The baseball world changed dramatically in 1975 in one of the most significant ways in its history. The change to Free-Agency (allowing a player to move from team to team after a season) in baseball was important as it gave the players in baseball more power than the teams.
The history of free agency is almost as old as professional baseball itself. By 1879, National League baseball team owners had a problem creating profit. Competition for the best players drove prices for those players up and expenses kept increasing. In order to drive down costs, owners needed to reduce the competition for players. So on 29 September, 1879, owners met in Buffalo, New York, where they decided to create a rule where five players are reserved by a team - usually the best five - and it was decided that other teams could not attempt to sign one of these five. The players were not initially bothered by this - being on the reserve list meant that you were a good player, that you were bound to your team was an afterthought.
This number increased to 11 players when the American Association and the National League merged in 1883. In 1886, each team could have 12 players on reserve and up to 14 in 1887.
Later in 1887, the 'Reserve Clause' became a standard part of every player's contract. The clause basically said that every player was property of their team for life and could not leave the team unless they chose to release, sell or trade that player (and his contract). The clause further stated that a team could renew a contract even if the player would not sign it.
This clause caused some anger amongst the players. John Montgomery Ward, president of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players wrote:
Like a fugitive slave law, the reserve rule denies him a harbour or a livelihood, and carries him back, bound and shackled, to the club from which he attempted to escape.
This clause was, in fact, illegal. The clause was in violation of the US Constitution 13th Amendment, which prohibited 'involuntary service' - the amendment to ban slavery. Several judges chose not to uphold several baseball contracts because of the Reserve Clause. However, the Reserve Clause managed to stay in the standard contract for nearly a century because no player was bold enough to strongly challenge it and baseball managers and owners resisted any such challenge.
1970 - The Curt Flood Decision
The first real challenge to the Reserve Clause was in 1969 - the Curt Flood Case. Flood was a player for the St Louis Cardinals for 12 years, winning seven Golden-Gloves and three appearances in the All-Star game. He was in fact a terrific player, but he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969 - something he didn't want to do. He didn't show up to play for the Phillies, so he sought legal action against Major League Baseball on 16 January, 1970.
The case went to the US Supreme Court, where Flood argued against the Reserve Clause based on the 13th Amendment and Major League owners argued that this was not a matter for the court, rather a collective bargaining issue. The Baseball Owners won the case in a five-three decision on 18 June, 1972, saying that the sport should simply stay the way that it was. They basically ruled in favour of tradition.
1975 - Challenge from Messersmith and McNally
Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were pitchers for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Montreal Expos respectively. They did not sign a contract to play for the 1975 season - the previous one simply carried on. They argued that since they did not sign a contract that year, the Reserve Clause could not be used to hold them to one team.
A three man panel heard this case, made up of a representative for the owners, a representative for the players and led by Peter Seitz - who was independent. Of course, the players representative voted for Messersmith and McNally to become free agents, and the owner representative voted against this. Peter Seitz voted that the two pitchers should be free agents as well on 23 December, 1975. He was immediately fired by the owners.
Of course, the baseball owners couldn't leave the situation the way it was. They took it to a federal court. However, that judge agreed with Seitz and free agency was born! Several appeals ended the same way. The owners were forced to create a new system. A new Basic Agreement was signed in July 1976 which basically ended the years of the Reserve Clause and began Free-Agency.
This change was not necessarily for the better, though. It was for the better of the players, who got to choose where they would play, and their pay. Free agents could choose to stay with their team, renegotiate their contract and sign a better deal with another team. It was much worse for the owners, however, who had to pay large contracts to keep good players, and often lost their best players to other teams. They lost their control.
The question of whether this was better for the fans is a matter of opinion. It drove up the costs of running a baseball club, which would be paid by the fans. It ruined some of the tradition and the intrigue of great trades.
It was a turning point for baseball, in many ways.