Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tom Seaver and Pete Rose explain Baseball's Reserve Clause

Click here for my overview of how Marvin Miller ruined baseball.

Major League Baseball's "Reserve Clause" came to an end in 1975 as a result of an arbitration award (later upheld by the courts, resulting in a new collective bargaining agreement in 1976 that recognized free agency). Nothing has been the same for baseball since that time.

People will get bogged down arguing about the merits of that case. Marvin Miller's defenders will argue that the clause was poorly worded or misinterpreted. They will try to distract us with pointless detail while losing sight of the big issues.

So rather than plod through my own explanation of the "Reserve Clause," I show you Tom Seaver explaining it to Mike Douglas in 1977. This interview aired on July 20, 1977, little more than a month after Seaver was traded from the Mets to the Reds. Seaver sits with his new teammate, Pete Rose.

Notice how Mike Douglas first asks the question of Pete Rose, who gave a brief factual explanation (without the emotionally charged talking points) before Seaver jumped in. Douglas apparently did not know that Seaver was closer to the center of the union (having been a shop steward), and was prepared to give the party line history of the issue (or maybe Douglas knew that but wanted a simple explanation instead of Seaver's exaggerated version). Note the emotionally charged language from Seaver, who said the players were previously forced to "work" (more so than "play") for the same owner until they "died," and could not seek new employment even if they were "fired." Those characterizations were worse than mere exaggerations.

Under Seaver's characterization, the players were slaves, Seaver was Frederick Douglas, Marvin Miller was Abraham Lincoln and free agency was the underground railroad.

Mike Douglas asks a good question about whether the "big" teams are now "buying pennants." Rose's answer was that the Reds had kept almost everyone from their previous world series a year earlier. Rose was arguing that free agency would allow players to make more money without disrupting the game or giving richer clubs an advantage. Subsequent events would prove Rose's answer to be premature and would make Douglas into a prophet (even though his question mistakenly lumped the Reds with teams that would "buy pennants"). The Reds, who had played in 4 of the previous 7 world series before that interview - and who had won the previous 2 series in a row - would win only one world series over the next 33 seasons - and counting.

(Rose's answer was not completely true even as of July 1977, as star pitcher Don Gullet had already bolted for the big money with the Yankees at the end of the previous season).

Free agency would take time for its effects to be felt, even though defenders of the Miller era (@ 1975 - ???) still point to small market teams that continued to win for several years after free agency was first established. A year and a half after this interview, Rose himself would bolt the Reds for the big contract in Philadelphia.

Douglas also mentioned that free agency should be explained for the benefit of the "ladies" in the audience. "Mike Douglas" was a daytime program - a less controversial precursor to today's Oprah, etc. The audience was primarily female. That Seaver would appear and make his case in this fashion for this audience reveals the union's belief that this issue would soon impact the broader public, thus necessitating a public relations campaign.

A few months later, the Yankees would win the first of their many Steinbrenner-era world series - with help from a big dose of free agency. A year after that, the country would witness the off-the-field drama centering on which team would end up with Rose. During that same off-season, the Pittsburgh media would cover the story of Dave Parker's controversial lucrative contract, giving Pittsburghers their first big taste of the Marvin Miller era.

While Miller, Seaver and the union may have been preparing for these developments and the resulting public reaction, nothing could prepare the public for a time when -

  • many formerly great clubs would be reduced to the status of mere farm teams;

  • the new stadiums of the 1970's would be obsolete and unable to support the new salary structure;

  • municpal finances would crumble under the weight of many factors, including the continuing Marvin Miller baseball era; and

  • players, by using steroids, would trade their long-term health and the integrity of the game in exchange for some of the new money.

The loss of the "Reserve Clause" may seem to be a trivial matter, but its effect on baseball reminds me of a quote from the Ayn Rand character, Ellsworth Toohey:
Don't you find it interesting to see a huge, complicated piece of machinery, such as our society, all levers and belts and interlocking gears, the kind that looks as if one would need an army to operate it - and you find that by pressing your little finger against one spot, the one vital spot, the center of all its gravity, you can make the thing crumble into a worthless heap of scrap iron?
The Fountainhead, p. 356 (50th Anniversary edition).

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