Free Agent ERA 1972 - 1993

Free Agent ERA 1972 - 1993

Players bargained for the right to "free agency" after their sixth major league season; and, this resulted in increased player movement and skyrocketing player salaries. During this seventeen year era, fourteen different franchises won World Championships. On average, runs per game during this period rose back to the levels found during the Integration Era. At times, as many as one-third of the teams in the majors used artificial turf fields which lead to an increased emphasis on scoring via doubles, triples, and stolen bases (rather than a reliance mostly on the homerun). Starting pitchers completed their games 15% of the time.

From the time of the formation of the Major Leagues to the 1960s, when it came to the control of the game of baseball the team owners held the whip hand. After the so-called "Brotherhood Strike" of 1890 and the failure of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players and its Players National League, the owners control of the game seemed absolute. It lasted over 70 years despite a number of short-lived players organizations. In 1966, however, the players enlisted the help of labor union activist Marvin Miller to form the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). The same year, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale – both Cy Young Award winners for the Los Angeles Dodgers – refused to re-sign their contracts, and the era of the reserve clause, which held players to one team, was coming toward an end.

The Dodgers needed them if they were to have any chance of returning to the World Series in 1966. After negotiation for the first 32 days of spring training, they agreed on one-year contracts, Koufax for $125,000 and Drysdale for $110,000, The two largest contracts in baseball history. The owners were fearful that other star players would follow their example. 

Collective Bargaining Agreement

In 1968, new union leader Marvin Miller negotiated baseball's first Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with team owners. The owners wanted to prohibit players from holding joint negotiations. Miller was willing to agree if it also applied to the owners. The CBA states "Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs."

The first legal challenge came in 1970. Backed by the MLBPA, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood took the leagues to court to negate a player trade, citing the 13th Amendment and antitrust legislation. In 1972 he finally lost his case in the United States Supreme Court by a vote of 5 to 3, but gained large-scale public sympathy, and the damage had been done. The reserve clause survived, but it had been irrevocably weakened. In 1975 Andy Messersmith of the Dodgers and Dave McNally of the Montreal Expos played without contracts, and then declared themselves free agents in response to an arbitrator's ruling. Handcuffed by concessions made in the Flood case, the owners had no choice but to accept the collective bargaining package offered by the MLBPA, and the reserve clause was effectively ended, to be replaced by the current system of free-agency and arbitration.

Owners and players feud in the 1980s

All was not well with the game. The many contractual disputes between players and owners came to a head in 1981. Previous players' strikes (in 1972, 1973 and 1980) had been held in preseason, with only the 1972 stoppage – over benefits – causing disruption to the regular season from April 1 to April 13. Also, in 1976 the owners had locked the players out of Spring training in a dispute over free agency.

The crux of the 1981 dispute was about compensation for the loss of players to free agency. After losing a top-rank player in such a way the owners wanted a mid-rank player in return, the so-called sixteenth player (each club was allowed to protect 15 players from this rule). Losing lower rated free agents would have correspondingly smaller compensation. The players, only recently freed from the bondage of the reserve clause, found this unacceptable, and withdrew their labor,striking on June 12. Immediately, the U.S. Government National Labor Relations Board ruled that the owners had not been negotiating in good faith, and installed a federal mediator to reach a solution. Seven weeks and 713 games were lost in the middle of the season, before the owners backed down on July 31, settling for much lower ranked players as compensation. By then much of the season had been lost, and the season was continued as distinct halves starting August 9, with the playoffs reorganized to reflect this.


Baseball collusion refers to owners working together to avoid competitive bidding for player services or players jointly negotiating with team owners.

Collusion in baseball is formally defined in the Major League Baseball Collective Bargaining Agreement, which states "Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs." Major League Baseball went through a period of owner collusion during the off-seasons of 1985,1986, and 1987.

Historically, owner collusion was often referred to as a "gentleman’s agreement". After the 1918 season, owners released all their players – terminating the non-guaranteed contracts, with a "gentleman’s agreement" not to sign each other's players, as a means of forcing down player salaries.


Shortly after being elected commissioner, Peter Ueberroth addressed the owners at a meeting in St. Louis. Ueberroth called the owners "damned dumb" for being willing to lose millions of dollars in order to win a World Series. Later, at a separate meeting with the general managers in Tarpon Springs, Florida, Ueberroth said that it was "not smart" to sign long-term contracts. The message was obvious—hold down salaries by any means necessary. It later emerged that the owners agreed to keep contracts down to three years for position players and two for pitchers.

