The change-up is what Andy Messersmith is remembered for. He threw it past batters often enough during a 12-year career to win 130 games for the Angels, Dodgers, Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees. And, in 1976, he threw it at major league baseball, loosening ties that previously bound players forever to one team.
Before Messersmith, the present-day concept of baseball free agency was nothing more than a twinkle in eye of Curt Flood, a sheer fantasy grounded by a ball-and-chain known as the reserve clause. Before Messersmith, the reserve clause restricted players to one team for as long as that team wanted, without the player having a say in the matter.
Messersmith got his say in 1976, after he had his day in court. Along with pitcher Dave McNally, Messersmith challenged the reserve clause with the assertion that a player should become a free agent one year after the expiration of his contract. Following this so-called “option year,” Messersmith and McNally argued, a player should have the option of where to peddle his services.
Arbitrator Peter Seitz concurred and, in an historic decision, granted Messersmith and McNally--and dozens of others who would follow--their freedom.
McNally never took advantage of his new-found mobility--retiring before the 1976 season--but Messersmith parlayed it into a three-year, $1 million contract with the Atlanta Braves, making him the first benefactor of the modern free-agent system.
For this, as much as for his skill on the pitcher’s mound, Messersmith will be honored tonight as one of four 1988 inductees into the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame. The plaque that will mark Messersmith’s inclusion in the hall cites his 20-win seasons for both the Angels and the Dodgers, his outstanding athletic career at Western High School . . . and his “history-making challenge of baseball’s reserve clause.”
And how does Messersmith view his niche in major league baseball history?
In his ninth year of retirement, Messersmith, 42, doesn’t pay much attention to the current state of the game. “I don’t follow baseball,” he says. And he has cut virtually all ties with that portion of his life, calling former Dodger pitching coach Red Adams “the only (baseball) person I keep in touch with.”
The fallout from the emancipation proclamation of ’76 has left Messersmith soured on the professional game. Although he doesn’t use the word blacklist , Messersmith doesn’t get many invitations to throw out the first pitch. Nor does he encounter many welcome mats at the front door of big-league front offices.
When it comes to money and the loss of power, Messersmith has found, baseball owners have long memories.
As he puts it, “I’m the guy who cost them millions.”
According to Messersmith, he felt the backlash almost as soon as Seitz handed down his decision.
“I had very few offers,” Messersmith said. “It was very interesting. Not many teams were interested in me, even though I felt I was the best pitcher in the National League at that time.
“I won 19 games the year before, threw 330 innings (actually 322) and led the league in CGs (complete games, with 19). Yet, I was getting offers of $60,000.
“So, what’s been brought to the fore lately with the owners was happening then, too.”
In other words, the grand tradition of collusion against free agency may date back to the very birth of free agency itself.
It took a maverick such as Atlanta Braves’ owner Ted Turner to break from the ranks and make Messersmith enough of an offer to make free agency worthwhile. And it took until the first week of the 1976 season before the ex-Dodger could find new employment. He signed with the Braves on April 10.
Looking back, Messersmith doesn’t describe it as one of his happier experiences--only a necessary one.
“I’m glad I did it,” he said. “It needed to be done. I had gone through a couple of negotiations that were very one-sided and it (free agency) became a principle thing to me. The owners kind of had us in a corner. The players needed to get some respect.”
Other things Andy Messersmith is remembered for:
--He was a 20-game winner for both the Angels and the Dodgers.
In 1971, at age 26, Messersmith went 20-13 for an Angel team that finished 25 1/2 games out of first place. Three years later and 35 miles up the freeway, Messersmith went 20-6 to help the Dodgers reach the World Series for the first time in eight years.
Messersmith’s feat is rare, equalled only by Bill Singer, who won 20 games for the Dodgers in 1969 and again for the Angels in 1973.
--He was a principal in one of the biggest trades in Angel history.
On Nov. 28, 1972, the Angels sent Messersmith and aging third baseman Ken McMullen to the Dodgers for five players--Singer, future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, third baseman Bill Grabarkewitz, utilityman Bobby Valentine and pitcher Mike Strahler.
Messersmith went on to much greater heights than his former teammates, winning 53 games in three Dodger seasons and pitching in the 1974 World Series, but says he can’t fault the Angels for making the deal.
“Sometimes, you have to make trades to build,” he said. “Heck, they got five players for two. And Frank Robinson was a big part of that. They were hoping he would instill a winning attitude there.”
The ensuing years showed that it didn’t happen, leaving the Angels to wonder just what a pitching threesome of Nolan Ryan, Frank Tanana and Messersmith might have been able to accomplish in the mid-70s.
Maybe Gene Autry’s wait for a division champion wouldn’t have taken until the brink of the 1980s.
When Messersmith was with the Angels, they weren’t close. “I think the highlight was finishing third one year,” he said.
Ask him for other Angel memories and Messersmith will laugh.
“Small crowds,” he begins. “Great owner, but not very good teams. And a lousy spring training camp. Holtville, the carrot capital of the world.”
Life after the Dodgers, too, was similarly eventful for Messersmith, although not as humorous. With the Braves, Messersmith snapped his elbow and managed just a 5-4 record in 1977. After that, he was sold to the New York Yankees, with whom he separated his shoulder while diving for a ground ball. Messersmith ended the 1978 season at 0-3.
After a final one-year reunion with the Dodgers in 1979, Messersmith retired to Northern California. He relocated around Santa Cruz, where he has spent the last four years as the baseball coach at Cabrillo College.
At this level of the sport, Messersmith has found a new home.
“I’m not the world’s greatest coach but I enjoy it,” he said. “I love the interaction with kids at that age, making the transition from high school to adulthood. That’s a real special time.”
And if he’s unwelcome in the luxury suites around the National and American Leagues, well, Messersmith has learned to live with it. Although it is called free agency, nobody ever said it would come without a price.