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Sport Sections
Wednesday, November 22
The decision that changed the game

Bud Selig remembers having the news delivered by phone in his old office at County Stadium.

Gene Orza recalls reading the verdict in the newspaper before heading off to work at the National Labor Relations Board.

John Schuerholz can still picture himself sitting in a court room in Kansas City, listening to the arguments in a case that would change his life and his sport forever.


It is 25 years ago this month since arbitrator Peter Seitz began hearing the case that would go down as one of America's most revolutionary acts since the Boston Tea Party.


As we look back now, a quarter-century later, on this landmark decision that turned two veteran pitchers into free agents, it seems more momentous than the Beatles visiting Ed Sullivan. But at the time, back in the offseason of 1975, we could probably sum up the feelings of the moment in two words:

Who knew?

Bringing in the bucks
Since Andy Messersmith was declared a free agent after the 1975 season, here are the free agents who secured the largest contracts each offseason (total dollar amount, not season average):

1976: Messersmith, Braves, 3 years/$1 million
1977: Reggie Jackson, Yankees, 5 years/$3 million
1978: Larry Hisle, Brewers, 6 years/$3,155,000
1979: Pete Rose, Phillies, 4 years/$3,225,000
1980: Nolan Ryan, Astros, 4 years/$4,500,000
1981: Dave Winfield, Yankees, 10 years/~$21 million (exact amount dependent on size of cost-of-living increases)
1982: Ron Guidry, Yankees, 5 years/$5 million
1983: Steve Garvey, Padres, 5 years/$6.6 million plus incentives
1984: Rich Gossage, Padres, 5 years/$6.25 million
1985: Bruce Sutter, Braves, 6 years/$10 million
1986-88: collusion -- no true market for free agents
1989: Bruce Hurst, Padres, 3 years/$4.89 million
1990: Mark Langston, Angels, 5 years/$16 million
1991: Darryl Strawberry, Dodgers, 5 years/$20.25 million
1992: Bobby Bonilla, Mets, 5 years/$29 million
1993: Barry Bonds, Giants, 6 years/$43.75 million
1994: Matt Williams, Giants, 5 years/$30.75 million
1995: Labor dispute effectively gutted FA market
1996: Ron Gant, Cardinals, 5 years/$25 million
1997: Albert Belle, White Sox, 5 years/$55 million
1998: Mike Piazza, Mets, 7 years/$91 million
1999: Kevin Brown, Dodgers, 7 years/$105 million
2000: Greg Vaughn, Devil Rays, 4 years, $34 million
-- Compiled by Doug Pappas, SABR

"I don't think anybody did," says Selig, who was then the low-profile president of the Milwaukee Brewers. "Clearly, we knew we were witnessing something that would change forever the way baseball was operated. But did anybody really understand all the consequences? I don't think anybody did -- on either side."

Oh, let's not imply that even then, this was some minor story, stuffed into the back pages of the sports section under the field-hockey scores.

It was big enough that ever-benevolent commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered Seitz to be canned on the spot.

It was big enough to provoke a spring-training lockout a few months later.

It was big enough that a 35-year-old farm director in Kansas City named John Schuerholz often wandered over to the courtroom to listen to the testimony, "just because this was a compelling matter for our industry, and I was a young guy in the business, and I was interested."

But could anyone have foreseen then that 25 years later, we would live in a world of $60 box seats and $100-million payrolls and $200-million shortstops?

Maybe if they'd been hanging out with the Amazing Kreskin. But not if they'd been hanging out around any batting cages.

And Messersmith-McNally was the lynch pin of it all.

"A lot of attention has been given to the Curt Flood case, but in my opinion, not enough has been given to Messersmith-McNally, " says John Helyar, author of "Lord of the Realms," the most compelling book on baseball's crazed economic history ever written. "That was the case that broke down the wall. And players have been stampeding through it ever since."

Flood was the first to challenge the reserve system in court. Catfish Hunter was the first true free agent of modern times. But it was Messersmith-McNally that really led to free agency in the form we know it today.

You can bet A-Rod's thank-you note will be in the mail any minute now.

How did free agency change baseball? In more ways than you might think. And, contrary to public opinion in places like Minnesota and Selig's living room, it has changed this sport more for better than for worse.

Suppose it had never happened
Could we even envision life in baseball -- in any sport -- without free agency? Could we even try?

Even men in management -- men who probably would love to roll the clock back to a world with no free agents -- can't program their imaginations to work that vividly.

"There's no way to know what life might be like," says Selig. "You can never know. We operate in a whole different world. The manifestations are so enormous, so complex, so numerous, that there's no sense in even trying to comprehend our world without them."

"I don't know how anyone could comprehend it," says Schuerholz, whose seniority as a general manager (19 years in Atlanta and Kansas City) ranks only behind Pat Gillick's. "We've been in this system so long that life before it is just a distant, faint and dusty old memory."

How faint? How dusty?

The year was 1975.

Carlton Fisk's homer had just finished curling around the foul pole.
Jim Palmer, in his 10th season with Baltimore, was collecting his second Cy Young award.
Pete Rose, in his 12th season with Cincinnati, had blown away everyone in the major leagues in hits (215) and runs (130).
Bob Gibson, staggering through his 17th season with St. Louis, had given up a September grand slam to Pete LaCock, walked off the mound and called it a career.
The average major-league baseball player made $44,676.
The minimum salary was $16,000.
The highest-paid player in the land was Carfish Hunter, at a shocking $640,000 a year.
Baseball's national TV contract paid the entire sport $17.5 million a season.
And local TV revenue averaged $1.3 million per team. (The Yankees now take in nearly twice that much per week.)

