November 15, 1886: The Cincinnati Reds completed the first trade of “reserved” players in Major League history when they traded catcher Jack Boyle and $350 to the St. Louis Browns for outfielder Hugh Nicol.
The reserve clause is part of the anti-trust exemption granted Major League Baseball when it comes to interstate commerce that deals directly with player management and control. From baseball-reference.com’s bullpen:
The reserve clause was a clause in player contracts that bound a player to a single team for a long period, even if the individual contracts he signed nominally covered only one season. For most of baseball history, the term of reserve was held to be essentially perpetual, so that a player had no freedom to change teams unless he was given his unconditional release. The clause was widely believed to have been overturned in the 1970s, but in practice young players today are still bound for up to 12 years (6 in the minors and 6 in the majors) before they have free agent rights.
When baseball started there was no reserve clause and the players were free to move from team to team at the end of their one-year contracts. This caused great turmoil amongst the teams and competitive imbalance was always at risk to a wealthy owner. These battles especially became difficult when new major leagues such as the American Association, Union League, and the Player’s League would compete with the National League for talent. “Small market” teams like Cincinnati were especially vulnerable and Cincinnati stars such as Charley Jones, King Kelly, and Tony Mullane jumped from team-to-team and league-to-league, sometimes signing or verbally agreeing with more than one team in a season. These player jumps led to court battles between the leagues and the players. Mullane and Jones were both either blackballed and/or suspended at different times due to excessive contract jumping.
As baseball became more and more popular as an entertainment venture, players salaries also began rising making player investment that much more important to the baseball owners. Thus the beginning of the reserve clause. Also from baseball-reference.com’s bullpen:
The earliest professional leagues, the National Association and early National League had no contract restrictions. A player who played to the end of his contract was free to negotiate with any team, a practice known as revolving. This was an obvious feature of the player-centered NA, but troubled the team-centered NL because it hurt teams’ profitability and made rosters unstable. In response, after the 1879 season, the NL owners agreed to allow teams to list up to 5 players who other teams were forbidden to sign. The reserve list was originally a secret, but once it leaked out the system was written into the league rules.
After the peace agreement between the NL and the American Association, the leagues agreed to respect each other’s reserve lists and to expand the size of the list. Over the remainder of the 1880s, the reserve list was expanded to cover each team’s entire roster, and the formal reserve clause was added to the standard player’s contract. The reserve clause gave teams the right to renew a player’s contract for another year at the same salary. While apparently innocuous, the teams held that the renewed contract also contained the renewal clause, so that a team had the power to continue to renew the contract for as long as it wished. The players tried unsuccesfully to fight the growing reserve system by forming a union, the Brotherhood and founding their own Players League in 1890, but the PL lasted just one season. For the next 80 years, the reserve system ruled the game.
No matter how many peace treaties were signed, the system has always been in need of adjustment. The Reds initially lost Jones, baseball’s first power hitter, to the Chicago White Stockings when the Reds folded up tents one season and quit the league for a few weeks in 1877, only to have him returned when the Reds rejoined the league. The Reds lost Kelly, the game’s first star that was “bigger” than the game when the Reds didn’t protect him through the reserve system after the 1878 season. The Reds lost Hall of Fame outfielder Sam Crawford due to dual contracts that he signed with the Reds and Detroit Tigers following the 1902 season. Crawford turned out to be the “peace offering” needed for the leagues to make nice between the American League and the National League. Later, the Federal League formed (1914-15), the Mexican League formed (1946-47) and these leagues all raided the establish major leagues of players.
It wasn’t until Curt Flood challenged the reserve system by refusing to report to the Philadelphia Phillies following a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals that changes began to be enacted in the second half of the 20th Century. Flood wasn’t the first player who refused to report after a trade, but his court case was the first one to reach the United States Supreme Court for a ruling. Flood and the players lost the ruling, but the reserve clause was finally broken open when pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith played through the 1975 seasons without contracts and were released to the masses at the end of the season after an arbitrator ruled
that since the owners had written the contract, it was their responsibility to spell out its terms exactly. Because the reserve clause didn’t explicitly state that it would be applied to the season played without a signed contract, he had to accept the players’ interpretation that the clause only extended for one season and not in perpetuity. The owners challenged (arbitrator Peter) Seitz’s ruling in court, but it was upheld, ending over 80 years of the reserve system.
Baseball-reference.com has quite a bit more about this at their website and much has been written about the Reserve Clause that can be readily found. It’s pretty interesting reading and it shines a light on the history of player movement in baseball history.
Seven years passed from the reserve clause’s inception before the first trade of reserved players occurred. Trades had been made, but up until this time the players on one year contracts but not reserved were dealt. Nicol was a tiny (5-4, 145 lb) speedy outfielder who holds the Cincinnati record for steals in a season, having swiped 138 bases in 1887 for the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Keeping in mind that even taking an extra base on a hit was considered a stolen base, Nicol followed up that season with 103 steals in 1888. Nicol had a low batting average (.215 in 1887 when he stole 138), but he did walk a lot, 86 in 1887 and 67 in 1888, placing third in the league each time. In 1887, Nicol had the unusual stat line of 122 runs scored and 102 hits. In four seasons with the Red Stockings, Nicol batted .234 with 345 steals, an OPS+ of 77. In ten major league seasons, Nicol hit .235 with an OPS+ of 78.
Boyle had played only one game for the Red Stockings, going 1-for-5 in 1886 before being dealt to the St. Louis Browns with $350 for Nicol. Boyle became a regular catcher in three different leagues (NL, AA. and PL). In total, he played 13 major league seasons, batting .253 with an OPS+ of 72. His best season came in 1891 when he batted .281 for the Browns with an OPS+ of 109. He scored more than 100 runs twice with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1893 and 1894.