The Dawn of Free-agency

FEBRUARY 4, 1976 | KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI – Do you think Alex Rodriguez¬†knows who Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith are? He and every other ballplayer of today should tip their hats to the two pitchers who haven’t played in decades. On this date in 1976 a federal judge in Kansas City upheld a decision allowing McNally and Messersmith to hawk their wares to the highest bitter. They could bargain with which ever team they chose. They were free-agents.

With rare exceptions, players hadn’t been free agents since pretty much the beginning of the modern era in the late 1800s. When owners started raking in dough they realized that if players could sell their talents to the highest bidder salaries would skyrocket. So they instituted a reserve clause in contracts; even when a contract ended, and just about all of them were for one year only, a player’s fate remained with that team. The only recourse a dissatisfied player had was to hold out, not play. The only way he played for a different team is if he got traded.

Dave McNally of the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) and Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers, with Players’ Union President Marvin Miller directing, decided to challenge the reserve clause. They played the 1975 season, their option years, without contracts, the thinking being when the option year lapsed the reserve clause ceased to exist. The owners’ position was that the reserve clause just kept renewing itself. The parties went to arbitration and arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the players. Major League Baseball appealed, thus today’s ruling. We’ve had free-agency ever since and salaries have… skyrocketed.

Contributing sources:
Associated Press (AP), February 5, 1976, Kansas City, Missouri
More on the reserve clause