A recent spate of signings this spring continues a trend that began happening in baseball a few years ago. Young players are being signed in their second year in the big leagues to extended contracts. Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals and Evan Longoria of the Rays were two of the first to ink their name on a dotted line to what were deemed as team-friendly deals. On the other hand, the players signings voided any attempts at arbitration and extended the original five-year length of a major league contract. Recent signings have been by Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs and Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks. Both players knowingly signed their contracts to focus on just playing baseball. Rizzo signed for an additional 7 years and $41 million with escalators and incentives. Goldschmidt signed for five years and $32 million. While Rizzo’s contract was based on less than a 140 game sample, Goldschmidt had almost 2 years under his belt. For Goldschmidt, the signing bought him a release from the pressure and he is having an all-star type year as is Rizzo. But Goldschmidt has not put up these type of numbers before. Rizzo, meanwhile, is on page to hit 40 homers and drive in 110 runs. These players are just two players that might signal a death in free agency as we know it. The test will come when Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, who are both in their second year, either reach arbitration or ink similar type deals to keep the players in the fold during their peak years.
Free Agency began shortly after Curt Flood‘s ill-fated lawsuit against Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. However, shortly thereafter, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became the first free agents in 1975. At the time, the average salary for a professional baseball player was less than $30,000 a year. 4 years later, Nolan Ryan signed a 4 year $4.4 million contract with the Astros. One year later, Dave Winfield was making $2.5 million. By the end of the 1980s, Minnesota’s Kirby Puckett inked a 3 year $9 million contract.
The 1990s saw an unchecked growth in free agency and a rise in steroid use. I, for one, think the two go hand-in-hand as players looked for any advantage to get that big free agent deal. In 1996, Albert (aka Joey) Belle, signed a deal worth over $11 million a year with the White Sox. It took a while for the White Sox to get out from under the deal. On December 10, 2000, Alex Rodriguez signed a 10 year $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. That deal would be torn up in 2007 when he signed a new deal for pretty close to the same numbers with the Yankees.
In response, five events in the 2000s changed how baseball executives looked at free agency.
1. Steroids – The Mitchell Report (2007) took away any competitive edge steroid and amphetamine users had in the game. Now, if a players risked using them, they also risked suspension of major dollars. The heydays of the 1990s of McGwire, Sosa, and others grooving mammoth home runs was going to be over. There were now too many dollars at stake. Home runs plummeted after the Mitchell Report from a high of over 5600 in 2000 to a low 4552 in 2011.
2. Moneyball – In the early 2000s, the price of competition had created big market teams that could afford to go after high cost free agents and those that could not. Most notably, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane stood out by finding other ways to win by focusing on Sabermetrics like on base and slugging percentages taking on more value than batting average and runs batted in. The resulting book by Michael Lewis highilghted Beane’s methods in evaluating and drafting talent. For teams that did not have cathedrals for ballparks to bring in the much needed cash, Moneyball became another way to compete between the lines with the large market teams.
3. Youth Movement – In the wake of the Mitchell Report, the players got younger as youth was valued more and more. They had fresher legs after all and more strength. In the steroid era, it wasn’t unusual for a player to hit 40 homers at age 36. Alex Rodriguez is now that age, along with many other greats of the 2000s and they are now shells of the players they were in their prime. Steroids were not the only drug that shaped baseball. For years, amphetamines had just as much an influence in the game for players in a grinding 162 game schedule, especially for those who played day games after night games. The need for younger players who could sustain their strength through a season was needed. The Tampa Bay Rays (GM Andrew Friedman) and the Washington Nationals (GM Mike Rizzo) began the trend of signing players to keep them in their prime years (27-30 years of age). The Cubs recently have done the same with Stalin Castro in addition to Anthony Rizzo. For all three teams, they were trying to build teams by developing talent. For Friedman, signing Longoria was the foundation for the franchise as was Ryan Zimmerman for the Nationals. For the Cubs, they refer to the term “core pieces.”
