Forty-four years ago today saw the first shot of the battle that would eventually end baseball's reserve clause and produce the free agent system we know today. On December 29, 1969, it was reported in the New York Times that Curt Flood was not going to report to the Phillies, and would instead challenge the reserve clause in court. The Cardinals had traded Flood to the Phillies two months earlier (along with Tim McCarver and two others), for a package headlined by Dick Allen. Flood's case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, but while he lost that battle, it strengthened player solidarity and provided the impetus to question the system until an arbitrator's decision in 1976 in effect nullified the reserve clause and allowed Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith to become the first free agents.
Lots has been written about this seismic shift in the game of baseball -- for starters: Curt Flood's Wikipedia page. But it also gives us a reason to take a look back at a player associated with that contested trade.
When it became clear that Flood wasn't going to report to the Phillies, St. Louis was forced to send two more players in the trade in place of Flood. One was pitcher Jim Browning, who never made it above AA, but the other was a 22-year-old first baseman/outfielder Willie Montanez.
Montanez had been signed by St. Louis as an amateur free agent out of Puerto Rico in 1965. After a year in the Rookie League, Montanez was exposed to the Rule 5 draft and selected by the California Angels. He therefore made his major league debut (at only 18 years and 11 days), and appeared in eight games with California in 1966 before being offered back to the Cardinals. So in April 1970 when he was sent to the Phils, he had been signed by St. Louis, spent his entire minor league career with the Cards, but had also already made his major league debut with the Angels.
Montanez spent most of 1970 with the Phillies' AAA club, the Eugene Emeralds, and then got a September call-up. Although he had played first base almost exclusively in the minors, as a rookie in 1971 Montanez was the Phillies' starting center fielder. He had 30 home runs and 99 RBI with a .255/.327/.471 line (124 OPS+). This despite posting only a .258 BABIP, far below his career average of .292. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. Montanez would never again reach either his 1971 OPS or OPS+ for the rest of his career.
He led the league with 39 doubles in 1972, but otherwise his hitting fell off to .247/.320/.405 (104 OPS+) with only 13 homers and 64 RBI. One bright spot was his fielding in center, where he increased his range, cut his errors in half, and improved his Total Zone rating from 13 runs below average in 1970, to only 1 below in 1972. With the arrival of Del Unser in 1973, Montanez was moved back to his natural position at first base, and posted lines of .263/.324/.370 (97 OPS+) in 1973, and .304/.343/.410 (107 OPS+) in 1974.
Montanez earned a reputation as a "hot dog" in his early years (link):
After hitting home runs, he would trot very slowly around the bases, shuffling his feet on occasion. When catching infield fly balls, he would "snatch" the ball out of the air with his gloved hand and quickly shift glove and ball to the opposite hip, as if putting a gun in a holster. After receiving an attempted pick-off throw from the pitcher, he would sometimes repeatedly tag the base runner who had safely returned to base. Antics such as these would irritate some teammates and opponents alike, and play to mixed results with the fans.
In early May 1975, the Phillies sent Montanez to San Francisco in exchange for Garry Maddox. Three days later they re-acquired Dick Allen from Atlanta to play first base.
Thus began the odyssey that Montanez' career turned into after leaving the Phillies:
- In his final 8 seasons (1975-1982), an amazing 6 of them were split between two teams because he was either traded or released mid-season.
- He was traded 7 times and released 3 more times in those 8 seasons.
- He was involved in a rare 4-team trade in December 1977 between Texas, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and the Mets.
- He was twice traded for fellow first baseman John Milner, in the 1977 four-team trade, and again in 1981.
From his fangraphs page:
Nevertheless, he still managed to finish 24th in the NL MVP voting in both 1975 and 1976, he was a NL all-star in 1977, and only 11 NL-ers had more RBIs in 1975-78.
His odyssey culminated when he re-signed with the Phils in August 1982. Struggling as a pinch hitter and late-inning replacement, he would get only 1 hit and a walk in 17 plate appearances.
Montanez retired at the end of that season.