Mickey Mantle would have become a free agent after his sixth season, 1956 when he led the majors in triple crown stats: home runs, RBI and batting average. That's if the old American and National Leagues had the same goofy rules that absorb our attention on hot stove programs during the off season, the ones in which trades and signings cause us to covet our neighboring team's players.
Of course, the Yankees might have preempted that by signing Mickey to a long term contract after his big 1952 season when he was third in AL MVP voting at age twenty, trailing only two pitchers. Or maybe the Yanks had already traded Mickey after 1955 when he and Willie Mays each led their leagues in both triples and home runs, a feat matched in the modern era only by Jim Bottomley, NL 1928. Trade Mickey Mantle a year before he could become a free agent and get prospects. Makes your skin crawl, doesn't it? Come on, admit it.
We didn't think in those terms then. Many teams had a star player and that's where that player belonged. We didn't dream or scheme about how to acquire another team's star. Hank Aaron was a Brave. Al Kaline was a Tiger. That was it. That's where they belonged. There was a certain sense of propriety, which now seems either quaint or radical.
Why should I get worked up about a continuous flow of rent-a-player transactions, which never seem to satisfy, no matter how spectacular they may seem at the beginning? See Alex Rodriguez.
No, I'm not supporting the old reserve clause, which bound a player to a team. I'm all for the players making as much as they can. If Mickey Mantle had gone free agent after his 1956 season he might have signed a huge contract. Maybe $100,000 for each of seven seasons. The players are the game, not the owners and, sure as heck, not the fans. No players, no game. The players risk life and limb for our entertainment.
Maybe we fans should encourage players to remain with their natural teams, maybe by appreciating them more and coveting replacements less. Something is broken and needs to be fixed. Maybe the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves.