They are three different men from three different decades in three different sports. They have likely never met, but share a link that should have LeBron James saying, “thank you,” as he signs his name to the max contract he’s getting from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Andy Messersmith, Tom Chambers and Reggie White are the pioneer free agents in baseball, basketball and football. They were the first to do what we now take for granted in professional sports – offer their services to the highest bidder and choose where they want to go. It seems so simple now. It wasn’t nearly 40 years ago, when Messersmith got the ball rolling. Here are their stories.
From its inception, Major League Baseball had operated under the reserve clause. It gave all the leverage to the owners. Players were free to play out their contracts, but getting a deal from another team was impossible. The reserve clause gave teams the right to re-sign it’s own players. It was pretty much a take it or leave it proposition.
The player’s only recourse was to hold out and not report to spring training, but that rarely proved to be effective. In the early 1970’s, things began to change. Curt Flood, who had been traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, decided he didn’t want to move. He had played out his contract in St. Louis and didn’t feel he should be told where he had to play next. If the Cardinals didn’t want him, Flood felt he should have been free to sign with another team. The reserve clause prevented that.
With the help of Marvin Miller, head of the players association, Flood challenged the reserve clause all the way to the Supreme Court. Flood lost his case, but legal eyes had been opened. A year later, Messersmith reported to spring training for the Dodgers without a signed contract. Working without a deal in that 1975 season, Messersmith finished 19-14 and led the National League in ERA at 2.29. At the end of the season, Messersmith argued that without a contract in place, the reserve clause would not stand up.
The owners figured to take care of this quickly, turning the case over to the arbitrator they hired, Peter Seitz. After examining the case, Seitz declared Messersmith a free agent – the first in the history of sports. Seitz was immediately fired. Messersmith signed a three-year, $1 million deal with the Atlanta Braves. Maverick owner Ted Turner took such joy in this new way of doing business, he asked Messersmith to go by the nickname, “Channel” and wear the name and the number 17 on the back of his uniform to promote Ted’s Superstation in Atlanta – Channel 17.
Baseball didn’t find that funny and quickly ruled that no nicknames could be on the backs of uniforms. Messersmith wound up going only 16-15 for the Braves and two years later was out of baseball, but he’ll always be remembered as the first.
The NBA had it’s own form of the reserve clause. Teams were free to sign free agents, but they did so at a risk. The Commissioner would decide compensation for the team losing the free agent, either draft picks or players. Superstars could demand trades, but rarely was there much movement.
The first movement towards changing that came in the late 1980’s. Chambers had become a near star in Seattle after being traded from the San Diego Clippers. He was the MVP of the 1987 All-Star game and helped the Sonics make it to the Western Conference finals. But after the 87-88 season, he could see his role shrinking as the Sonics had added Michael Cage to go with Xavier McDaniel and Derrick McKey.
Chambers figured his only choice was to sign the qualifying offer and wait for the Sonics to trade him. As he was close to doing that, union rep Larry Fleisher told him to wait for the new collective bargaining agreement to be put in place. In fact, the new CBA allowed unrestricted free agency for veterans who had played through two contracts and at least seven years in the league. Chambers qualified and started shopping.
He would wind up in Phoenix with a five-year deal worth $9 million – more than double his previous deal. That may be lunch money for LeBron, but it was groundbreaking for all NBA players.
NFL work stoppages in 1982 and 87 had pushed the ball downfield towards the free agency end zone, but by the early 90’s, the players had not yet punched it in. The compromise was something called “Plan B.” It allowed teams to protect a large chunk of the players not under contract and gave only a select few the right to make deals someplace else.
The stars were still stuck where they were. Like the NBA, prior to 1988, players were free to make deals with other teams, but were subject to the Commissioner deciding compensation – usually two number one draft picks for top line players. Finally in 1992, White joined a lawsuit in which the jury ultimately decided that Plan B violated antitrust laws.
White was in the last year of his contract with the Philadelphia Eagles and was declared a free agent at the end of the season. He would wind up signing a four-year, $17 million deal with the Green Bay Packers. His impact was immediate. The Packers would transform from losers to Super Bowl Champions by the fourth year of his deal. To this day, White is not just considered to be the first big free agent signing, but the biggest impact free agent.
LeBron James may be the latest and greatest, but there can only be one first – or in this case – one in each sport.