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On This Date in Sports December 23, 1975: Born Free

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The free agency era is born, as an arbitrator named Peter Seitz ruled in favor of Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. Both Messersmith and McNally played the 1975 season without a new contract as their 1974 deals automatically renewed under the reserve clause. The players argued that they had the right to become free agents and sign with any team. The decision brought an end to the reserve clause as players whose deals expired were now free to sign with any team. 

For nearly 100 years, baseball players were seen as the property of the teams they played for. Enacted in 1879, the reserve clause stated that a player's contract would automatically renew each season as long as the club wanted him. This gave the player no say in how much money he would make. Teams could trade and sell the player at will, giving him no say in where he played. For years players tried to fight the reserve clause, even starting their own league in 1890. After the league failed, owners held a lock on labor relations that players were powerless to overturn. The founding of the American League shook things up in 1901, but after two years of bidding wars, the American League and National League agreed to co-exist and extend the reserve clause to both leagues. The Federal tried but failed as both the AL and NL teamed up to prevent the Fed League from ever getting longe term success.

Things began to shift in the 1960s as the Players' Association hired Marvin Miller to be their representative. In 1970 Curt Flood refused to accept a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Miller hoped to use the Flood case to end the reserve clause, arguing it was akin to slavery. Flood would lose his case as it reached the Supreme Court in 1972. However, the decision was wobbly, and the reserve clause was on shaky legs following the 5-3 decision by SCOTUS. 

A 1972 player's strike helped usher in the era of arbitration. No longer would players be forced to accept the terms of a new contract without any say. When players and owners had a dispute, the new deal would be decided by a neutral arbitrator. This would begin the road to free agency as it paved the way for Seitz to get involved. 

Before the 1975 season, Dave McNally was traded from the Baltimore Orioles to the Montreal Expos. He had played in Baltimore for 13 years. Upon arriving in Montreal, McNally's 1974 deal rolled over as he did not sign with the Expos. Unhappy in Montreal, Dave McNally retired in June, posting a 3-6 record with an ERA of 5.24. McNally had no intention of returning in 1976 but filed a grievance to help Andy Messersmith in his fight to be a free agent. 

The Sporting News. Getty Images.

After starting his career with the Califonia Angels, Andy Messersmith was in his third season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He had a strong season in 1974 and finished second in voting for the Cy Young behind teammate Mike Marshall. Messersmith was deeply offended by the Dodgers contract and refused to sign it. He continued to play and had another stellar season, with a 2.29 ERA, second-best in the National League. 

Since Messersmith and McNally never signed their 1975 contracts, they were both able to file a grievance to challenge the reserve clause. After an extensive series of hearings, Peter Seitz, an arbitrator hired by Major League Baseball, ruled in favor of the players. Seitz ruled that since they pitched a season beyond their contract, they were longer bonded to their teams and could sign anywhere they wanted.

The owners were unhappy and acted swiftly to fire Peter Seitz the following day. They tried to take to overturn the decision in court and brought it to the 8th Circuit Court of appeals but lost. Before the 1976 season began, the owners and players again squabbled over a new CBA. Knowing that the reserve clause was beaten grudgingly accepted free agency, the new deal set limits, and restrictions made a player a free agent for the first time after six years with his team. 

AP. Shutterstock Images.

Dave McNally did return in 1976 as he decided to stay retired. His role in the grievance helped keep the case open and prevented the Dodgers from a last-minute deal to buy out Andy Messersmith with a new contract. Messersmith benefited from free agency, signing a three-year deal with the Atlanta Braves worth $1 million.