis Cardinals, having hit .285 in 1969, after hitting .301 and .335 in the previous two seasons. After the 1969, season, however, to his surprise and dismay, the Cardinals traded Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Flood had been with the Cardinals throughout his entire career and was upset at having to play for  Philadelphia. Furthermore Flood was angry at the general idea that he had no control over where he played. He decided to challenge the Reserve Clause, and he won the support of the newly-strong Union. On Christmas Eve in 1969 Flood wrote to Commissioner Kuhn, saying “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Kuhn responded respectfully, saying that the Reserve Clause was part of the CBA and Flood had agreed to it every year of his 12-year career.

Flood sued the commissioner and owners for $1 million, claiming that his rights were violated under antitrust laws. In short, Flood claimed that in any other business a worker who’s services were in demand had some choice over where to work. Owners understood that baseball’s antitrust exemption was on shaky ground, but they weren’t particularly worried, assuming that the Court wouldn’t even hear the case (after all, they had reaffirmed the exemption less than 20 years prior – more on the origins of baseball’s antitrust exemption next week).

However, to many peoples’ surprise, the Court did agree to hear Flood’s case. And, in an even bigger surprise, the Court (reluctantly) upheld the precedent; in other words, Flood’s claim was denied. However, the arguments used in the case against Flood by the owners came back to haunt them, as they were forced to collectively bargain the Reserve Clause and eventually agreed to arbitration (as discussed in part I), a huge coup for Miller and the players.

At the end of the 1972 season, the Reserve Clause was still a powerful force. While players’ salaries were as high as they had ever been, thanks to arbitration (and the threat of arbitration), players were still tied to their team for as long as the team wanted, thereby decreasing their earnings potential. Furthermore, baseball was awash with cash. The sport had expanded considerably in the 1950s and 1960s, and the advent of television provided another huge stream of revenue. The economy was growing, and baseball was growing as well. However, in 1973, as a direct result of bargaining that took place due to Curt Flood’s lawsuit, baseball introduced salary arbitration.

Miller’s hunch about arbitration being beneficial for players soon paid off. Players were essentially starting with nothing – owners had had all of the power throughout baseball’s existence. Players won over half of the salary cases that went to arbitration, in large part because salaries before arbitration were so far skewed against the players. Additionally, simply having arbitration at the players’ disposal caused owners to pay them more money, in hopes of avoiding arbitration altogether.

For the first time in history, players had a mechanism by which they could get a share of the growing profits, as well as a powerful union behind them. The average salary in 1973 was $36,500 – more than double the average salary when Miller was hired in 1966. While Flood had lost his case, the case had led to the creation of salary arbitration. And Miller wasn’t done there: he set his sights on the ultimate goal: free agency.

Ever since 1876, every single Major League player had signed a contract. The contract was for one-year, with a club option for a second year. However, a new contract was signed by every player every year, or else they wouldn’t be eligible to play. And as long as each player signed a new contract each year, the clause perpetuated itself indefinitely, even after the introduction of arbitration.

As other sports emerged and formed cohesive leagues, they attempted to institute similar Reserve Clauses; however, the courts universally struck these clauses down. In other sports, the contract was as-stated: one year, and a team option. If the team exercised that option, the player would then become a free agent after the second year, unless he chose to sign a new contract.

After the threatened strike of 1969 (during which players threatened to not sign their contracts for the upcoming year), the owners rigidly enforced the idea that every player must have a new, signed contract every season. In effect, the option year never mattered in baseball contracts, since players were forced to sign a new one-year (plus option) deal every single year.

Miller believed, however, that if a player didn’t sign a new contract every year, the letter of the contract would hold, as it did in other sports. He was anxious to test his reasoning out, and finally got the opportunity in 1975.

Two players didn’t sign new contracts before the 1975 season: Andy Messersmith, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Dave McNally, a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. McNally decided to retire before the season, but Messersmith pitched – and won 19 games, finishing second in the NL in ERA – without ever signing a new contract. In effect, Messersmith was in the option portion of the one-year deal he signed in 1974.

After the season, the Dodgers offered Messersmith a three-year contract. Messersmith rejected the offer and decided to test Miller’s theory about the Reserve Clause. It was a risky move for Messersmith, as the contract he was offered was lucrative, and he could potentially lose a lot of money by testing the system. Indeed, this is what the owners (incorrectly) counted on.

After the 1975 season, the Player’s Association filed a grievance declaring that Messersmith should be granted free agency. The owners responded that the complaint was outside of the arbitrator’s jurisdiction – and was without merit, anyway. The owners filed suit in Kansas City to restrain the players from going ahead with their grievance. The Kansas City Royals owner contended that the $6 million investment he made to buy the team in 1969 was made with the understanding that the Reserve Clause would be in effect. A judge in Kansas City persuaded the owners to let Messersmith’s grievance go forward, and the case when to an arbitrator.

The clause in the CBA in question stated “If prior to March 1, player and club have not agreed…the club shall have the right…to renew this contract for the period of one year.” The players argued that one year meant one year – and that’s it. The owners countered that this meant a renewal of the entire contract, including the option clause for the year after. The logic of the owner’s argument is not clear, and indeed Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the players, declaring Messersmith (and McNally) a free agent. (Minutes after he made the ruling, Seitz was relieved of his duties by the owners.) The owners challenged the ruling in court but were denied. For the first time in the history of the game, players had leverage. And free agency was born.

Next week, we look at what has resulted from Messersmith and McNally’s historic case. Players are not simply free agents from the moment they enter professional baseball; rather, through collective bargaining, a series of agreements about players’ rights and salaries has been negotiated, which are still in effect to this day.

Next time you get mad at a player for being greedy and having no loyalty, keep in mind the history of labor relations in baseball. Until a mere 33 years ago, players never had the option of where to play, and had virtually no leverage in salary negotiations. Even to this day, the Reserve Clause remains in effect, tying players to their teams for the first six years of their major league careers. And without Marvin Miller’s help, free agency may not exist today.

Whatever you think of the current state of affairs in baseball, it’s a travesty that Marvin Miller is not in the Hall of Fame.

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