4. The Market Changed – In recent years, many teams have begun to shy away from long-term free agent deals. When players hit free agency for the first time, they are usually in their late 20s. To sign them to a long-term deal is not seen as financially sound anymore. Case in point, Alfonso Soriano. His $18-19 million a year contract was seen as an albatross hanging over the franchise when Theo Epstein too over the team. Unexpectedly, Soriano was seen as not living up to his contract. Then last year, he slugged over 30 home runs and drove in 108 runs. Soriano’s contract with the Cubs has been up and down as has Alex Rodriquez’s when he has been healthy. Most General Managers now view a signing as paying for future performance.
In the past, while the GMs hoped they were paying for future performance, but in reality, the contract was roll of the dice. Today’s market signings lock up their “future” stars through their prime years and a little beyond. The two winters signing of Albert Pujols for ten years will test those “old” assumptions in the coming years. However, the signing of Josh Hamilton might be a new market force. Hamilton’s contract lasts only for five years but his production is already bringing that contract into question just based on the staggering amount of dollars involved even if only for five years.
5. The Branch Rickey Effect – Most people know Branch Rickey cemented his place in history by signing Jackie Robinson. What most people don’t know is that Rickey set up what is today the minor league system in the late 1920s. Rickey’s belief was that by using a farm system that developed players, a team could be competitive indefinitely. The St. Louis Cardinals have not deviated from that philosophy in the 80 years since.
In today’s market, that development of players now includes foreign markets in the Dominican, Japan, Korea, and Venezuela as well as others all over the world. Scouting, whether it be by sabermetrics or old school scouts, or as Cubs Pro Scouting Director Joe Bohringer calls for, a mixture of both, has taken on a new dimension of finding the latest talent at the cheapest price all over the globe. While Rickey did not mine Latin America for players as it is done today, his followers are doing so in his shadow of the minor league system. Why waste $250 million when you get the same production by investing a few million and develop that talent. In fact, for $250 million, you can get 50 or more players rather than just one player. In addition, teams are now pouring money into scouting as well as player development to avoid that large loss of production and dollars via free agency.
Free Agent Trends for the Future: Free Agency, most likely, is not dead. But it is changing. Role players are becoming more in demand. Specialists like a “loogy” (left handed reliever) garner more attention because they fit a certain niche. The team’s need is dictating what teams spend their dollars on. If they can bring up a player like the Orioles did with Manny Machado last fall, teams will. The Pujols, A-Rod, and Soriano contracts are warnings of the dangers of long-term contracts. As the dollars increase for free agents, some teams just will step out of the way, while other GMs and owners will step up, some foolishly. While the Rizzos and Goldschmidts contemplate their deals, for GMs, the contemplation is smaller and less risky.
In the end, I think Bryce Harper and Mike Trout will set the future role of free agency as they will reach the market at the ripe old ages of 25 and 26. They would still not have reached their prime years of 27-30. That, to me, is unfathomable what they could bring on the open market. Will they be the first $30 million a year players? On the other hand, they might be the outliers rather than the norm. Their GMs will do everything they can to not let them get to the open market.
When Derek Jeter reaches 3,000 hits in May or June of 2011, it will be something we, as a viewing public, might not see again in our lifetime. Today, one rarely sees a player play their entire professional sports career with one team. Player movement has been brisk since the mid 1970s. And, most likely, it will continue to be in the future. Although the 1969 court case of Curt Flood failed to win him his own freedom, Flood began a three year journey to escape from a contract that never set him free. The case, however, would pave the way for others to take their talents to the highest bidder.
Curt Flood signed with the Cincinnati Reds at the age of 18 in 1956. Two other players from his high school team would make it to the majors; Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. In those days, every player was a free agent to start their career. There was no amateur draft in 1956. Flood saw little action in the majors his first few years. In 1958, Flood was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. He was only 20 years old. The next few years saw Flood develop into a top flight defensive center fielder for the Cardinals. From 1963-1969, Flood won seven straight gold gloves for his defensive prowess and appeared in three all-star games. His hitting improved from year to year although he never did display much power in an era dominated by pitching.
