For most of baseball history teams had total control over their players. Owners included a standard "reserve clause" in every contract which allowed them to renew the players' contracts for a year after the contract expired. This kept players tied to one team -- unless the team chose to trade them -- and also kept their salaries relatively low. While in any other business this would have constituted an illegal restraint of trade, the Supreme Court, beginning in the 1920s exempted baseball from antitrust laws.
The first serious challenge to the system in the modern era came from Curt Flood. The All Star center fielder for the great St. Louis Cardinal teams of the 1960s, was traded after the 1969 season to the lowly Phillies (along with Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, and Joe Hoerner for Richie Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson). Flood refused to accept the trade. He wrote to the Baseball Commissioner, demanding that he be declared a free agent:
After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.When the Commissioner refused, Flood sat out the 1970 season, and, with the backing of the players' union, challenged the reserve clause in a lawsuit against Major League Baseball. The case went up to the Supreme Court where Flood's attorney, former justice Arthur Goldberg, argued that the reserve clause depressed wages and limited players to one team for life. The Court ruled in favor of the owners and against Flood, who returned to the game briefly in 1971 with the Washington Senators, and then retired.
The following year the National Labor Relations Board determined it had jurisdiction over Major League Baseball. This proved critical when two pitchers, Andy Messersmith of the Dodgers and Dave McNally of the Expos played the 1975 season without a contract. When the owners tried to renew their contracts under the reserve clause, the players contended that since they had not signed a contract during the option year they were to free to sign with other teams. Because of NRLB jurisdiction, the case was grieved to an arbitrator, who ruled in the players' favor. This decision was upheld in federal court, and with that, the reserve clause was effectively nullified.
In 1976, the owners and players' union agreed that a player could become a free agent after six years, an agreement that essentially remains in force today, and which has dramatically shifted the balance of power to the ballplayers.
It is hard not to look back with nostalgia to a time when players would remain with one team for most, if not all of their careers. Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle were Yankees, Willie Mays a Giant, Ted Williams was a Red Sox, Sandy Koufax a Dodger, Al Kaline a Tiger, and Brooks Robinson an Oriole. This was great for the fans, but the players didn't have a choice. In more recent years, with rare exceptions -- Cal Ripken, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Robin Yount, Chipper Jones -- the elite players usually decide when their contracts are up to change teams -- or they are traded in anticipation of them doing so.
Particularly, when considered in the context of almost 100 years of collusion and greed by baseball's owners, I can't begrudge players doing what is in their best interest. At the same time, it makes it harder to become as attached to players when you know they likely won't be around when their contracts are up. And when you do become attached, despite all you know about the business side of the game, it is a painful process to watch.