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The History of Free Agency in Major League Baseball

The History of Free Agency in Major League Baseball

The professional sporting world’s labor policy differs from most occupations in the United States. Most jobs allow employees to take any job they seek, while employers can terminate someone at will, assuming it is within their legal right. In baseball, it’s a different ballgame. Let’s look at the history of free agency in Major League Baseball and see the path required to allow players to make a quarter of a billion dollars.


The Curse of the Reserve Clause

Since the beginning of Major League Baseball, players have tried their best to protect their rights, lessening the owners’ stranglehold over their services. In 1890, disgruntled players left the National League to create a player’s union and subsequent league known as the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players. The idea was to distribute all the profits to the league players evenly. Unfortunately, the profits were non-existent, leading to the league folding after a year.


Other than that moment during the Gilded Age, players had little say over where they were going and how much they would earn. Professional baseball clubs started including the “reserve clause” in their contracts.


After that, every contract included a condition allowing the team the choice to extend the deal for an additional year of similar pay. The system ran indefinitely. Teams could sell or exchange the player’s contractual rights without the player’s participation. The player’s sole option was to decline to play since they were otherwise helpless. That all changed when Marvin Miller came to the rescue.


Marvin Miller’s Seismic Impact

Marvin Miller may not have ever swung a bat on a baseball diamond, but his impact on the game is on par with Babe Ruth. Miller was an elite labor negotiator for the United Steelworkers, helping him land the gig of the president of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).


Miller’s most significant achievement was abolishing the long-standing reserve provision in players’ contracts that left them without bargaining power. This landmark change made free agency possible, allowing players whose contracts expired to explore their options.


It’s impossible to explain the importance of the arrival of free agency on the annals of professional sports. It irrevocably transformed the character of management-player interactions to something approximating an equal partnership.


While paling in comparison to the greatest historic labor movement milestones, establishing free agency on such a large platform and with such a well-appreciated workforce was still one of the most significant wins for workers in the second half of the twentieth century.


Miller had a hand in three player strikes, including the one in 1981 that gave baseball a bizarre period of split-season standings that left the team with the best overall record (Cincinnati Reds) out of the playoffs.


After two attempts to get Miller into the Hall of Fame in 1982 and 2001, Miller posthumously got the recognition he deserved, immortalized in Cooperstown alongside the hundreds of players he helped to maximize their earning potential.


Curt Flood Puts His Foot Down

We’ve seen NFL Draft picks like John Elway and Eli Manning refusing to sign with the teams that would have drafted them. But those quarterbacks may not have had the option to try such a bold maneuver if it wasn’t for Curt Flood standing up for player’s rights.


Flood was the Robin to Lou Brock’s Batman for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1969. The outfielder was a solid hitter and fielder that many teams would want on their roster, which led to his inclusion in a trade that would have brought slugger Richie Allen to the Redbirds from the Phillies. Hundreds of thousands of trades have been made in the game before 1969, requiring players to uproot their lives and go to a city or team they are adamantly against.


Flood was against the preconceived belief of having to join his new team at the ownership’s discretion, refusing to go to a team that lost 99 games and a city that, at the time, had a bad reputation for treating African American ballplayers. But because of that pesky reserve clause in contracts, Flood didn’t have any legal standing to stay in St. Louis.


Flood’s only option was to refuse his $100,000 salary and sit out the season, which he planned on doing until Marvin Miller came to his aid. Miller obtained the union’s support, financed Flood’s legal bills, and persuaded former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and prominent labor lawyer Arthur Goldberg to present the issue before the Supreme Court.


Thanks to the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, Flood, and his team argued that it was a part of involuntary servitude. Sadly, by a vote of 5-3, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of MLB, claiming that Supreme Court didn’t want a hand in America’s Pastime. Flood sat out the entirety of the 1970 season, ultimately finishing his career playing 13 games for the Washington Senators in 1971. At only 33 years old, it appeared the game banned Flood from ever suiting up for another MLB team again.


Andy Messersmith & Dave McNally Test the Waters

Although Flood’s battle with baseball and the courts didn’t go his way, it built the foundation for future change. After the 1974 season, Dodgers standout pitcher Andy Messersmith requested a no-trade provision in his contract from club owner Walter O’Malley, but O’Malley declined. As a result, Messersmith failed to sign a new contract and pitched the 1975 season under the automatically extended contract. Miller intended to use Messersmith and fellow pitcher Dave McNally as a case study for the reserve clause.


The arbitrator, Peter Seitz, agreed with the union’s view of the reserve condition, ruling that playing for a year without a new contract would allow them to become a free agent. The federal courts agreed with Seitz’s judgment, and the league, fearing what could happen if all players could bargain for themselves, signed a contract with the union that created the foundation for present labor relations.


Without Miller’s works and Flood’s courage, today’s players might not be signing these record-breaking contracts. Aaron Judge’s ability to get a deal for $360 million for over nine years is a testament to the sport’s progress. The history of free agency in Major League Baseball is more convoluted than the other major sports. Some teams still stash the money they receive from revenue sharing and manipulate a player’s service time to prevent them from becoming a free agent sooner, but the players are in much better shape than they were decades ago.


After the dust has settled during the 2022 free agency period, Pregame is here to help you with MLB expert picks to provide winners all season long. Take advice from the pros for finding a World Series dark horse and unlikely MVP candidates!

The History of Free Agency in Major League Baseball

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