When Major League Baseball Players Association president Marvin Miller was negotiating with major league owners at the dawn of free agency in the mid 1970s, he knew something that many of the myopic owners failed to grasp.
Miller wanted free agency for players—but not all at once.
The Athletics’ Charlie Finley was the lone owner who seemed to grasp the concept. He proposed that all major league players be granted free agency annually. That was Miller’s nightmare scenario. Free agency would unleash salaries for players who had long been hamstrung by the reserve clause that bound players to teams in perpetuity. But total free agency would flood the market, crushing players’ earning potential.
As the book “Lords of the Realm” explained, the MLBPA would have a hard time turning down complete free agency if it were offered, since they had just spent years in the courts trying to earn players their freedom.
Because it was Finley, who was seen as a renegade by other Major League Baseball owners, the rest of the owners disregarded his idea and instead proposed free agency after 10 years. Miller’s nightmare was avoided. Eventually, the two sides agreed to free agency after six seasons in the majors. And salaries, as Miller expected, began to soar.
Miller’s nightmare is likely to become reality—to some extent—this offseason. Free agents are going to flood the market like never before. The pandemic has sped up many of the trends that were already underway. The reasonably well-paid MLB veteran is becoming an endangered species. And with many teams trying to cut payroll, there will be few teams looking for bargains.
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