Free agency has forever changed face of pro sports

Early benefactors never dreamed today's numbers

Published: Sunday, Dec. 24 2000 12:00 a.m. MST

NEW YORK — Alex Rodriguez was still in diapers on Dec. 23, 1975, when the sports world changed forever.

On that afternoon, arbitrator Peter Seitz set free Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, sending baseball spinning toward the era that has made Rodriguez and hundreds of other players multimillionaires.

"That was one of the most momentous days in baseball history," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.

Then, the average baseball salary was $44,676. Rodriguez, who grew up to become the best all-around player in the game, will be paid 2 1/2 times that much EVERY DAY next season by the Texas Rangers.

"The difference between winning and losing was billions and billions of dollars, maybe tens of billions of dollars," said Dick Moss, the lawyer who argued the case for the players' association.

Moss, who quit the union in 1977 and made millions as an agent, held a 25th anniversary party last weekend at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

Messersmith, who went on to sign a $1 million, three-year contract with Atlanta, was the guest of honor.

Management didn't pop any corks.

"The owners have behaved foolishly," former commissioner Bowie Kuhn said. "The players' association resisted any effort to make it fair. It's caused a fairly good-sized disaster."

A larger one might be ahead. There is talk of a work stoppage next Oct. 31. This would be baseball's ninth since 1972.

"I don't want to denigrate the owners," former union head Marvin Miller said, "but the outstanding characteristic they've shown through all these years is they never learn from experience."

The average salary this year was $1.9 million, 42 times its 1975 level. Owners point out that while revenue was just over $3 billion this year, that's only 18 times what it was 25 years ago, $163 million.

Rodriguez, nearly 5 months old when Seitz ruled, gets a salary of $21 million next year. ALL players combined to make $29 million in 1975.

And it all changed because Messersmith and McNally beat the baseball owners, whose winning streak in court was longer than the Harlem Globetrotters' on the court.

Before the Seitz decision, baseball owners had controlled their players since 1878 with the reserve clause. Language in each contract stated that the club could "renew this contract for the period of one year on the same terms," except that the salary could be cut by as much as 20 percent. Owners said that clause meant each contract could be renewed each year forever.

"Their basic attitude was, 'We are not going to change one comma of the reserve system — we like it the way it is,"' Miller said. "They can say on a stack of Bibles that they should have changed something. But their basic mindset was, 'This is the way it is.' They thought they could never lose in court. That servitude had existed for decades and decades and decades."

Until Messersmith and McNally, no one had gone unsigned all the way through a season. The union finally had the test case it was looking for.

In 1975, Messersmith was 30, coming off a season in which he was 20-6 with a 2.59 ERA for Los Angeles. He made $90,000 but refused to sign a new deal because the Dodgers refused to give him a no-trade clause.

McNally, then with Montreal, quit baseball in June 1975 with a 3-6 record. Even though he said he was retired, the Expos offered him $125,000 to sign a contract.

He refused.

Even McNally never dreamed salaries would go this high, and he was shocked by Rodriguez's 10-year, $252 million contract.

"My first thought when I saw that was: Did Texas offer him $250 million and he wanted 2 more?" he told the Billings Gazette on Tuesday, when he was honored as Montana's athlete of the century. "How did they get to $252 million?"

The path to multimillion-dollar salaries began when the players' association used Messersmith and McNally to convince Seitz, then baseball's arbitrator, that the reserve clause should be overturned.

After the grievance was filed, Joe Torre, Jim Bouton and Miller testified for the players, while Kuhn, NL president Chub Feeney and AL president Lee MacPhail testified for the owners.

The hearing took only three days, but it created an 842-page transcript and 97 exhibits.

Behind the scenes, Kuhn urged owners to replace Seitz before a decision. The previous year, Seitz had set free Catfish Hunter on a technicality.

Management's Player Relations Committee refused to fire the arbitrator because it was afraid of bad publicity.

"I predicted the decision," Kuhn said. "I was not surprised. I had people examine his record. I thought there was a tilt to the players' side."

Seitz's decision made front-page news. The reserve clause was dead. Any player could become a free agent if he went through an entire season without signing a contract.

Twenty-five years later, the owners' lead lawyer still gets worked up discussing the matter.

"It's a goofy decision that doesn't make any sense," Louis Hoynes Jr. said. "Basically, he says it's un-American, and that's not what arbitrators are supposed to do."

Seitz was fired that afternoon by the owners. His decision was upheld by U.S. District Judge John Oliver and the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Seitz, a former director of industrial relations for the Defense Department, had urged owners to settle the case as late as Dec. 8.

"I am not Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation," he said the day of the ruling.

But he was. The wild bidding common today was set off by Seitz, who died in October 1983 at 78.

"Were there any doubt as to the notion that you could unilaterally have rights to someone in perpetuity, that was the final nail in that coffin," NBA commissioner David Stern said.

Owners had said baseball would have trouble surviving without the reserve clause. Summarizing management's position, Seitz wrote in his opinion that owners contended eliminating the reserve clause "would encourage many other players to elect to become free agents at the end of their renewal years, that this would encourage clubs with the largest monetary resources to engage free agents, thus unsettling the competitive balance between the clubs, so essential to the sport . . . that driven by the compulsion to win, owners of franchises would overextend themselves financially in improvident bidding for players."

On the first anniversary of his decision, Seitz gave a harsh assessment of the owners.

"They were like the French barons of the 12th century," he said. "They had accumulated so much power that they wouldn't share it with anybody."

Messersmith and McNally, by refusing to sign, made them give it up, not that they were looking to become heroes.

"I sure didn't do it for any recognition," Messersmith said in 1981. "I just got angry with the way I was treated and the way I saw other players treated."

When McNally was feted in Montana, one of the tributes was from former pitcher Jim Bunning, now a U.S. senator from Kentucky. In a letter, Bunning wrote:

"In these days of multimillion dollar salaries and jaw-dropping contracts, it is easy to forget that just a few years ago ballplayers were treated by owners as nothing more than servants."

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