Thursday, April 11, 2013

April 11- Atlanta Braves

Interesting times we live in, especially in the baseball world. Just within the last two weeks we saw the likes of Buster Posey, Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright all signed to massive contract extensions in an effort to keep them happy and locked up with their respective teams. It’s hard to believe that less than 40 years ago this kind of practice was unheard of. Back in the old days the players had little to no say in contract negotiations, let alone the ability to go before an arbitrator. While the 1994 players strike played a significant role in the depletion of a majority of power for the owners, the real story dates back to December 23, 1975 with the “Seitz decision.”

The Seitz decision was a ruling by arbitrator Peter Seitz on December 23, 1975 which declared that Major League Baseball players became free agents upon playing one year for their team without a contract, effectively nullifying baseball's reserve clause. Since the 1880s, baseball owners had included a paragraph described as the reserve clause in every player contract. The paragraph as written allowed teams to renew a contract for a period of one year following the end of a signed contract. Owners asserted, and players assumed, that this contract language effectively meant that a player could be "reserved," by a ballclub's unilateral contract renewal, year after year in perpetuity by the team that had signed the player. This eliminated all market competition and kept salaries relatively low. MLB appealed the decision to the United States district court for Western Missouri, but Seitz's ruling was upheld on February 3, 1976 by Judge John Watkins Oliver, and later by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp. v. Major League Baseball Players Ass'n, 409 F. Supp. 233, 261 (W.D. Mo. 1976) aff'd, 532 F.2d 615 (8th Cir. 1976) After all appeals were exhausted, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association signed a new agreement in 1976 allowing players with six years experience to become free agents. – Wikipedia

I’m no fancy big city attorney, so I felt it was probably best to just cut and paste that little section as to not attempt to look like an egghead, say the wrong jargon and get trolled for the rest of my life. Fair? Cool! Former executive director of the MLB Players Association stepped into the picture back in 1966 after closely following the joint holdout of Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, two of the most dominant pitchers of the era and of all-time. Miller negotiated MLBPA's first collective bargaining agreement with the team owners in 1968. That agreement increased the minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000, the first increase in two decade. In 1970, Miller was able to get arbitration included in the collective bargaining agreement. Arbitration meant that disputes would be taken to an independent arbitrator to resolve the dispute. Previously disputes were taken to the Commissioner – hired by the owners – who generally ruled in favor of the owners. Miller considered arbitration the greatest achievement of the early years of the baseball union.

In 1974 Miller negotiated successfully with an arbitrator that then Oakland Athletics pitcher Catfish Hunter did not receive annuity payments from owner Charlie O. Finley, thus ensuring that Finley had broken his contract which then allowed Hunter to become a free agent. At the time this was a huge deal. Free agency was still not a real concept at the time due to the reserve clause, but this was a special case. Hunter signed a five-year, $3.5 million contract with the New York Yankees. Players throughout the league couldn’t believe how much money Hunter would be receiving, which ultimately led to a unanimous decision that free agency would be a great idea… on the players’ end that is. Miller needed a test case for free agency and found it with two players on one-year reserve clause contracts: Montreal Expos pitcher Dave McNally and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith. The deal was that if both players didn’t renegotiate with their respective teams they could file for arbitration and go where they please if they won. Technically; McNally's ’75 season ended early due to injuries and he returned home, intending to retire, but agreeing to players' union director Miller's request that he sign onto the Messersmith grievance in case Messersmith ended up signing a new deal with the Dodgers before the season ended.

"It was less of an economic issue at the time than a fight for the right to have control over your own destiny," Messersmith told The Sporting News, looking back on his decision a decade later. "It was a matter of being tired of going in to negotiate a contract and hearing the owners say, 'OK, here's what you're getting. Tough luck'."

Messersmith and McNally won their case before arbitrator Peter Seitz, who was fired by the owners the day afterward. McNally followed through on his intention to retire but Messersmith signed a three-year, $1 million deal with the Atlanta Braves. Among other things, then-Braves owner Ted Turner suggested the nickname "Channel" for Messersmith and jersey number 17, in order to promote the television station (TBS) that aired Braves games. Major League Baseball quickly nixed the idea.

