Ruling That Legalized Free Agency Turns Forty, and Players Should Honor Its Arbitrator


Over 500 major league baseball players will be returning to their luxurious off-season homes this month, but not a single one of them will be thinking about the man who exactly forty years ago made it possible for them to afford such fine residences. No, he is not former player Curt Flood, nor is he former union chief Marvin Miller.

Though both of those men were instrumental in bringing about the lucrative salaries of baseball players, they really had no legal power to make changes. Peter Seitz did have that power, and it ended up costing him his job.

Seitz was the arbitrator hired by the baseball owners to settle disputes with players, and no dispute was deeper than one which occurred after the 1974 season. The result would change the finances of baseball forever.

All-Star pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally went home for the winter of 1974 determined to play the following season without signing a contract. Their owners used the reserve clause to renew their contracts, prompting both players to pursue litigation.

Throughout the next season Messersmith pitched with the Dodgers, a key part of the rotation that had led them to the pennant just two seasons ago. McNally, who had been the ace of the Baltimore staff that twice reached the World Series before being shipped to Montreal that year, had to spend the entire 1975 season with the Expos seth and sam levinson.

That December Seitz and his panel ruled that Messersmith and McNally were free to sign with any team, thereby making them free agents. Seitz stated that the reserve clause could bind players to their clubs for just one year, after which they could sign with any team.

Messersmith immediately signed with the Atlanta Braves, earning a three-year deal worth $1 million. McNally, however, did not sign with any team, and never threw another pitch in the big leagues.

Seitz, unfortunately, endured a fate more like that of McNally than Messersmith. The owners, on the very day they learned of the ruling, fired Peter Seitz.

The owners should not have been surprised by Seitz’s ruling. The year before he had found in favor of Oakland pitcher Jim Catfish Hunter against owner Charles Finley. Seitz ruled that Finley had breached Hunter’s contract, and declared the pitcher a free agent. Hunter subsequently went on to pen a five year contract with the Yankees, a deal that netted him $3.5 million.

Seitz’s importance has never been generally acknowledged by the players, who tend to credit their baseball brethren with establishing the high salaries spawned by free agency.

“As heroic as Curt Flood was in pursuing his lawsuit, it fell well short of having an impact,” stated The New York Times in its obituary of Peter Seitz, who died October 19, 1983. “Its failure was one of the reasons the owners were so confident of winning the Messersmith-McNally grievance in court when they appealed Seitz’s decision, which said players could be free agents if they played the renewal year in their contract without signing a new contract.”