After having a season for the ages (still holds AL record for most wins and saves in the same season) with the Minnesota Twins going 17-5 with 20 saves and a 3.01 ERA in 167.2 innings, reliever Bill Campbell (Soup) becomes the first player in MLB to cash in on the new free-agent system. The reliever signs with the Red Sox for big money, a four-year deal for one-million dollars after being paid $23,000 by the Twins for the 1976 season. How did free agency come into play anyway?
The Reserve Clause, it doesn’t sound that bad, right? But what it really did was to tie a player to the ballclub that originally signed him for as long as the team wished to pay him for his services. It was a paragraph in each player’s contract that allowed a baseball team to keep him indefinitely until he was sold, traded or released. It was part of baseball’s antitrust exemption and allowed the team to renew his contract the following year even if the player refused to sign. The players insisted the renewal was good for one year; owners said it could be invoked indefinitely.
After the 1969 season, 14-year outfielder Curt Flood was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood appealed in vain to commissioner Bowie Kuhn to be declared a free agent, then sued for it, writing that he was not property to be bought and sold regardless of his wishes and that “any system that produces that result violates my basic right as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States.” On June 19, 1972, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 against him.
After the 1974 season Oakland A’s pitcher Catfish Hunter claimed that the Oakland A’s owner Charles O. Finley had violated a portion of his contract and an arbitrator agreed allowing Hunter to sign with any team of his choice and on December 31, 1974 signed a five-year $3.75 million contract with the New York Yankees. Those damn Yankees spent big money even back then.
Unhappy with their contracts, pitchers Andy Messersmith, 30, of the Dodgers and Dave McNally, 33, of the Expos played the 1975 without signing contracts and when the season ended they declared themselves free to sign with whom they pleased. A three-man panel made up of an owners representative, a players representative and an independent arbitrator, Peter Seitz heard the case. You can guess how the owners rep and players rep voted and then Seitz cast his vote in favor of the players making them free agents. The baseball owners quickly fired Peter Seitz and appealed their case in Federal Court but in February of 1976 they lost their appeal. In the spring of 1976 after instituting a spring training player lock-out the owners and players finally agreed on a free agency system. McNally never benefited from the system retiring from baseball before the 1976 season began but Messersmith signed a 3-year, $1.75 million contract that contained “renewal clauses after each season” and Braves owner Ted Turner stated that “Messersmith will never be traded, he will be a Brave as long as I am”. However; after two seasons in Atlanta where Messersmith put up a 16-15 record the Braves sold him to the New York Yankees who kept him for one year before releasing him, Messersmith with his tail between his legs returned to the Dodgers in 1979 but in August the Dodgers said they had seen enough and Messersmith’s big league career was history. I guess you can make a case that paying big bucks for multi-years to free agent pitchers didn’t work back then and seldom works now. Keep this in mind when you get after the Twins brain-trust to pay big money for a free agent pitcher.
Sports Illustrated did a rather lengthy piece about the 1976 MLB free agent class back in their April 16, 1990 issue called “the first to be free“.
Check out the other Twins events that occurred on November 6th in our Today in Twins History page.