This Day in MLBPA History
Dec. 23, 1975: Messersmith, McNally declared free agents
On Dec. 23, 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that players could only be renewed for one year under baseball’s “reserve clause” and that Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, having played out their option years, were baseball’s first free agents.
The pitchers had declined to sign contracts going into the 1975 season and on Oct. 7 filed grievances, claiming that the reserve clause bound them to their clubs for just one year and their contracts could not be renewed in perpetuity as the owners had insisted.
Seitz’ decision sent shockwaves through the industry, with owners and general managers declaring the industry doomed.
“I am enormously disturbed by this arbitration decision,” then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said. “If this interpretation prevails, baseball’s reserve system is eliminated by the stroke of a pen. This would be a disaster for the great majority of players, for the clubs and most of the fans.”
Messersmith and the Players Association understood that they had won an historic victory for baseball players, who would now have the freedom to negotiate with multiple clubs and choose the most attractive offer.
“Our idea … was not motivated by becoming a free agent,” Messersmith said after the ruling. “It was to alleviate the situation for players who are spinning their wheels, playing behind superstars, or because of salary, or for guys who are simply not compatible with management.”
Baseball filed a federal lawsuit in Kansas City in an attempt to overturn the ruling, but on Feb. 4, 1976 Judge John W. Oliver affirmed Seitz’ decision, saying the arbitrator “had discharged his duties with the highest sense of fidelity, intelligence and responsibility.”
On March 9, the owners lost their appeal to the Eighth Circuit and declined to appeal to the US Supreme Court, finally settling the matter.
Messersmith, who had reportedly been offered a three-year, $540,000 contract by the Dodgers in an attempt to end the case, signed a three-year $1 million deal with the Atlanta Braves on April 10.
McNally, who had stopped playing the previous July with the intention of retiring, had joined the case so it could carry through even if Messersmith eventually signed a contract in 1975, remained in retirement at his Billings, Mont., home.
Messersmith, however, was among the elite pitchers in baseball at the time. The 29-year-old right-hander was coming off his second 20-win season when he played out the option and proceeded to go 19-4 with a second-in-the-NL 2.29 ERA over a league and career-high 321.2 innings pitched. His record in 1975 was more remarkable when you consider that the Dodgers had been shutout seven times that season, five of them coming when Messersmith was on the mound.
“The hardest part was pitching with the unsigned contract hanging over my head,” the pitcher said. “Believe me, it’s a difficult thing playing out one’s option. I felt a lot of mental pressure.”
The decision’s impact was enormous. Players had begun to understand the values they could command in free agency when Catfish Hunter was released from his contract a year earlier and signed with the Yankees. Messersmith was a free agent class of one, but 24 players would become free agents after the 1976 season, marking the beginning of a new era.
''The difference between winning and losing (the grievance arbitration) can be stated in billions and billions of dollars,'' then-MLBPA General Counsel Richard Moss told the New York Times years later. ''I don't think you can find another labor-arbitration case that can say that.''
''While I think the money impact is noteworthy and makes a good story, more was involved than that,'' then MLBPA Executive Director Marvin Miller said. “The whole freedom issue has always gotten underplayed, the difference between being a piece of property your whole career and not. That's not the kind of thing you can measure against other cases.''
And while Judge Oliver highly praised Seitz’ handling of the case in his ruling, it did little good for Seitz, who was immediately fired by John Gaherin, who was the head of owners’ Player Relations Committee, when he turned to page 62 of the decision and saw the result.
“I’ve been terminated before, but never so quickly,” Seitz said later.
''I can't say he was fired before the ink was dry, because we hadn't signed it,'' Miller quipped.