A player who had an interrupted career makes for an interesting case when it comes to being judged for baseball highest honor. Sandy Koufax dominated the sport for the last six of his last 12 big league seasons. Kirby Puckett put up a solid 12 year run, one that was on track for the Hall of Fame before he was suddenly forced into retirement. A total of 29 Hall of Fame players served during World War II, some during the prime of their careers. Another 24 Hall of Famers served during World War I. The Baseball Writers have shown compassion for both instances, showing that there can be exceptions to the unwritten rules.
The reserve clause allowed for the owners to control the earning power of the players for about 100 years. Players were treated as property of the team they belong to, with the teams having the power to sign each player to a one year contract with an option for the next season. After Peter Seitz ruled in favor of players Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally in December of 1975, a loophole was created allowing both players to become free agents. This led to free agency being collectively bargained into the basic agreement between the players and the owners. For the first time in baseball history, the leverage shifted to the players. And the owners, who had grown use to having control over players contracts, had to compete with each other for the services of their own players if they wanted to stay competitive. This led to longtime Athletics owner Charlie Finley to disassociate himself from a game he was involved in for the past 12 years (1968-1980).
Animosity ran wild over the course of the early 1980's, culminating with a lengthy work stoppage in 1981. Owners had the tables flipped on them and decided to go to every length to close the ground. Statements made by Commissioner Peter Ueberroth were made public, proving that he could care less that he was incriminating himself (in baseball terms). The Commissioner was going to curtail the length of contracts any way he could and he made it clear that he wanted all owners to do the same. Led by Ueberroth, all owners agreed to only re-sign their own free agents for the exception of players the owners did not want to have back. After the 1985 season, only four players switched teams. The same happened after the 1986 season. While the obvious could be stated that players lost money and guaranteed years, a lot more was at stake to some.
Andre Dawson was not retained by the Montreal Expos after the 1986 season. He went into spring training without a job. He came to camp with the Chicago Cubs presenting a blank check (perhaps figuratively) to General Manager Dallas Green. He managed to slip in a bonus to be paid to him if he were selected as the National League's Most Valuable Player. He came out on top. Few others were anywhere near as lucky. Bob Horner was not offered a contract by the Atlanta Braves, or anybody from Major League Baseball. He wound up having to play in Japan in 1987. It took its toll on him, as he was not the same player when the St. Louis Cardinals signed him before the 1988 season.
Al Oliver was fresh off an impressive American League Championship Series with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1985. Wanting to continue his career as a designated hitter, Oliver was looking to add to his 2743 career hits. No offers came his way forcing Oliver to call it a career. After the 1987 season, Steve Garvey took a hard stance on what he felt was collusion, accusing the San Diego Padres of not exercising options he should have been given for the 1988 and 1989 seasons. The Padres neither exercised the options, nor offered him a contract for the 1988 season. Garvey retired.
"Scoop" hit .303 for his career and was one of five players in baseball history to collect 200 hits in each league.A seven time All Star, Oliver won a batting championship and amassed over 500 doubles in his career. Had Oliver chosen to retire, experts could say he may have fell a little short of Hall of Fame standards. But, what if he wanted to continue to play but was not allowed to due to collusion? Oliver made this exact statement to me during an interview in 2013 for the Passed Ball Show.
Garvey was the 1974 NL MVP and managed to put up a .338, .361, .550 triple stash line (Batting Average, On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage) in 55 postseason games. He was the Iron Man of his era, playing in 1207 consecutive games from 1975-1983. Garvey had six 200 hit seasons in seven years from 1974-1980 and was a ten time All Star. Garvey went through a vigorous process of a lawsuit of $3 million in damages against Major League Baseball. He eventually won his case, though the decision was not final until 2001, when the Supreme Court ruled in Garvey's favor.
If the voters are understanding of players' careers cut short due to injury and are equally as empathetic when it comes to those who gave up prime years of their careers to serve the country in a major World War, why has there been little mention of how collusion cost Oliver and Garvey a chance to be in the Hall of Fame. Both wanted to play and were clearly not given a contract because of the colluding owners. Would it be fair to assume that both could continue their careers, even if not at a Hall of Fame level? If Oliver played another two seasons as a DH and compiled a pedestrian 130 hits per season, he would have over 3000 for his career. If Garvey played another three seasons, which was certainly reasonable, it would not be too much to ask for him to record 140 hits each season. He too would have amassed over 3000 hits. Though standards have changed, 3000 hits would have been a Hall of Fame lock during the 1990's. Garvey was on the ballot for 15 years and never got more 42.6% of the vote. Oliver, inexplicably, was off the ballot after one year, having garnished only 4.3% of the vote.
When cases are being made for players for all different reasons, few have considered those careers who were cut short by collusion. Collusion should be on the same level of those who lost latter years of their career due to injury or prime seasons due to military service.