Collusion I

The free agent market following the 1985 season was different from any since the Seitz decision a decade earlier. Only 4 of the 35 free agents changed teams and those four were not wanted by their old team. Star players, such as Kirk Gibson, Tommy John and Phil Niekro, did not receive offers from other teams. The cover of the December 9, 1985 edition of Sporting News asked, "Why Won't Anyone Sign Kirk Gibson?" George Steinbrenner offered Carlton Fisk a contract, then withdrew the offer after getting a call from Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. Teams also reduced team rosters from 25 to 24 players.

By December, several agents complained to Major League Baseball Players Association president Donald Fehr. In February 1986, the MLBPA filed its first grievance (Collusion I).

Collusion II

The free agent market following the 1986 season was not much better for the players. Only four free agents switched teams. Andre Dawson took a pay cut and a one year contract to sign with the Chicago Cubs. Three fourths of the free agents signed one year contracts. Star players that ended up back with their old team included Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Ron Guidry, Rich Gedman, Bob Boone, and Doyle Alexander.

For the first time since the start of free agency, the average major league salary declined. The average free-agent salary dropped by 16 percent, while MLB reported revenues increasing by 15 percent. This prompted the MLBPA to file a second grievance (Collusion II) on February 18, 1987. Even as this was happening, Ueberroth ordered the owners to tell him personally if they planned to offer contracts longer than three years.

In the Collusion I case, arbitrator Thomas Roberts ruled that the owners had violated the basic agreement (September 1987).

[edit]Collusion III

After the ruling, the owners changed their tactic, but not their intent. They created an "information bank" to share information about what offers were being made to players. Players affected included Paul Molitor, Jack Clark, and Dennis Martinez. In January 1988 the MLBPA filed its third grievance (Collusion III).

On January 18, 1988, damages were announced in the Collusion I case. Roberts determined damages of $10.5 million should be paid by the owners to the players. Seven of the fourteen 1985 free agents were awarded a second chance as "new look" free agents. They could offer their services to any team without losing their existing contracts. On January 29, 1988, Kirk Gibson signed a $4.5 million, three year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In October 1989, arbitrator George Nicolau ruled that the owners had violated the basic agreement in Collusion II. Nicolau determined damages of $38 million. "New look" free agents included Ron Guidry, Bob Boone, Doyle Alexander, Willie Randolph, Brian Downing and Rich Gedman.

Collusion III damages were $64.5 million. Owners would also have to compensate for losses related to multi-year contracts and lost bonuses.

A final settlement of the three collusion cases was reached in November 1990. The owners agreed to pay the players $280 million, with the MLBPA deciding how to distribute the money to the damaged players.

At that time, then-commissioner Fay Vincent told the owners:

The single biggest reality you guys have to face up to is collusion. You stole $280 million from the players, and the players are unified to a man around that issue, because you got caught and many of you are still involved.

Miller largely agreed with Vincent's sentiments, saying Ueberroth and the owners' behavior was "tantamount to fixing, not just games, but entire pennant races, including all post-season series."

Later, Vincent would blame baseball's labor problems of the early 1990s, including the 1994-95 strike, on player anger at what he called the owners' theft from the players.

Collusion and expansion

In 2005, Vincent claimed that the owners used the majors' two rounds of expansion in the 1990s (which produced the Florida Marlins, Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays) in part to pay the damages from the collusion settlement.

Strike two (1994)

Labor relations were still strained. There had been a two-day strike in 1985 (over the division of television revenue money), and a 32-day spring training lockout in 1990 (again over salary structure and benefits). By far the worst action would come in 1994. The seeds were sown earlier: in 1992 the owners sought to renegotiate salary and free-agency terms, but little progress was made. The standoff continued until the beginning of 1994 when the existing agreement expired, with no agreement on what was to replace it. Adding to the problems was the perception that "small market" teams, such as the struggling Seattle Mariners could not compete with high spending teams such as those in New York or Los Angeles. Their plan was to institute TV revenue sharing to increase equity amongst the teams and impose a salary cap to keep expenditures down. Players felt that such a cap would reduce their potential earnings.

The players officially went on strike on August 12, 1994. In September 1994 Major League Baseball announced the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904.

Strike ends

On March 28, the players voted to return to work if a U.S. District Court judge supported the National Labor Relations Board's unfair labor practices complaint against the owners (which was filed on March 27). By a vote of 27–3, owners supported the use of replacement players. The strike ended when future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a preliminary injunction against the owners on March 31. On Sunday, April 2, 1995, the day before the season was scheduled to start, the 232 day long strike was finally over. Judge Sotomayor's decision received support from a panel of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which denied the owners' request to stay the ruling.


The 1995 season, which was revised to 144 games instead of the normal 162 (a decision that was made on March 26), began on April 24 under the conditions of the expired contract despite the lack of a collective bargaining agreement. The regular officials continued to be locked out until May 3.

By Tom Hannon

1972 Strike, 1981 Strike, 1994 Strike
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