Could we ever go back to that world?

"The people who criticize free agency so easily today don't realize how bad baseball was 25 years ago," says long-time agent Tom Reich.

Could the long-defunct reserve clause even work here in the next millennium, with 30 teams, with 750 active major-league players, with a society dominated by such an instant-gratification mind set?

Oh, it's possible. But only in about the same way that travel in covered wagons would work. "The thing people have to understand about the reserve clause is that the number of teams affected by the reserve system is directly proportionate to its evil," says Orza, who left that job with the NLRB 16 years ago to become one of the guiding forces in the Players Association. "In 1876, when it was just eight guys in a smoke-filled room, it was not a big deal. A hundred and 24 years later, with 30 teams, it would be evil in every way.

"The fact is that free agency liberated the clubs from their bargain with the devil -- which was the reserve clause. If you have 30 teams and the 12th-best second baseman in baseball goes down, the only guy you could replace him with under the reserve system is the 31st-best second baseman. But with free agency, maybe you could replace him with the ninth-best, or the fourth-best, or even the best."

For those who would like to live in that 1975 universe again, we just want you to think about that. Say the Mets lose Rey Ordonez. To replace him, they can only hope to buy a shortstop from the St. Paul Saints or maybe trade for a second-tier player from another team. That would be their choice under the reserve system.

Or they can trade for All-Star shortstop -- and impending free agent -- Mike Bordick. That was their choice this July.

They were able to make a choice that helped get them into the World Series. So maybe this system isn't as disastrous as its critics sometimes make it out to be.

Taking care of business
There is a simple way to look at free agency and all it has wrought. And there is a not-so-simple way.

The simple way is to sing a song all fans know by heart by now:

Money-money-money-money. Those players make too much XBLPTMNXG-ing money.

Yeah, fine. Sure they do. Messersmith-McNally helped the free-agent train pull out of the station. The arbitration car then got hooked to the caboose. And salaries got kind of nuts. Who doesn't know that?

But as in all things, it isn't that simple.

"It was free agency that really made baseball a business," Helyar says. "Since they had to start paying players market rates, they had to go out and generate more revenue and market the game better. Before 1975, most clubs, other than Bill Veeck, didn't do that. It was only after '75 that they got sophisticated about selling season tickets and selling TV rights and marketing themselves.

"So it's easy to say, 'Look, the average salary went from about $50,000 to almost $2 million, and isn't that terrible.' But people never pay attention to the revenue side of the business. And free agency changed that whole side of it."

It's amazing how many people look back on 1975 as the peak of baseball's glory days. But that myth goes up in flames if you merely study a barometer as basic as attendance. And a look at attendance in the 1975 season is a jolt to anyone who has come to consider 3 million fans to be almost routine for a good team.

  • In 1975, attendance for the entire sport -- 24 teams -- was 29,789, 913. So your typical team averaged 1.24 million fans. Which means, essentially, everyone was the Marlins.

  • No team in the American League drew 2 million. And only the first-place Red Sox even topped 1.3 million.

  • In the National League, only the Dodgers (2.5 million) and Big Red Machinists (2.3 million) drew 2 million.

  • Those two lowly have-nots, the Braves (534,672) and Giants (522,919), barely drew a million customers between them.

  • Seven teams in all drew under 1 million.

  • The Yankees (1,288,048) had almost the same attendance as the Padres (1,281,747).

  • And the only team to sell out every one of its postseason games was the Red Sox. The A's, Reds and Pirates all had empty seats for at least one playoff game.

    That was baseball in 1975.

    Now this is baseball in the year 2000:

  • Average attendance of your typical team was 2.4 million -- a figure that would practically have led the major leagues 25 years ago.

  • Only three teams drew under 1.5 million -- the Expos (926,263), Twins (1,059,715) and Marlins (1,218,326).

  • Nine teams attracted over 3 million -- the Indians, Cardinals, Orioles, Rockies, Braves, Yankees, Mariners, Astros and Dodgers.

  • The Giants and Indians sold out every game. Four other teams averaged more than 40,000 a game.

  • The last-place Cubs and last-place Rangers each drew about 2.8 million.

  • There were 31 postseason games in October, and just two were played in front of empty seats -- both affected by the Jewish High Holy Days.

    That is how far baseball has come since free agency became a way of life.

    Selig, not surprisingly, doesn't want to give all the credit to Messersmith, McNally, Marvin Miller and those desperate marketing departments that were trying to figure out a way to pay for Kevin Brown's chartered jets.

    "I don't know that we can really say that that's the thing that made it," the commish ruminated. "Is it that? Or is it new stadiums, new markets, a series of factors? There's no question baseball is far more aggressive (in sales and marketing) than it's ever been. But I don't think you can simply attribute that to free agency."

    And we'll buy that. Nothing about modern baseball is as simple as it looks. But the dawn of free agency was a clear turning point -- and not just for reasons related to paying the bills.

    Jayson Stark is a Senior Writer at ESPN.com.

    The Decision: Part II

    The Decision: Part III

    The early days of free agency

    Free agency: How it happened

    Jayson Stark archive