The future of free agency in Major League Baseball
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Baseball’s spring training has started and there is already a serious controversy underway in “America’s pastime.” A long list of well-known baseball superstars have found themselves sitting on the sidelines, not picked up by any team. This is not the result of the sort of political exile that we have seen in the case of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49er quarterback who was blatantly ignored by the NFL owners due to his courageous stand against police misconduct. What appears to be underway is an effort to undermine the “free agent” system.
For most of the 20th century, Major League Baseball had a system known as the “reserve clause.” In effect a team owned a player for as long as they cared to hold onto them. Players, once under contract, remained obliged to that team and could be traded at any time without their consent.
St. Louis Cardinal’s outfielder Curt Flood was to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969. Flood objected and refused to be traded. With the support of the Major League Baseball Players Association, under Executive Director Marvin Miller, Flood filed suit, ultimately ending in the US Supreme Court. Though the Supreme Court, in a very curious decision, upheld the reserve clause, the case weakened the position of the owners. In 1975, the Players Association was able to win “free agency,” whereby after a period of time, a player could bargain the best deal with any team interested in his services. As a result of the victory in free agency, the salaries of the players jumped dramatically.
Though the owners lost very little from free agency—with baseball earnings skyrocketing—they have never been comfortable with the players having that degree of freedom. Yet, over time they seemed to have been forced to accept the system.
Something looks to have changed and it is the subject of broad debate in and around baseball circles. The owners appear to be colluding in not offering contracts to many free agents. One argument that has been raised, most notably by political conservative and baseball aficionado George Will, is that it is all a simple matter of economics, i.e., that it takes six (6) years to become eligible for free agency; by that time many players have reached their peak; and the team owners would rather look for new blood.
While Will’s argument has a logic to it, the fact that this is happening to dozens of free agents should at least raise some eyebrows. Perhaps I am overly suspicious but my gut tells me that the owners are trying to pull a fast one.
This situation, which over the next several seasons could rise to the level of a crisis for the players, needs to be made into a crisis for the owners. If the owners are taking the position that they will seek the fountain of youth in baseball and forsake the experienced, albeit older, player, then just perhaps the length of time to achieve free agent status needs to be abbreviated. These players have invested far too much of their lives to simply be cast aside after they have proven themselves and their abilities.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the former president of TransAfrica Forum. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.