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THE FIRST TO BE FREE
Leigh Montville
April 16, 1990
IN 1976, BASEBALL'S FIRST FREE AGENTS LANDED THE BIG, BIG MONEY. LUCKY GUYS. THEY WERE SET FOR LIFE. OR WERE THEY?
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April 16, 1990

The First To Be Free

IN 1976, BASEBALL'S FIRST FREE AGENTS LANDED THE BIG, BIG MONEY. LUCKY GUYS. THEY WERE SET FOR LIFE. OR WERE THEY?

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Fourteen years have passed since then. Most of the players involved in the '76 draft are now out of the game and out in the world. Set For Life? The first returns have begun to arrive at the Set For Life anchor desk.

On Nov. 24, 1976, the night of the first free-agent draft at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Bill Campbell went into the hotel bar with his agent. They were beckoned by Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley to a corner table. Come on over. Have a drink.

"I'd never met the man," says Campbell as he sits in a restaurant near his home in Barrington, Ill. "But he'd been one of the guys to draft me. We went over. He immediately started trying to make a deal. Right there. He offered a $100,000 signing bonus, plus $100,000 for three years. Said I had to sign before I left the table. I looked at my agent."

The agent was LaRue Harcourt; Campbell had found him simply by asking another Twins pitcher for a name. Harcourt and Campbell had decided to ask for a million dollars for four years. They weren't exactly sure what the market would be, but they knew that a year earlier Finley had nearly sold reliever Rollie Fingers to the Boston Red Sox for a million, until commissioner Bowie Kuhn quashed the deal. If an owner would pay another owner a million for a relief pitcher, then why wouldn't he cut out the middle man? Give the million to the pitcher. Harcourt told Finley they wanted a million.

" Finley started laughing," Campbell says. "He said, 'A million dollars! You know what? These dumb s.o.b.'s will give it to you.' He was swearing and laughing so much that the guy at the next table got all upset. Told Finley to cut it out. I thought there was going to be a fight. We finished our drinks and went to see some people at another table. A little while later, the waitress comes over with the check. I think Finley tried to stick us with his bar bill."

Forty-eight hours later Campbell was at a press conference in Boston. He was the first of the 1976 free agents to sign: a million dollars for four years.

It was a pinch-yourself moment. One year earlier he was handed a contract from the Twins for $22,000, the same salary he earned in 1975. He had asked for a raise to $30,000, but he would have signed for less. The final bluff from owner Calvin Griffith was, "Sign this contract or forfeit your chance to go to spring training." Campbell held strong, played out his old contract at $22,000 per and finished with a 17-5 record with 20 saves—and free agency. And then he was a millionaire. Or so it seemed.

"That's what people would call you—'a millionaire,' " he says. "You really weren't, not when you broke the contract down, but that was what people said. I could hear them. 'Hey, there goes the millionaire.' "

By the time the season started, the money was a spotlight over his head. How can any man make a million to play baseball? Campbell admitted in the newspapers that the money he was getting was "ridiculous." He was told to keep quiet. No. He said he could not help saying what he felt. The money was ridiculous. His first check in the minors had been for $189 for two weeks—and he thought he was stealing even then.

The Red Sox had raised ticket prices during that winter, and in a game early in the '77 season, a large sign was hung from the centerfield wall that read SELL CAMPBELL, BRING BACK $1.50 BLEACHERS. Campbell was shelled in that game. He was shelled often that spring. The money was on his mind.

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