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Tracing free agency's beginnings
12/08/2004 11:17 PM ET
Now that another signing season is upon us, it seems a good time to review the history of free agency. On Dec. 23, 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz struck down the reserve clause, which had been in effect since 1897 and bound a player to one team, in perpetuity, unless he was traded, sold or released. If a player's contract had expired and he had at least six years of Major League experience prior to the 1977 season, he was eligible for free agency.

Initially, and for some years thereafter, there was a so-called free agent "re-entry draft." The first one was held on Nov. 4 in the Plaza Hotel in New York and limited to the 24 existing clubs (the new Seattle and Toronto expansion franchises were not allowed to participate). The clubs drafted in inverse order of the 1976 standings, at no cost, and selected negotiation rights to as many players as eligible. When a player was chosen by 12 clubs other than his own team, his name was removed from the list.

Twenty-four players took advantage of the new system. Frantic bidding followed. It was the beginning of the salary revolution. Record-setting multiyear contracts sent salaries soaring as never before. The average annual pay -- $51,501 in 1976 -- jumped to $76,066, a 42 percent increase. I have no record of all 24 free agents and how they fared, except it is known that 12 signed long-term multi-million-dollar deals.

Relief pitcher Bill Campbell, of the Minnesota Twins, who in the spring had been denied a $7,000 increase, was the first to make a new connection. He signed with the Red Sox for four years for $1 million, $250,000 a year, a bonanza considering that his 1976 wage was $23,000. This shouldn't be interpreted that all of the free agents were rewarded with 10 times their previous pay, but it did indicate a player's value in an open market and the clubs' willingness to unlock the vault. A complete list of the 12 new millionaires follows:

Player            Length       Total       New Team     
               of contract    package  

Reggie Jackson    5 yrs.    $3,000,000     Yankees
Joe Rudi          5 yrs.    $2,090,000     California 
Don Gullett       6 yrs.    $2,000,000     Yankees 
Gene Tenace       5 yrs.    $1,815,000     San Diego 
Bobby  Grich      5 yrs.    $1,750,000     California  
Rollie Fingers    6 yrs.    $1,600,000     San Diego 
Dave Cash         5 yrs.    $1,500,000     Montreal 
Sal Bando         5 yrs.    $1,400,000     Milwaukee 
Gary  Matthews    5 yrs.    $1,200,000     Atlanta 
Don  Baylor       6 yrs.    $1,020,000     California 
Bill Campbell     4 yrs.    $1,000,000     Boston 
Wayne Garland    10 yrs.    $1,000,000     Cleveland 
Gussie Busch, owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, groaned, "We have been kicked in the teeth." Busch insisted that half of the National League owners did not approve the free agency provision.

Oakland's Charley Finley was equally upset. "We've been hornswoggled," Finley declared. "It's our own fault and we're going to pay for it." Finley was the biggest loser. He lost six players, all front-liners. To express his disdain, Finley drafted almost all of the 24 free agents but signed none.

Los Angeles owner Walter O'Malley was quoted as saying, "I won't touch your free agents if you don't touch mine." Bob Howsam, president of the Cincinnati Reds, also refused to participate with the explanation if it was necessary to replenish his club he would recall players from the Reds' farm system.

There was an interesting footnote. Agent Jerry Kapstein, who represented seven of the players who signed million-dollar contracts, was suddenly swamped by reporters. Puffed up by his good fortune, Kapstein told the media that he, alone, had orchestrated the new order. It was a fraudulent claim. Executive director Marvin Miller and attorney Dick Moss of the Players Association captained the players' bargaining team. Kapstein was nothing more than a spectator.

This was just over a quarter of a century ago but only two teams, the Phillies and Yankees, had player payrolls in excess of $3 million; today it's the cost of an experienced utility infielder. The average Phillies' salary was $139,916 while the Yankees' checked in at $138,973, each more than twice the average. There were cries of doom. Bankruptcies were inevitable....

Two economists affiliated with the prestigious Wharton School of Business warned that "no team is immune from the spectre of bankruptcy."

Moss, the players' lawyer, criticized the doomsayers for "making assumptions from ignorance" and said the accumulative 1977 player salaries were still lower than the club's take from radio and television, a statement confirmed by Broadcasting Magazine, which estimated this revenue at $52 million.

In 1978, a total of 33 players, qualified for free agency. This time 10 players agreed to long-term contracts for $1 million or more; six exceeded the $2 million plateau. Milwaukee outfielder Larry Hisle led the pack (with) $3,155,000 for six years, an annual average salary of $525,833, more than ten (10) times his previous $47,200 wage. The average pay was now $97,800, a 31 percent gain.

Among the top earners were relief pitchers Goose Gossage, who jumped from a salary of $46,800 to $458,000 and Rawly Eastwick, who went from $23,200 to $220,000. Outfielders Lyman Bostock ($20,000 to $450,000), Oscar Gamble ($100,000 to $475,000), Richie Zisk ($54,000 to $295,500) and Dave Kingman ($76,000 to $275,000) also seriously cashed in.

Still, as the owners were to discover to their dismay, it was just the beginning. Aware of the riches ahead, many players purposely played out their "option" and avoided long-term contracts so they could qualify for free agency. In 1989, 107 players filed. By this time 74 of them were earning $1 million or more. There were 210 eligible for free agency in 2003 and 207 this year.

Free agency, coupled with salary arbitration, fueled the revolution. Going into the 2004 season, the average annual player compensation had leaped to $2.2 million. One hundred thirty-nine players were earning at least $5 million annually; 15 had reached the $15 million per-year plateau.

Pitcher Kevin Brown of the Los Angeles Dodgers, in 1998, was the first to reach $15 million. Amazingly, former Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi said Brown's $15 million equaled the Dodgers' player payroll in the 16-year period from 1951 through 1966.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.