How the free agency landscape changed 40 years ago today

Sports changed forever 40 years ago today inside a Kansas City courthouse. The bravery of Curt Flood, the fight of Marvin Miller, the principle of Peter Seitz – all of it would’ve been for naught if not for nearly 23,000 words written to confirm a simple edict.

Free agency would exist.

Marvin Miller (AP Photo)
Marvin Miller (AP Photo)

A sports world without it seems almost inconceivable, especially in the midst of Major League Baseball’s record $2.5 billion spending this winter. Free agency today isn’t looked upon as some sort of privilege; it’s a reality, accepted and understood, not just in baseball but every team sport. And though it almost certainly would’ve risen up in some form or fashion, free agency found vital support Feb. 3, 1976 from John W. Oliver, the district court judge who oversaw Kansas City Royals vs. the Major League Baseball Players’ Association and agreed in a lengthy written opinion that baseball’s indentured servitude must end.

It’s fascinating to remember just how radical the idea of allowing players freedom to choose actually was. The initial right was granted less than six weeks earlier, when Seitz, baseball’s neutral arbitrator, ruled in favor of pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, who argued the reserve clause should not keep players with one team in perpetuity.

For nearly 100 years, baseball had employed a reserve system that wedded a player to a team and guaranteed wages set by the owner. The idea of granting players free will horrified ownership, and nobody exemplified the fear-mongering worse than commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who actually testified that due to free agency, “I think the loss of a major league is quite possible.”

As in: The American League or National League would fold because of the deleterious effects of players being allowed to sign where they please. Tens of billions of dollars and one entire sporting landscape changed later, the conceit is as laughable now as it was short-sighted then. History has validated Seitz, Oliver and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals panel that later put a final stamp on the decision and paved the way for Messersmith to sign a million-dollar deal with the Atlanta Braves.

“Baseball has done quite well despite all of the predictions,” said Robert J. Kheel, one of the attorneys retained by MLB to work on the case alongside lead lawyer John Gaherin. Kheel looks back on that era with fondness, four decades allowing him to witness the fallout of a fight that started well before Messersmith and McNally.

Donald Fehr
Donald Fehr

Challenges to the reserve clause started in the 1920s, continued in the 1940s after commissioner Happy Chandler imposed a five-year ban against players who sought better wages in the Mexican League and ramped up during Flood’s battle that ended up in front of the Supreme Court. Free agency was on the brains of players, and after Catfish Hunter was granted it because A’s owner Charlie Finley breached his contract by not paying money into an insurance policy, Hunter signed a five-year, $3.75 million deal with the Yankees – more than seven times his previous annual salary.

“The magnitude of the restraint that the old reserve system imposed was out there in stark contrast,” said Donald Fehr, then a Kansas City-based lawyer retained by the union, eventually the leader of the MLBPA and today the NHLPA. “We sort of knew for some players – Messersmith was a star and Catfish was the best in the American League – you know you’re going to get changes when that comes through. What I did not understand in my gut, I don’t think, was the emotional change this would mean for the players. The sense of relief, of opportunity, of possibility, of getting security for their families and some sense they could choose where they could play.”

Free agency was the goal, and it was simply a matter of time until Marvin Miller achieved it. He had helped turn the MLBPA from an organization seeking basic rights into a powerhouse labor union in all of a decade, and this was the owners’ comeuppance. “Marvin was always trying to think of something to torture us with,” Kheel said.

The Seitz Decision felt like waterboarding. Kheel still believes Seitz overstepped his bounds as arbitrator when he ruled the language of the collective-bargaining agreement only bound players to teams for one year. Oliver refused to overturn Seitz’s award, as an extraordinarily high threshold is necessary to vacate arbitrators’ decisions. MLB’s choice to try the case in the Western District of Missouri was one of many strategic missteps.

It also had the unintended consequence of delivering a worthy heir to Miller. Fehr was a 27-year-old fresh out of a clerkship at the district court. He knew the judges, knew the process, knew how the system worked, and his law firm put him on the case to work with the union’s lead lawyer, Dick Moss. When Moss left to become an agent in 1977, Fehr took over, and six years later, he replaced Miller.

By then, the aftereffects of revolution were apparent. Ill feelings of the deal struck between MLB and the union – clubs hold the rights of players for six full years before free agency – lingered for decades. There was the 1981 strike. And the 1985 strike. And the 1990 lockout. And, of course, the 1994 strike that canceled the World Series.

The two decades-plus of labor peace since, then, are a monumental achievement that speak to a softening inside of baseball. Even if free agency pits owner vs. owner – “Cartel industries don’t like to compete with one another,” Fehr wryly notes – it has created almost a second season. An argument could be made, in fact, that more attention is paid by baseball fans to the offseason machinations throughout the league than in-season goings-on.

“Given the economics, it can’t be all bad,” said Kheel, now 72. “I’ve lost interest, personally, because I think I’m rooting for a logo, and I don’t like that. But when you have all-time-high attendance, it’s tough to argue. I think the fundamental problem in baseball is they need some form of restraint, whether it’s a salary cap or otherwise. The difference between the Yankees and Tampa Bay is so enormous, it’s not good.”

As a labor leader in a league with a salary cap, Fehr scoffs at the idea, the divide between the sides evident even 40 years later. He looks back at the Seitz decision, at Oliver and the Eight Circuit, at everything that led to the freedom and riches free agency bring, and can’t help but be proud of fighting the fight that needed to be fought.

Even today Fehr gets calls from players in that era. They recall the moments that changed sports, not just MLB but the NBA (free agency in 1988), NFL (1992) and NHL (1995). Seitz is gone, as are Miller and Gaherin, but their legacies remain, rich as the industry they birthed.