Spring 1999: Looking Back, 1899/1924/1949/1974

100 years ago: Syndicate ball comes to the National League. In February 1899, the owners of the Brooklyn and Baltimore franchises consolidate their operations. Each ownership group receives half of the new two-club entity, which assigns most of the best players from both rosters to Brooklyn in hopes of attracting more fans in the larger market. Two months later the Robison brothers, who already own Cleveland, add St. Louis to their holdings and assign all their best players to St. Louis. The hapless Cleveland Spiders finish 20-134.

After the season the NL hopes to contract from twelve teams to eight by eliminating Baltimore, Cleveland, Louisville and Washington, but its plans are complicated by the emergence of a rival league. A new American Association is organized in September, with backers including Chris Von Der Ahe and Al Spink in St. Louis, and Cap Anson in Chicago. John McGraw suggests he may join the new AA if the National League withdraws from Baltimore. Meanwhile Ban Johnson's Western League changes its name to the American League and announces plans to put a team in Chicago for the 1900 season.

75 years ago: With the International League and two lower minors still refusing to subject their players to a draft, the 1924 Reach Guide reports that the majors have agreed "that there should be no more $100,000 minor recruits in major league ball, and that $25,000 should be the highest purchase price for any minor league star." While the Guide scolds that this measure "will teach the draft-exemption leagues that they cannot profit by draft-exemption through the sale of players, illegally restrained in the first place, at enormous figures," it never asks why major league clubs should be allowed to profit by selling players bound by the same restraints.

50 years ago. In February 1949, the Second Circuit reinstates the antitrust suit brought by Danny Gardella, who had been banned from Organized Baseball after signing with the Mexican League. The Gardella decision prompts a renewed debate over the reserve clause. Ty Cobb favors limited of free agency to protect the interests of great players stuck on bad teams. Branch Rickey tells an audience in Baltimore that the reserve clause "is opposed by persons of avowed Communist tendencies," and that "persons opposing the reserve clause deeply resent the continuance of our national pastime." Despite his own experience as part of a Yankee dynasty built around players purchased from the Red Sox, Bob Meusel contends, "If it weren't for the reserve clause there wouldn't be any baseball. The rich clubs would get all the good players, and the competition would be so lopsided the fan just wouldn't pay to see a game." Gardella's suit settles before the Supreme Court can rule.

Late in the year Commissioner Chandler revises Organized Baseball's broadcasting rules in response to objections from the Department of Justice. The new rules infuriate minor-league teams, which are no longer allowed to (1) veto broadcasts of major-league games in their territory, except during the hours when such broadcasts would actually conflict with their own games; (2) sell exclusive rights to broadcast major-league games into their territory; or (3) prevent any other team within a 50-mile radius from broadcasting its games into their territory.

25 years ago. The first season of salary arbitration prompts an article by Jerome Holtzman in the March 16, 1974 Sporting News under the headline, "Arbitration a Success, Players and Owners Agree." The owners won 16 of the 29 hearings, prompting their labor negotiator John Gaherin to remark: "The owners have been pilloried in the press as people who took advantage of the players. But the results of the arbitration clearly show this isn't true. We are pleased - not that we won, because we don't view this in the context of adversary proceedings - but because it showed the arbitration system worked. The important thing is that the procedure set the test and resulted in reasonable settlements."

After the season Catfish Hunter becomes the first modern free agent. After Oakland owner Charles O. Finley refused to pay $50,000 of deferred compensation called for in Hunter's contract to the company holding his annuity, Hunter filed a grievance. Citing a clause in the standard player contract which allowed a player to declare himself a free agent if the club defaulted on any obligation and failed to cure the default within 10 days after receiving notice, Arbitrator Peter Seitz declared Hunter a free agent. After a frenzied bidding war, Hunter, who had earned $100,000 with Oakland in 1974, signed a five-year deal with the Yankees for a reported $3.2 million plus extras.

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the Spring 1999 issue of Outside the Lines, the SABR Business of Baseball Committee newsletter.

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