The Historic Fight Over MLB Free Agency: Aftermath

Closing out the historic, fictional, organizer's firsthand account of baseball players' fight for free agency.

Major League Baseball’s 2018 Winter Meetings have come to a close in Las Vegas, and in the final part of our series, we’re looking back at the immediate aftermath caused by the advent of free agency.

Part 1: The origins of free agency

Part 2: United we stand, divided we fall: the Messersmith-McNally grievance


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“Yeah,” I said, soaking wet with a hint of annoyance in my voice after rushing out of the shower.

“We need you to come down to the office.”

“Why? I have a few days off.”

“We have offers coming in for Andy.”

I hung up the phone without saying a word. It took all of five minutes to get dressed. I skipped the shave, and hit the pavement running. Out in the world it was still early. Foot traffic was light, and we weren’t packed as tight as tinned sardines on the subway.

I had barely stepped into the union office before I saw the small stack of “message for you” notes neatly arranged on my desk. It had been a few months after the Seitz decision, and offers were far and few between.

Cincinnati, 1976.

The Cincinnati Reds feigned interest but decided to pass at the last minute.

“Andy is a good athlete and would make a desirable addition to our pitching staff, but we have to operate our team on a sound basis,” said Reds president Bob Howsam to reporters. “To sign him under these terms is poor business…No club in our industry can truly afford this (free agency) and survive.”

“What bullshit,” I thought.

“Howsam has no idea what it would take to get Andy under contract, and how does he even begin to figure signing him would threaten the leagues survival,” said Marvin, annoyance written on his furrowed brow, a month after the decision was upheld by the courts.

It didn’t help any that “unnamed sources,” later determined but not confirmed to be scouts, started spreading rumors that Andy had a sore arm. They added into the mix that team doctors had tried unsuccessfully to get him checked out and cleared.

Marv called Dodgers executive Al Campanis to get answers and was told matter-of-factly “we never asked Andy to take a physical because there’s nothing wrong with him; he’s never missed a term.”

After a little back and forth, Marv got Campanis to have the team doctor issue a public statement and put the rumors to bed.

New York, 1976.

The Yankees came calling and we called backed, but that proved to be nothing. Yanks claimed Andy had agreed to terms. But, it was ruled invalid when it was shown he never signed a contract or made any formal commitments to the team.

Away to Atlanta, 1976.

The regular season had just kicked off and Andy ended up signing a three-year deal with Ted Turner and the Atlanta Braves. It wasn’t a bad salary: $1 million. But there was a catch, and I still have a hard time understanding how it happened in the first place. I called Andy back and asked him to send over the deal. The fax came over 45 minutes later, and my jaw dropped.

Looking at the fine print, Andy and his agent—an incompetent fellow—agreed Atlanta had the right of first refusal when the agreement expired. He had signed away his free-agent status.

We called Chub Feeney and calmly reminded him of the arbitrator’s ruling and had that contract provision tossed out before Andy took the mound, saving us and the league money by avoiding another arbitration hearing.

How it all played out.

Andy pitched two years with the Braves, the worst club in the National League (NL) in 1976.

Ted Turner made a big claim in the New York Times that Andy “ will never he traded—he’ll be a Brave as long as I am.”

It was a good statement that made him look like a “good guy” but meant nothing. In 1978, he traded Andy to the Yanks.

After a year in New York, Andy went back to sunny California. He finished his career with the Dodgers, the team he wanted to stick with the rest of the career.

It’s funny…had the Dodgers just agreed to his original no-trade provision, they could have slowed down the march to free agency, or stopped it all together. I bet O’Malley is regretting his stubborn nature now.

Looking back, I wonder what would have happened if players didn’t organize and have a strong union behind them. We won free agency in an arbitration hearing, but it wasn’t concrete until the 1976 collective bargaining agreement was signed.

Free Agency:

Players qualify for free agency after six years of service. Players whose 1976 contracts were unilaterally renewed (not signed by the player) become free agents after the season. (This group consists of 39 players, including Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Ken Holtzman, Fred Lynn and Rollie Fingers.) Players with unsigned contracts for 1977 will become free agents after the 1977 season.

Players with multi-year contracts may become free agents at the end of the next regular season, if they choose not to sign. A player entering the free-agent pool may negotiate with no more than 12 clubs (13 in 1977), which must have acquired the right to negotiate with him by selecting him in the re-entry draft. Clubs are limited in the number of free agents they may sign, based on the number of players in the free agent pool. However, a club may sign as many free agents as it loses in any one season.

It’s December 14, 1979 now. Our agreement expires in 14 days, and I can’t help but wonder what the ’80s will be like.

Al Neal
Al Neal
Al Neal is an award-winning columnist at Grandstand Central writing on politics, labor relations, and the general rabble-rousing in professional sports. He spent a decade working in the trade union movement with various locals across the country and currently serves as Dir. of Education and Advocacy for the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society.


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