|Tuesday, November 21
Updated: December 2, 5:03 PM ET
The early days of free agency
By Darren Rovell
Editor's note: This story originally appeared on ESPN.com on Nov. 21, 2000.
Twenty-five years ago, on a cold night in early November, Montreal Expos president John McHale called Dave McNally to tell the former Orioles great that he just happened to be in Billings, Montana. McHale invited McNally, who lived just minutes away, to stop by and have some lunch.
"Yeah, passing through Billings, Montana in November," laughed Dick Moss, who represented McNally and Andy Messersmith in their challenge of the reserve clause against baseball's owners that winter.
McNally, who for all intents and purposes was retired after leaving the Expos in midseason, couldn't turn down the meeting. He was one of two players who had played the 1975 season with an unsigned, renewed 1974 contract -- hoping to become free agents by virtue of a loophole in the reserve clause of the Uniform Player Contract.
McHale had an offer to make for his apparently useless pitcher, who had hurt his arm during the season and finished 3-6 with a 5.24 ERA. He offered McNally a $25,000 signing bonus and $125,000 if he made the team in 1976. The four-time 20-game winner had never seen a paycheck that big before.
And that wasn't all.
"The Expos were going to pay his family's expenses in Florida in the winter time and no matter how spring training turned out, he would get to keep the $25,000," said Marvin Miller, then the director of the Players Association.
Although McNally was retiring, Miller had asked him if he could add his name to the grievance filed by the Players Association on Messersmith's behalf. McNally consented. McHale, along with the rest of baseball's owners, understood the potential ramifications of the demise of the reserve clause. He was hoping to sign McNally and get his name off the grievance for the upcoming arbitration hearing.
And perhaps, if the Los Angeles Dodgers could finally sign Messersmith, the grievance would never go to arbitrator Peter Seitz.
Messersmith was the real case, as he was the prized commodity after winning 19 games in 1975. A feud with the Dodgers over a no-trade clause in his contract made him go the whole season without signing.
"The Dodgers, in fact, finally offered Messersmith what had been the bone of contention -- the no-trade clause," said Moss. "But at that point it was too late and Andy was committed to going through with this."
After Catfish Hunter became the first free agent by virtue of a voided contract after the 1974 season and signed a five-year, $3.5 million contract with the New York Yankees, most of the players were aware that the Messersmith-McNally case was a big deal for their future.
"People knew that if the players had the option to become free agents under their own volition that it would be a good bargaining position," said Moss, who left the Players Association in 1977 to become an agent. "The players understood that and they were solidly behind that with a few exceptions. There were two or three players who thought that the owners were propagandizing and this was going to ruin baseball. One of them (Davey Lopes) happened to be a teammate of Andy's who thought that Andy was just doing a terrible thing."
In an incredible act of unselfishness, McNally denied McHale's $25,000 signing offer, which would have been worth well over $100,000 today. Messersmith-McNally went to arbitration and Seitz ruled in their favor. Free agency was alive.
"The difference between winning and losing in the Messersmith case from the standpoint of the players could be expressed in billions and billions of dollars," said Moss. Then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn called the decision "a disaster for the great majority of the players, for the clubs and most of all for the fans."
Heading to the market
Bobby Grich and Joe Rudi were part of that group. Grich became a free agent by passing on a five-year contract with the Orioles. As for Rudi, an All-Star outfielder with the Oakland A's, he wasn't quite sure what was going on.
"There were about 10 of us that were free agents (on the A's) -- me, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Mike Torrez, Don Baylor, Ray Fosse, Gene Tenace, Bert Campaneris, Rollie Fingers and Sal Bando," he said. "We were all scared to death because we obviously knew about the Messersmith-McNally ruling, but we thought that if we became free agents the owners were going to step in to stop the loophole or we would somehow be blackballed. (A's owner Charlie) Finley basically sent us all the same contracts as the previous season and by law we were required to send them back. Me and my agent, Jerry Kapstein, requested $133,000 a year and Finley never got back to me -- or any one on the team for that matter."
All played without signing new contracts. In June, Finley tried to sell Fingers and Rudi to the Red Sox for $1 million each, but Kuhn vetoed the deal.
It was pure chaos. Wanting to ensure that he could get a fair deal following the season, Rudi had to be extremely careful about when and where he talked about free agency.
"It was excruciating because we had no idea what was going to happen," he says now. "Jerry made sure we didn't talk to anybody. I didn't return calls from any writers and I had to leave my house and call him back on a pay phone to discuss details because we were worried about the owners. Several times, I would hear my voice echoing on the line and maybe it was my imagination, but the owners could have been tapping the phones. They had all the access to the former FBI guys that followed us around making sure we weren't hanging out in the wrong places like in mafia-controlled restaurants."
After the 1976 season, Rudi and Baylor signed with the California Angels, where they teamed with Grich.
"It was exciting," said Grich. "I knew that it was history in the making and I became close with Joe and Don. We were the three free agents that went to Anaheim and we were like the three musketeers."
Grich said he made $180,000 in 1977, up from the $85,000 the Orioles paid him in 1976. Although the three were star players, Grich felt like the free agents were treated differently.
"It wasn't spoken, but there was a definite sense of resentment by the other players, in that it wasn't them," he said. "On the other hand, you also had a sense that they were grateful that somebody did it and opened the opportunities for them in the future."
Rudi said that Finley did as much as he could to make his life miserable after his departure from Oakland.
"Charlie obviously had a vendetta against us and wanted to get the fans on his side. So he disclosed all the salaries," Rudi said. "He released that I got $2 million as a free agent and that turned the fans against me. I was instantly worried about my wife and family. Finley told the press and the fans that we were greedy and it was as if we were making 10 gazillion dollars. In 1977, we had people behind the dugout and in the stands screaming all this terrible stuff at us and it basically followed us everywhere we went."
Grich and Rudi, two of the original class of free agents, can't believe what free agency means today.
"I had to scratch my head in disbelief when I heard $20 million (for Alex Rodriguez)," Grich said. "It's unbelievable. But what amazes me most is that the owners are making enough money to support (paying those salaries)."
"The numbers are mindboggling," Rudi said. "But baseball is an entertainment business. There weren't a lot of people squealing and protesting when Barbra Steisand made $20 million in one night. The owners aren't dumb, they are willing to pay and although they say they are losing money, they are smart businessmen."
Dick Moss estimates that one-third of today's players wouldn't know of Marvin Miller, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith. Grich said that's a shame. "Curt Flood, Marvin, Messersmith and McNally should be as much of a part of their baseball life as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are to American life."
Darren Rovell covers the business of sports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.