A voice from the grave

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Still reading John Helyar’s awesome book, The Lords of the Realm.

In December of 1975, the arbitrator Peter Seitz presided over the historic hearing on the reserve-clause, the nearly century old section of every player’s contract that, the owners insisted, bound players to their teams in perpetuity.  Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, having played out their option years without contracts in 1975, were now “free agents,” according to Marvin Miller and the Players’ Association.

Testifying about the consequences of over-turning the reserve clause, then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn said, in part:

– that before the reserve clause, “the problems of integrity in the form of outright dishonesty by clubs and players alike was flagrant and there was no public confidence in the game.” The reserve clause was, therefore, the “cornerstone” of the game, the key to its stability and integrity.

(it’s worth noting that gambling/fixing and lack of public confidence in the game were rampant in the 1910s, decades after the establishment of the reserve clause and culminating, of course, in the Black Sox scandal of 1919).

– if the reserve clause were eliminated, warned Kuhn, “some of our clubs would not be able to survive it” and it would also mean the “elimination of any possibility that in the near term we could expand into cities that have much wanted baseball, the loss of minor leagues, if not all of them, most of them – and possibly the loss of a major league. I say that very carefully and thoughtfully to the chairman. I think the loss of a major league is quite possible.”

(In 1977, Major League Baseball expanded into Seattle and Toronto. It has since added four additional franchises. One team has moved in that time – Montreal, which left for Washington prior to the start of the 2005 season. No major leagues, as of this writing, have been lost. As for attendance, in 1976, the last year before the beginning of free agency, the 24 teams averaged about 1.3 million fans per season. In 2013, the 30 teams drew a combined 74 million fans, an average of almost 2.5 million fans per team per season, with vastly more games on television than had been the case in the 1970s. The Minor Leagues, combined, drew another 41 million fans last year. That is down from a peak of 51 million in 2007 and 2008).

Needless to say, though free agency has certainly entailed tradeoffs and complications, it did not result in the demise of baseball in America as a viable, popular and very lucrative industry.

Marvin Miller, the brilliant tactician who led the player’s association through the free agency fight, was regarded by many owners as a communist rabble-rouser, or un-American, or some such because – wait for it – he believed the players should have some freedom to sell their services to the highest bidder.

In that vein, I recommend Patrick Hruby’s latest column on the NCAA’s amicus brief in the Northwestern unionization case in which, among other things, the NCAA insists that the “collegiate model” (i.e., not paying players) is “uniquely American,” and necessary for the future of college athletics. The next time you hear the likes of Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney insist that schools such as the University of Michigan would sooner play football at the level that Bowdoin College does (i.e Division III), than countenance a meaningful change in the economic relationship between college athletes and their schools, it’s probably worth remembering Bowie Kuhn’s dire warnings about the impending doom that free agency would rain down upon our National Pastime.

By the way, under the likely terms of the new agreement with the Big Ten Network, the University of Michigan will soon be earning $45 million a year from that contract alone.

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