Part 20 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building. See introduction, and up-to-date list.
After the signing of the 1976 CBA that formalized the rules for free agency, that fall saw the first free market for players in baseball history. The first class included Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich, Don Gullett, Rollie Fingers, Sal Bando, and many more. All these players signed for massive raises over their previous salaries. Twins pitcher Bill Campbell was the first to sign, inking a four-year $1 million deal with the Red Sox, ten times his previous salary. Reggie Jackson got five years, $3 million from the Yankees, breaking the record Catfish Hunter had set two years earlier.
The next year was more of the same, with owners backing up the truck for Rich Gossage, Mike Torrez, Larry Hisle, Lyman Bostock, Richie Zisk, and dozens more. Teams also gave out huge contracts to players like Jim Rice and Mike Schmidt to keep them from testing free agency. Predictably, the owners immediately began claiming that they needed to change the rules to make it illegal to do what they were voluntarily doing.
In early 1979 Commissioner Bowie Kuhn first broached the idea that the owners would demand veteran free agent compensation as part of the next CBA, due to expire at the end of that year. Such a scheme had been in place in the NBA and NFL for several years effectively stifling meaningful free agency. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle awarded the San Francisco 49ers two first round draft picks from the New Orleans Saints after they signed receiver Dave Parks for 1968. When the New York Knicks signed free agent forward Marvin Webster from Seattle in 1978, the NBA commissioner awarded Seattle Lonnie Shelton as compensation – Shelton was likely a better player, and the Supersonics went on to win the NBA title the next spring. The Knicks and their fans were livid, but that was the system. No team wanted the risk a big signing only to lose one or more of their best players
Marvin Miller and the players would have none of it. The CBA expired in December 1979, but it took the two sides until August 1981 to finally hammer out a deal. The players nearly went out on strike in May 1980 before agreeing to set aside the free agent compensation issue (the only sticking point) for one year. They struck in June 1981 and were out for seven weeks, gutting the middle third of the 1981 season.
When the two sides finally agreed, they settled on a bizarre compensation system whereby teams who lose a Type A free agent (defined using a complex statistical formula) would draft a player from a pool made available by all teams, not necessarily the team that signed the player—similar to an expansion draft. A limited number of teams could opt out – they were prohibited from signing Type A free agents but were not required to make players available to the compensation draft pool. This proposal was offered by the players before the strike but rejected. After weeks of impasse, the owners eventually gave in to a plan whose main idea was to compensate the former team without penalizing the new team.
On February 2, 1982, the first ever Free Agent Compensation Draft was held. The only Type A free agent to change teams that off-season was White Sox pitcher Ed Farmer, who signed with the Phillies. In compensation, the White Sox drafted catcher Joel Skinner from the Pirates. For this, the game had been shut down for 50 days.
The next year there were two picks in the draft. The White Sox (who had lost Steve Kemp to the Yankees) drafted Steve Mura from the Cardinals. And the Mariners (who lost pitcher Floyd Bannister to the White Sox) drafted infielder Danny Tartabull from the Reds. None of this was earth-shattering news.
The 1984 draft proved more memorable. After the White Sox lost pitcher Dennis Lamp to the Reds, they selected pitcher Tom Seaver from the Mets. Seaver was not the star he had once been, but he was still a big hero in New York and his unceremonious loss – in a newfangled draft no one wanted or needed – shocked New Yorkers. The Mets protested that they left Seaver exposed because they figured no one would want his contract, a gamble they lost. Seaver put up two excellent seasons with the White Sox, and might have missed another chance at the post-season with the strong Mets clubs of the mid-1980s.
That same year the Athletics pulled off a coup by selecting pitcher Tim Belcher from the Yankees. New York had just signed Belcher a few days earlier after taking him first overall in the January amateur draft. He was considered one of the best prospects in the country, but the Yankees had mistakenly exposed him in their confusion over the rules. Again, local fans were livid that this bizarre compensation system had cost them a well-regarded player.
After one more go around in 1985, with Donnie Moore (by the Angels) and Tom Henke (by the Blue Jays) the key draftees, the owners lost interest in the pool concept. In the 1985 CBA negotiations, both sides agreed to return to draft pick compensation. The details of the draft picks has changed with each CBA, but veteran compensation, which cost baseball the middle of the 1981 season, has not made a return.