John Alexander Messersmith
- Bats Right, Throws Right
- Height 6' 1", Weight 200 lb.
- School University of California
- High School Western High School (Anaheim)
- Debut July 4, 1968
- Final Game June 1, 1979
- Born August 6, 1945 in Toms River, NJ USA
"It was less of an economic issue at the time than a fight for the right to have control over your own destiny. It was a matter of being tired of going in to negotiate a contract and hearing the owners say, 'OK, here's what you're getting. Tough luck'." - reflecting on his role in free agency in the 1980s
Pitcher Andy Messersmith is best remembered today for his role in making free agency a reality. He played the 1975 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers without a signed contract, then after the season challenged Major League Baseball to have him declared a free agent, now that his option year had expired. Fellow pitcher Dave McNally, who had retired from the Montreal Expos in mid-season, joined him in the legal action, which was decided by a three-member panel headed by arbitrator Peter Seitz. The owners argued that Messersmith was bound by an indefinite reserve clause, which allowed a team to renew a player's contract indefinitely, even without the player's consent. On December 23, 1975, the panel ruled in favor of the two players, declaring them free agents because the standard line in player contracts could only be interpreted to allow the clubs to renew a contract unilaterally for one year and one year only. The decision was a major milestone in how baseball's business was to be conducted, and led to various labor upheavals while the owners figured out how to adapt to the new reality. The result of the decision was to make Messersmith the first modern free agent (there had been a few other free agents before him, but as the result of a breach of contract, either deliberate or accidental, and not because such contract was considered to have come to a "natural" end).
For his part, Messersmith signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Braves in 1976. Braves owner Ted Turner suggested that he wear "Channel" where his name would usually be on his uniform, above his number 17. Why? Braves games aired on Channel 17 and Messersmith would be free advertisement when he pitched.
Messersmith was first signed by the California Angels after being selected in the secondary phase of the 1966 amateur draft, out of the University of California at Berkeley. He reached the majors in 1968 and quickly established himself as one of the best young pitchers in the game when he went 16-11, 2.52 in his first full season in 1969. In 1971, he made the All-Star team for the first time and finished at 20-13, 2.99 with 14 complete games. Following the 1972 season, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a blockbuster deal that involved 7 players. The Dodgers gave up future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and 20-game winner Bill Singer, in addition to Billy Grabarkewitz, Mike Strahler and Bobby Valentine to obtain Messersmith and 3B Ken McMullen.
Despite the steep price they paid, the Dodgers got their money's worth as Messersmith gave them three excellent seasons. He went 14-10, 2.70 in 1973, then in 1974 helped lead them to a division title with a 20-6 record and a 2.59 ERA. He returned to the All-Star team that year as the starting pitcher for the National League and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting behind teammate Mike Marshall, who set all-time records for games and innings pitched by a reliever. He started and won Game 2 of the NLCS against the Pittsburgh Pirates on October 6th, giving up 2 runs in 7 innings as L.A. won, 5-2. In the World Series, he lost both of his starts against the Oakland Athletics. In Game 1, he gave up 3 runs (2 earned) in 8 innings but lost, 3-2, then in Game 4, he allowed 5 runs in 6 innings in a 5-2 loss. He had another excellent season in 1975, when he went 19-14, 2.29. He led the National League in starts (40), complete games (19), shutouts (7) and innings pitched (321 2/3) while returning to the All-Star Game.
When he joined the Braves in 1976, Messersmith was among the highest-profile pitchers in baseball, considered in the same class as future Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins and Catfish Hunter. However, perhaps due to overuse the previous year, his first season with the Braves was a disappointment. He pitched just 29 games and finished at 11-11, 3.04. He still logged over 200 innings and made the All-Star team for the fourth and last time, but had to miss the game itself as he was injured. In 1977, arm woes really befell him, and he pitched just 16 times, going 5-4, 4.40. Ted Turner had been expecting more, and after the season, he was sold to the New York Yankees. He headed into the 1978 season with considerable hype, now that he was again pitching for a top team. But he separated his shoulder in a spring training collision at first base on March 16th and did not make his first appearance until late May. That first game, on May 29th, was very promising, as he gave up just 1 hit and no runs to the Cleveland Indians in a no-decision, but it was all downhill after that. He made just five more appearances, four starts, the last on July 1st, and ended up at 0-3, 5.64. The Yankees handed him his release after the season and he re-joined the Dodgers, but he was a shadow of his former self in 1979, going 2-4, 4.91 in 11 starts, with more walks than hits allowed. His final start came on June 1st, and he was given his unconditional release at the end of August, ending his playing career at 33.
- 4-time All-Star (1971 & 1974-1976)
- 2-time NL Gold Glove Winner (1974 & 1975)
- NL Wins Leader (1974)
- NL Innings Pitched Leader (1975)
- NL Complete Games Leader (1975)
- NL Shutouts Leader (1975)
- 15 Win Seasons: 4 (1969, 1971, 1974 & 1975)
- 20 Win Seasons: 2 (1971 & 1974)
- 200 Innings Pitched Seasons: 6 (1969, 1971 & 1973-1976)
- 300 Innings Pitched Seasons: 1 (1975)
- 200 Strikeouts Seasons: 3 (1969, 1974 & 1975)
- Roger I. Abrams: "Arbitrator Seitz Sets the Players Free", in The Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Volume 38, Number 2 (Fall 2009), pp. 79-85.