INDIGNATION AND REALITY
After Peter Seitz, the outside member of baseball's three-man arbitration panel, cast the deciding vote in the 2-to-l decision to declare Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents, management's reaction was swift and angry. Baseball's brass said Seitz' decision had shaken the very foundation of the game, immediately fired him from the arbitration board and turned their attention to the suit they have before Federal Judge John W. Oliver in Kansas City, which asks that the issue of the reserve clause be ruled not a proper subject for arbitration in the first place.
What had happened is this. Last year Messersmith, a Los Angeles Dodger, and McNally, a Montreal Expo, refused to sign new contracts for the 1975 season. Their clubs thereupon invoked a clause in the standard player contract that permits a team to renew a contract unilaterally "for a period of one year on the same terms." At the end of the 1975 season Messersmith and McNally still refused to sign new contracts, and the clubs again invoked the renewal clause, claiming that they could continue one-year renewals indefinitely. Indeed, this is what baseball understands "reserve clause" to mean; it binds a player forever to the team that owns his contract.
But Seitz ruled that one unilateral renewal was all the contract called for. And what that means, if Seitz' ruling holds, is the end of the reserve clause as it now stands.
Management's outraged reaction was predictable but shortsighted. It has been obvious for some time that the reserve clause, far more binding than similar restrictions in other sports contracts, is bound to be changed sooner or later. All that has happened is that the change may come sooner than baseball anticipated, and from an unexpected quarter—arbitration instead of the courts. Even if Seitz' decision were to be overturned by Judge Oliver, baseball's owners should face up to reality. Instead of appealing the issue in court after court, they should accept the inevitable, sit down with the players' representatives and work out a new arrangement, one that would bind a player to his club for a reasonable period of time but would still give him some freedom of choice. It is in this direction that football, basketball and hockey have made some progress. Why not baseball?
As a start, the owners might recognize one cause of their own fears. The reserve clause really protects them as much from each other as it does from the players. Without some such restrictive device, the richer owners could raid the poorer clubs' rosters at will. Baseball also complains that it must go to enormous expense to find and train young players (one estimate puts the figure at $400,000 for each man who makes it to the majors) since, unlike football and basketball, it does not have a large pool of trained college athletes to draw from. The owners could reduce this expense by combining their myriad scouting and farm systems under one central management and then draft players each year from that minor league pool.
In any case, baseball must move quickly now to resolve the problem. Spring training begins in seven weeks, and a new agreement between owners and players is supposed to be signed by then. The worst thing that could happen—for owners, players and fans—would be for the situation to disintegrate into a strike.
Team nicknames delight John Jay Wilheim of East Windsor, N. J., who has devised his own Tom Swiftian game with them. Ignoring differences of leagues and sports, Wilheim asks such questions as:
If the 76ers played the 49ers, would it be the game of the years?