While the new free agent system does not threaten the very existence of organized baseball, "we have to run up some warning flags," baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn said Friday night at the Law School Forum.
A 1976 agreement between the team owners and the Players' Association emasculated the famed reserve clause by allowing a player to become a free agent by playing out one option year after the expiration of his contract.
Most observers of the new system "have tended to polarize," Kunn said.
Trying to take a more balanced view, the commissioner said that, on the plus side, the signing of free agents has generated additional off-season publicity for baseball and allowed certain weaker franchises, notably California and Texas, to build contending teams.
On the other hand, salaries have increased 60 per cent in the two years since the first wave of free agents entered the market, he added.
Kuhn said he fears that the increased costs will have to be reflected in increased ticket prices, which so far "have only gone up approximately in line with nation-wide inflation."
Moreover, the baseball mogul said, "most of the players have gone to a few clubs." In the last two years, 56 per cent of these performers have been signed by just five of the teams, and 76 per cent by eight teams. Competition has yet to be unbalanced, but "you threaten to create an elite group of clubs," Kuhn said.
I hope we can find a way through collective bargaining with the players to pull down those warning flags," he added.
Kuhn also turned to the topic with which he is most often identified, Charles O. Finley and the unsuccessful sale of his Oakland A's to Denver interests.
Stubborn as a Mule
"I'm not sure that Charley ever really decided to get out," Kuhn said. "He'd be so enthusiastic and then, just when you thought you had a solution, you couldn't find him .... Finley is a guy who rejects the new world in baseball. If he would accept it, he is capable of doing well. He has the brains, and the energy and the money, if he wanted to use it."
The commissioner praised Finley for giving up his attempts to dispose of his star players in straight cash deals. In a recent transaction which heartened Kuhn, Finley sent hurler Vida Blue to San Francisco for cash plus six young players who have helped the surprising As to the best record in baseball after one month of play this year.