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Bob Costas on Baseball Free Agency's Evolution

1975 An arbitration court ruling gives Major League Baseball players the right to shop their talents for the first time.

Late on the night of Oct. 21, 1975, one of the most iconic images in baseball history was captured: Carlton Fisk of the Boston Red Sox, desperately waving his arms, trying to will his long fly ball fair in the 12th inning of an epic Game 6 of the World Series at Fenway Park. It hit the foul pole and the Sox won, forcing a Game 7 the next night.

Yet that enduring moment was not the most defining baseball event of 1975. And not just because the following night Cincinnati, not Boston, won the World Series. The most significant moment of the baseball year came in December, in a decision from an arbitrator named Peter Seitz.

For years, Major League Baseball and its players’ union had fought over players’ desire to determine the teams for which they played. Led by the formidable Marvin Miller, the union’s head, and propelled by the courage of Curt Flood, an All-Star center fielder who had essentially walked away from the game a few years earlier rather than accept a trade, the players’ cause had been gaining steam. A few years earlier, a modest advance had earned them the right to have an independent arbitrator decide their grievances. In a case brought to that arbitrator in 1975, regarding the contracts of two pitchers, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, Seitz ruled that an arcane but critical section of the standard MLB player contract, the reserve clause, did not prevent Messersmith and McNally from leaving their clubs and signing deals elsewhere. With that, the era of free agency in baseball, and sports as a whole, began.

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At the time, many fans viewed this as heresy: greed, as opposed to the fundamental right to choose where one works. Then again, there was some justification for concern, because a league is not exactly like other businesses. It’s a venture in which competitors must also be partners, with common-sense rules in place to govern competition and promote an attractive overall product. If players kept hopping from city to city, there’d be no continuity. No perennial favorites to root for. No lasting connections. Worse yet—and for a long while this turned out to be true—the most coveted free agents would land disproportionately with the wealthiest teams, creating serious competitive balance issues. The players deserved their rights and the riches that came with them. But how to regulate it so that the sport would be as fair and appealing as possible?

Players and management battled for decades over what seemed irreconcilable interests. But in recent years their mutual interests have become clear. Baseball, which once regularly experienced strikes and lockouts, has not had a work stoppage in 20 years. Not coincidentally, revenues have grown astronomically. Revenue sharing, expansion of the playoffs, and more sophisticated team-building approaches have created greater competitive opportunity across the board. Without going to war, owners and players both have prospered to the greatest degree ever. Would you rather have 50 percent of billions of dollars or 60 percent of a significantly lesser sum? The enlightened answer is obvious.

Meanwhile, for the modern, knowledgeable fan, the game has greater intrigue than ever. It’s about what happens on the field, sure, but it’s also about the front office game, which once was checkers and now is chess. At last summer’s trade deadline, a fascinating flurry of deals for All-Stars showed how the business of the game has positively evolved. Not long ago, most of these midseason trades were salary dumps—byproducts of baseball’s small-market/big-market divide. Now, not so much. Instead, they’re part of the game’s compelling new narrative—one team gearing up for October, another retooling for the future—where the best teams skillfully manage the interplay among farm systems, trades, and, yes, free agency.

And freedom hasn’t completely destroyed the idea of the “identity player.” Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, Chipper Jones, and Derek Jeter all put together Hall of Fame careers for one franchise. Clayton Kershaw, Joe Mauer, Yadier Molina, and David Wright are among the big names headed down the same path. But there are superstars, such as Albert Pujols and Robinson Canó, who choose to move, just as another future Hall of Famer once did. Five years after hitting one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, Carlton Fisk became a free agent and left Boston to sign with the Chicago White Sox. He’d go on to make four All-Star teams in Chicago and have his number retired by both franchises.

So free agency didn’t mean the end of the world after all. It just made baseball fairer. And more interesting.

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