Baseball Before the Bar, Part 3
Following up on our two previous installments, it is time to turn to free agency. At the end of the last post, I mentioned that the first great challenge to the reserve clause came from Curt Flood in 1969. But before I get to Flood’s lost case, let me set up the important background. First, what is the reserve clause?
The reserve clause specifically said this:
On or before December 20 (or if a Sunday, then the next preceding business day) in the year of the last playing season covered by the contract, the Club may tender to the Player a contract for the term of that year by mailing the same to the Player at his address following his signature hereto, or if none be given, then at his last address of record with the Club. If prior to the March 1 next succeeding said December 20, the Player and the Club have not agreed upon the terms of such contract, then on or before 10 days after said March 1, the Club shall have the right by written notice to the Player as said address to renew this contract for the period of one year on the same terms, except that the amount payable to the Player shall be such as the Club shall fix in said notice; provided, however, that said amount, if fixed by a Major League Club, shall be an amount payable at a rate not less than 80 percent of the rate stipulated for the next preceding year and at a rate not less than 70 percent of the rate stipulated for the year immediately prior to the next preceding game.
For nearly 100 years, from 1879 to 1969, the clause was interpreted so that players automatically renewed their contracts for the next season, even if they did not sign a written contract. Flood challenged this interpretation, arguing that the Clause specified only a single year of being reserved, at which point the Clause would seem to no longer apply. Given this, Flood was no longer under contract to the St. Louis Cardinals and thus could not be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1972, the courts disagreed, in Flood v. Kuhn, hearkening back to the Federal Base Ball Ruling and saying that Flood had no standing to sue because baseball was not governed by federal labor law. At this point, players got creative.
After Flood opened the door to the challenge of the reserve clause, baseball players struck in 1972 under the leadership of new union boss Marvin Miller. The strike, primarily concerned with pension problems, was quickly ended, but it did not end until the owners agreed to a collective bargaining agreement with the MLBPA. In this collective bargaining agreement, owners and players agreed to accept binding arbitration in order to resolve contract disputes. Here, the world would change.
Enter Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith. Both were pitchers, one for the Montreal Expos and the other for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both signed contracts after the 1972 season, playing the 1973 season under contract and the 1974 season under the Reserve Clause. In 1975, though, they argued they were no longer under contract. Their owners, obviously, disagreed, and the situation was referred to arbitrator Peter Seitz. In his decision, known as the Seitz decision, Seitz agreed with the players that the Reserve Clause applied only to the first year played after a contract was signed, at which players were no longer under contract. Players not under contract could then sign with anybody they liked. Welcome to free agency. What happened to the interested parties, though? Messersmith signed with the Braves and was a bust. McNally retired, never exercising his free agency. Seitz was much too fair as an arbitrator, and thus the owners fired him. Quite a way to start the new world of free agency.
Tomorrow, I’ll wrap this series up with a court case that made Sonia Sotomayor famous for a time and helped resolve one of baseball’s greatest challenges, the strike of 1994-95.