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Monday, November 20
Free agency: How it happened

Andy Messersmith's name has largely been lost to history. Some may remember him as the pitcher who challenged baseball's reserve clause, but most fans don't realize how good of a pitcher he was.

Messersmith finished with a 130-99 career record and 2.86 ERA. He twice won 20 games and three times led his league in lowest opponents' batting average. He was one of baseball's top pitchers when he left the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent and signed with the Atlanta Braves following the 1975 season. However, after signing with Atlanta he began experiencing arm problems and won just 18 more games.

How did he and Dave McNally (who was actually retired) become the first two players to be declared free agents? Here are some questions and answers.

What was the McNally-Messersmith decision?
On December 23, 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz declared that the two pitchers were free agents. In a 64-page ruling, Seitz sided with the players in their interpretation of Section 10A of the standard player contract. "The grievances of Messersmith and McNally are sustained," Seitz wrote. "There is no contractual bond between these players and the Los Angeles and Montreal clubs, respectively."

The players became free agents. After making the ruling, Seitz was immediately fired by the owners as baseball's arbitrator.

OK, how did we get to that point? What was Section 10A?
Historically, players were bound to their teams through the reserve clause, which allowed a team to renew a player's contract in perpetuity. Thus, players had no control over where they played. However, union chief Marvin Miller had spotted a possible flaw in the language of the contract.

In part, Section 10A read, "... the Club may tender to the Player a contract for the term of that year by mailing the same to the Player. If prior to the March 1 next succeeding said January 15, the Player and the Club have not agreed upon the terms of such contract, then on or before 10 days after said March 1, the Club shall have the right ... to renew this contract for the period of one year."

To Miller, this renewal clause implied only a one-year option for the club. What if the player didn't sign a contract? The club could renew him for "the period of one year," but that would be it. There would no longer be a contractual obligation between the player and team. Miller just needed a player to test this out.

Isn't this what Curt Flood did?
Sort of. Flood challenged the legality of the reserve clause itself. Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season, a move that upset him. Rather than sign a $100,000 contract with Philadelphia, Flood went to court. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled against Flood, 5-3. However, the closeness of the decision led baseball owners to agree to an arbitration system. That arbitration system meant Messersmith and McNally had the right to go to Peter Seitz for a ruling in 1975.

But wasn't Catfish Hunter the first free agent?
Technically, yes. Hunter was declared a free agent after the 1974 season when Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley failed to make a $50,000 payment into an insurance annuity as called for in Hunter's contract. The players' union and Finley took the case to Seitz, and the arbitrator ruled Finley had defaulted on the contract.

Hunter was thus free to sign with any team. He was one of baseball's best pitchers and nearly every team made a bid for him. Hunter signed a five-year contract with the New York Yankees worth $3.5 million. His 1974 salary of $100,000 had suddenly jumped to an annual average of $700,000.

Back to Messersmith ... so he then played 1975 without signing his contract?
Yes, neither he nor McNally signed a 1975 contract, so their clubs renewed their 1974 contracts. This wasn't especially novel. Since 1972, 20 players had entered a season without a signed contract. However, all eventually signed during the season. Six players began the '75 season without a signed contract. Miller hoped one of them would go the distance to test the validity of 10A.

Messersmith had been brilliant in 1974, helping the Dodgers reach the World Series. He led the NL with 20 wins and finished second in the Cy Young voting. In discussing a new deal for 1975, Messersmith wanted a no-trade clause. The Dodgers wouldn't budge and Messersmith wouldn't sign.

Where does McNally factor in?
Miller wasn't sure that Messersmith would hold out for the entire season. McNally had never signed a contract for 1975, although the pitcher had retired in June. He had been traded to Montreal after the 1974 season, agreeing to the deal (as a 10-5 player) when he was promised a two-year contract. However, the Expos ended up offering only a one-year deal. He refused to sign and then quit in June after a sore arm dropped his record to 3-6. Miller had his second guy if necessary. But Messersmith held firm and never did sign.

What did Messersmith get as a free agent?
He pitched terrific throughout the strain of 1975, going 19-14 with a 2.29 ERA and leading the NL with 19 complete games and 321 innings. While Hunter had 24 clubs bidding for him, Messersmith was greeted with silence from baseball's owners ... except for this new maverick owner in Atlanta named Ted Turner. He gave Messersmith a three-year, $1 million deal -- and a no-trade clause. (McNally never pitched again.)

What happened next?
Seeing the money available, many players, including stars like Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich, Joe Rudi, Don Baylor and Rollie Fingers, played out the 1976 season without signing and became baseball's first great free-agent class. Negotations between the union and owners eventually changed the eligibility status, but the free-agent era was under way.

Recommended reading:
Lords of the Realm, John Helyar
A Whole Different Ball Game, Marvin Miller
The Way It Is, Curt Flood