1969 was a pivotal year for Flood. Flood was traded that winter to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood did want to report to the Phillies. Flood began to explore his options. Feeling like a slave tied to a contract that had expired, he felt he was free to go wherever he could ply his trade. Unfortunately, the Reserve Clause forbid it. The reserve clause, standard in sports contracts, stated upon the expiration of a contract the player had two choices:
1. Negotiate a contract for the same team
2. Ask to be released or traded
The Phillies did not wish to trade or release Flood. Instead, Flood wrote Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn the following letter:
December 24, 1969
After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.
Kuhn said no to Flood’s request. Flood sued Kuhn for his freedom. The case lasted three years. In 1970, Flood did not play for anyone. In 1971, Flood played his final season for the Washington Senators following a trade there. It was not a good one. The court case continued to its way through the court system. At the heart of the matter, Flood just wanted to do what average Americans could. Any employee could apply with another employer and find a new job elsewhere to improve wages, working conditions, or improve conditions for his/her family. The reserve clause prevented such freedom for athletes.
In 1972, the case made it to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Baseball and the commissioner. The court sided with the league’s anti-trust exemption. In a 5-3 vote, Flood was financially devastated. The case had taken most of his finances. He would struggle to make ends meet the rest of his life.
Despite Flood not gaining his own contractual freedom, he paved the way for many others. In 1975, less than three years later, a federal judge ruled that since two players, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, played without a contract for one year, they were free agents. And the era of free agency officially began. Flood’s case may have not benefited himself financially, but today’s athletes owe their millions to Curt Flood.
October 27, 1998
Today I am pleased to have signed into law S. 53, the “Curt Flood Act of 1998.” This legislation is the successful culmination of bipartisan efforts to treat employment matters with respect to Major League Baseball players under the antitrust laws in the same way such matters are treated for athletes in other professional sports.
It is especially fitting that this legislation honors a courageous baseball player and individual, the late Curt Flood, whose enormous talents on the baseball diamond were matched by his courage off the field. It was 29 years ago this month that Curt Flood refused a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. His bold stand set in motion the events that culminate in the bill I have signed into law.
The Act appropriately limits baseball’s special judicially created antitrust exemption by expressly applying the antitrust laws to certain conduct of Major League Baseball; the applicability of the antitrust laws with respect to all other conduct is unchanged. The Act in no way codifies or extends the baseball exemption and would not affect the applicability of those laws to certain matters that, it has been argued, the exemption would legitimately protect (including franchise relocation rules and the minor leagues).
The Act does not in any way limit the standing of the United States to bring an antitrust action. The antitrust laws protect the public’s interest in the efficient operation of the free market system, thereby protecting consumers, and the United States has standing to sue to enjoin all violations.
It is sound policy to treat the employment matters of Major League Baseball players under the antitrust laws in the same way such matters are treated for athletes in other professional sports.
William J. Clinton The White House, October 27, 1998
Alex Belth: STepping Up
Robert M. Goldman: One Man Out: Curt Flood versus Baseball
Brad Snyder: A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports
NO CHANGES NECESSARY, SAYS KUHN
Chicago Tribune; May 29, 1970
Supreme Court to Hear Flood’s Suit
Chicago Tribune; Oct 20, 1971
FLOOD TO SUE FOR RESERVE CLAUSE TEST
Chicago Tribune; Dec 30, 1969
U.S. Delays Decision in Flood Suit
Chicago Tribune ; Feb 4, 1970
Court Denies Flood’s Injunction Request
Chicago Tribune; Mar 5, 1970
U. S. Judge Rules Against Curt Flood
Chicago Tribune; Aug 13, 1970
Flood Case in Court
Chicago Tribune; Mar 21, 1972
Reconsidering Flood v. Kuhn; Ross, Stephen F.
For me personally, the 1970s saw some of the greatest baseball this country has ever seen. Two teams will go down in the pantheon of teams as some of the greatest of all-time. A rivalry born in the Bronx and Brooklyn is reborn in LA. Free agency began, Astro-Turf ruled, and some of the greatest October nights ever seen were witnessed by the world. For after this decade, baseball began to fade from the nation’s conscience. It would no longer be the same as it ever was in a world with more than three TV channels. It’s as if baseball reached its peak in this decade.
