Part 17 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building. See introduction, and up-to-date list.
During Marvin Miller’s early days running the player’s union, he made slow progress in his efforts to convince the players that they were underpaid. By 1973 the players’ minimum salary had more than doubled – from $7,000 to $15,000 – and salary arbitration had begun to provide several large salary increases that would not have occurred before the union’s recent progress. But what would be in store with a free market was still mostly a matter of conjecture.
The players actually had one data point. In August 1967, Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley released outfielder Ken Harrelson in a fit of anger. Finley had fired manager Alvin Dark, and Harrelson responded by calling Finley “a menace to baseball.” When Harrelson refused to apologize, Finley released him unconditionally. Usually when a player is released it is because the team believes that he has no trade value, but in Harrelson’s case the “release” was actually beneficial to the player.
Harrelson was initially shocked, fearing that he would be blacklisted from the game, but his shock abated once he started getting phone calls from general managers offering him contracts at significantly more money than he had been making. A good player but by no means a star, when Harrelson signed with the Red Sox for a reported $75,000 (Harrelson later claimed $150,000, which likely included a sizeable bonus) he became one of the highest compensated players in the game. The ramifications of Harrelson’s free agency so disturbed major league owners that they amended the rules such that in the future a released player had to pass through waivers before becoming a free agent.
With that loophole closed, there were no more free agents in baseball for seven years, when Charlie Finley once again handed the players a glimpse of a possible future. On the eve of the 1974 World Series, which the A’s won for the third straight year, a story broke that star pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter would file a “breach of contract” grievance against the A’s because Finley had failed to pay a $50,000 annuity as stipulated by Hunter’s contract (which totaled $100,000 for the season). If Hunter’s position was upheld, he would become a free agent.
Marvin Miller had said that the impartial grievance arbitration was the union’s greatest victory, and here was its first significant use. The judge would not be Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, whose public statements made it crystal clear that he would have ruled for the A’s, but arbitrator Peter Seitz.
Finley had agreed to the annuity clause in Hunter’s contract, but once he realized that there were significant tax liabilities associated with this method of payment, he refused to pay it. After the story broke, he made a public show of trying to give Hunter a $50,000 check in the A’s clubhouse during the World Series. Hunter refused the check.
Soon after the A’s beat the Dodgers in the final game, Hunter followed through with his grievance. Nearly four weeks after a lengthy November 26 hearing, arbitrator Seitz found for Hunter, voiding his contract and freeing him to sign with any club. The baseball world went crazy. Ken Harrelson was a good major league player who had gotten rich, but Hunter was a star.
A three-week bidding war ensued involving nearly every team in baseball. The Yankees landed him with a five-year deal totaling $3.75 million, about three times the going rate for the game’s top stars. Players union chief Marvin Miller had been telling the players for years what the free market might mean, and now they knew. “This had shown everybody,” said Lee MacPhail, now the AL president, “exactly what free agency could amount to.”
San Diego Padres president Buzzie Bavasi, who reportedly bid higher than the Yankees for Hunter, likely spoke for many owners in expressing his fear of what had transpired. “What we saw happen here,” he said, “fully demonstrates the importance of the reserve rule. The richest clubs would offer the top players the biggest salaries and the biggest bonuses.”
Marvin Miller disagreed. “Buzzie Bavasi is a smart man,” he said, “educated and all of that, but he obviously didn’t learn anything about economics. What he is saying is economic idiocy. The Hunter case establishes zero about what would happen in a free market. Here we had a supply of one and a demand of 24. Obviously, when the supply is one and the demand is great, prices will go up dramatically.”
Miller was right, of course. But major league players could not help but wonder what a free market, even one crowded with several other players, might look like. They did not have long to wait.