The Braves cap I decided to write about today bears a lot of historical value. It was used from 1972-1980 as both their home and road cap. By far the most famous moment under this cap actually came three days ago on April 8, 1974 when Hall of Famer Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714.

To be honest, for years I never really put two-and-two together on how close in proximity that date and the one I’m writing about actually are; especially when adding on the fact that the same team is involved. I could argue that Aaron did change history in a batting helmet, but I won't. I guess before I leave you in the dark too much I should just tell you what it is…

4/10/76- I probably should have written about this moment on the actual date it took place; however, I felt that my post of Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard was too good and underappreciated of a story to pass up. Besides, I make my own rules. On April 10, 1976 the first “official” free agent signing took place between the Braves and Messersmith. One could argue that the contract Hunter signed in ’75 was the first, but I could easily argue that the parameters for why that went down really don’t apply based on the original contract being terminated due Finley’s violation. Messersmith on the other hand went about things in a proper, legal manner.

Some things that should be pointed out in regard to Messersmith are his accomplishments from 1974-1075 which proved even more that he was getting hosed by the Dodgers before opting for free agency. In ’74 Messersmith won a league-high 20 wins and only lost six games while carrying a 2.59 ERA under his belt. He even hit career-high in strikeouts with 221 and a league-best 1.098 WHIP which gave him a second place finish in the National League Cy Young vote (teammate Mike Marshall won) and a 16th place finish in the NL MVP vote. Messersmith made his second All-Star Game appearance that year and even won a Gold Glove. In 1975 Messersmith nearly duplicated his results with 19 wins, but 14 losses; however, he led the league in complete games with 19, shutout with seven and 321 2/3 innings pitched. That year he finished in fifth place for the NL Cy Young, 24th for the NL MVP, made his third All-Star Game appearance and won yet another Gold Glove… all without a contract.

When Messersmith signed on the dotted line the owners felt that this landmark deal would open up the floodgates and possibly bankrupt the teams or end baseball by allowing the players so much power to take of their money. This was obviously not the case. Miller, an economist by trade, knew better than to let one side have more power than the other. He understood that too many free agents could actually drive down player salaries. Miller agreed to limit free agency to players with more than six years of service, knowing that restricting the supply of labor would drive up salaries as owners bid for an annual, finite pool of free agents.

The rest of Messersmith’s career was a bit of a wash. He made his fourth and final All-Star Game appearance in 1976 with the Braves, but struggle living up to the agreements of his contract due to a serious of injuries that started back when he was with the Dodgers. He was sold to the Yankees after the 1977 season, having gone 16-15 in two seasons with the Braves, the second marred by injuries. The Yankees released him after an injury plagued 1978 season and he signed with the Dodgers. Ironically again, when the Dodgers signed him for that final go-round, they gave him the very thing their first refusal drove him toward testing and defeating the old reserve system in the first place: a no-trade clause. But the injuries and stress as the reserve clause's conqueror had taken too much toll; Messersmith pitched in only 11 games for the 1979 Dodgers, going 2-4 with a 4.90 ERA, and retired after the Dodgers released him.

While it may not seem that Messersmith faired well on a personal level due to his ordeal with the origin of free agency, the players who have followed in his footsteps have. Miller and Messersmith were pioneers within the sport, thus proving that the professional game certainly is a business. Today the players hold a little bit more clout than the owners, but as I mentioned above, most of that has to do with the rulings after the players’ strike of ’94 which left the game virtually crippled as far as attendance was concerned. With the new CBA in place, which allowed the 1995 season to get underway, it is highly unlikely that baseball will ever see a strike in my foreseeable lifetime. Thank God for that!


  1. I'd never even heard of the Seitz Decision until now. This is great stuff!

    1. Thanks Donny! There isn't a lot of information about Peter Seitz, but there is a lot of info about the case. It lasted 3 days and produced a manuscript over 840 pages in length. One of these days I'll go through the whole thing.

      Most of what I've researched over time has come as a result from watching Ken Burns' Baseball. Without it I highly doubt I would know or have such an interest in all of these stories.

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