Being born in the 1960s gives you a unique perspective on a lot of things. You are old enough to remember the Beatles, a black and white TV world, and a much simpler life. When 1970 started, the Beatles were breaking up, Nixon was President, we had just put a man on the moon, and I still dreamed of playing second base for either the Baltimore Orioles or the Chicago Cubs. Ten years later the world was a much different place. The US was in a funk, John Lennon would be assassinated, cable TV was being installed everywhere, President Carter had scolded the American public on TV for being in a “malaise” and cynical, and baseball players now were free to go to the highest bidder…but Astro-Turf was still there – in fact, it was almost everywhere.
As for the 1970s making a case to be “The Golden Age of Baseball”, it all starts with stars. In the 1980s, David Stern and the NBA began marketing the league around its stars: Magic, Larry, and Michael (notice I had only had to say one name). Baseball had stars out the wazoo in the 1970s: Pete Rose, Vida Blue, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell, and the star of all stars – Reggie Jackson. People forget before Michael Jordan won 6 titles in 8 years that Reggie Jackson won 5 World Series in 7 years.
What 1970s baseball also had were some great teams. The Baltimore Orioles began the decade by winning with pitching and defense. As a kid I wanted to play for either the Cubs or the Orioles. No one could play defense like Brooks Robinson and the Orioles would be the last team to have four twenty game winners on one staff in a season – let alone in the entire league for a season. The four man rotation was nearing its end. The A’s would win three championships in a row. The Reds and Yankees both would win back to back while the Pirates would bookend their series victories in ’71 and ’79.
Rollie Fingers and writer Jerome Holtzman reshaped the game with the save. Rollie did so on the mound for the A’s while Jerome did so with his typewriter by creating the save statistic (which in my mind is the most over-rated stat in all of sports) . Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all time career home run mark and then soon called it a day a couple years later. I got to see Willie Mays in his last season play on a hot summer night in Busch Stadium.
If baseball was anything in the 1970s, it was a sport of extremes. A team’s offense depended on either speed or power. There was little in between. The playing surface dictated it. Astro-Turf began in the 60s in Houston and by the end of the 70s, half the teams in the National League had it.
Free agency had its roots with Curt Flood in the 1960s and it was fully born with Andy Messersmith in the 1970s. And in 1976, he became the first true free agent. The game would never be the same. Players would no longer play their entire careers for one team. They were now independent commodities in the business that had become baseball. In fact, having won three rings, A’s owner Charlie Finley began selling his players for money – some successfully, some not.
An argument can be made that what made the 1970s a “golden age” in the seventies would destroy it in the 1980s. The DH created two different brands of baseball. Astro-Turf created careers for the speedy and ground ball hitters while destroying the knees of so many others including the freak of an athlete, Andre Dawson.
In the end, the decade that had created such excitement destroyed the game. But what is undeniable were its stars and its teams. The 72-74 A’s were the greatest team I have ever seen. They had it all – the pitching of Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter, Reggie, the wizardry of Bert Campeneris, Joe Rudi, the man from nowhere, Gene Tenace, and former and future Cubs, Ken Holtzman and Manny Trillo. One could make the case for the Big Red Machine of 1975 and 1976, but I would probably rank them third behind the 27 Yankees and the 1972 A’s. The Reds’ pitching was just not that great. Don’t get me wrong – I loved Johnny Bench (the greatest catcher of all time), Tony Perez (somebody had to drive Joe and Pete in), and a man who should be in the hall despite all of Joe Morgan’s objections – Dave Concepcion.
Here’s the kicker for why this decade is the golden age. Despite Astro-Turf, cookie cooker stadiums, the DH, and free agency, its all about the players and the product on the field. Despte when, what on, and where it was it played, the players and teams of the 1970s were some of the greatest of all time.
For Further Reading
Golden Age of Baseball: The 1920s