Monday, December 21, 2009

Dec. 23, 1975: Seitz's decision creates free agency

The announcement forever changed the baseball landscape, though at the time it affected just two players.

But in less than a decade, Peter Seitz's decision 34 years ago this week -- Dec. 23, 1975 -- had resulted in millions of dollars for the players and a new buzzword in the sports world: free agent.
Seitz, an independent arbitrator working with baseball, ruled that Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were free agents based on their decision to play the 1975 season without signing their contracts. Under baseball's reserve clause -- written into every player contract -- owners had the right renew a player's contract for one year following the expiration of the original contract. For almost 100 years, this language was read to mean that a team could renew a player's contract in perpetuity.

Messersmith and McNally, however, challenged that clause by playing the 1975 season without signing the contracts submitted by the Dodgers and the Expos, respectively. Seitz ruled that -- by playing one year without a signed contract -- the players were now free agents, eligible to sign with any team.

The baseball owners immediately challenged the decision in court, but the ruling was upheld in federal court. The players and owners then negotiated a new basic agreement before the 1976 season that gave the players the right to become free agents after six years of major league service.

Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Marvin Miller, who advised Messersmith and McNally to challenge the reserve clause through the arbitration system, negotiated the new basic agreement for the players. In the next seven years, the average salary in baseball increased from $50,000 in 1976 to more than $240,000 in 1982. Today, the average salary is about $3 million per season.

"It was less of an economic issue at the time than a fight for the right to have control over your own destiny," Messersmith said.

McNally retired following the 1975 season, but Messersmith -- who led the National League with 19 complete games, seven shutouts and 321.2 innings in 1975 -- quickly became the target of a baseball bidding war and signed a three-year, $1 million deal with the Atlanta Braves. He won just 18 big league games following the Seitz decision, but Messersmith's challenge to baseball's economic status became one of the seminal moments in baseball history.

Story by Craig Muder, who is the director of communications at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

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