"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

A Fine Mess

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Messersmith/McNally ruling that would mark the end of the reserve clause and initiate the begining of the free agency era. I’ve got a piece commemorating the anniversary over at SI.com.

While Dave McNally, whose role in the affair is often over-looked, retired, Andy Messersmith was granted free agency. Though he ultimately signed a 3-year, $1 million deal with Ted Turner to play for the Braves, he almost became a Yankee.

“Messersmith, of course, almost played for the Yankees. If he had, though, he would have played under an agreement that, in part, would have been illegal.

The illegal portion of the agreement Messersmith nearly signed was a side letter the Yankees didn’t intend to include with the uniform player’s contract that was to be filed with the American League office. It covered two points, one dealing with the pitcher’s dress and grooming, the other with an agreement under which the Yankees, at George Steinbrenner’s suggestion, would have received 40 percent of all fees Messersmith would have earned for advertising and commercial endorsements.

The side agreement, illegal under baseball law, was part of the evidence introduced earlier this month in the two day hearing held before Commissioner Bowie Kuhn into the disputed between the Yankees and Messersmith…”

Murray Chass, New York Times. April 25, 1976.

Kuhn would declare the deal void, paving the way for Ted Turner. But after a difficult 1976, and an injury-riddled ’77, Turner shipped Messersmith to the Yankees.

Here is what Sparky Lyle had to say about it. From his book, “The Bronx Zoo”:

Monday, March 6 (1978):

I got myself worked up so much that I finally went in to talk to George. I told him, “You bought Messsersmith’s contract from Atlanta from $333,333. The man has just had an arm operation, you don’t know whether he can throw, and if he can throw, you don’t know whether he can make our pitching staff, it’s the final year of his contract, and next year he’ll be a free agent again.” I said, “I’ll be a son of a bitch if after performing like I have for you since you’ve taken over this ball club and after you give him double the money I’m making, I don’t get what he’s making.” In baseball, owners and general managers are always telling players that how valuable you are to the ball club is determined by how you perform and how many years you’re with the club. But then a new guy is signed, and none of that crap matters.

And then, a few weeks later:

Thursday, March 16:

All spring Andy Messersmith had been pitching real well, super for a guy who had just had his elbow operated on. His fastball was moving, he had good control, and it was looking like George’s gamble might have paid off, until today. We were playing the White Sox in an exhibition game, and in the fourth inning, Ralph Garr hit a grounder to Cliff, who was playing first. Andy ran to cover the bag, and when Cliff threw behind him, Andy fell trying to reach back for the ball. He fell hard on his shoulder, and now doctors think it might be separated. He may miss the rest of the season.

Messersmith would start five games for the Yanks, going 0-3 (and allowing seven dingers), in a total of 22 innings. But he was hurt for the majority of the season and was released in November. Messersmith ironically ended his career the following year with the Dodgers, the team he never wanted to leave in the first place. But he only pitched in 62 innings was was cut at the end of August.

House Calls

I spoke with Dr. Mike Marshall about Messersmith earlier this week. Marshall and Messersmith were teammates with the Dodgers in ’74 and ’75 and then again with the Braves in ’76. In ’74, Marshall, who was studying for his doctorate in the science of human movement at the University of Michigan during the off-season, had one of the greatest single seasons ever by a relief pitcher and won the CY Young award. Here is a small portion of our conversation:

Mike Marshall: When I arrived in spring training in ’74, Andy came over and he said, uh, “I’m in your hands, tell me what to do this year.” Andy was a great pitcher that just didn’t have anybody to guide and that he thought that I could was certainly a compliment.

BB: Was it that he didn’t trust the pitching coaches he had had?

Marshall: No, he had pitching coaches, but I think was the only person at the time to do any analysis of pitch sequencing. I did that at Michigan State. I analyzed what pitching sequences had most favorable results against which kind of hitters. In any case, Andy had a problem. He had a very deformed pitching arm from baseball pitching…I took the x-rays right after the ’74 season. He came up to Michigan State. I took x-rays and explained to him what was going on, and tried to get him to learn how to stop doing it. But it’s a problem inherent in the natural pitching motion that you slam you bang the bones of your elbow together…He knew I was doing this kind of work and research and most people knew that I was actively doing high-speed filming and researching of the baseball pitching motion. So we worked together and became friends in that regard, and I helped him with pitch sequencing and he had a pretty good year that year in ’74, actually had it not been for me he would have won the CY Young award, since he was second. If his arm hadn’t been destroyed that much from using a traditional pitching motion…he was a superlative pitcher. He had outstanding pitches that he held back by the fact that his pitching arm was essentially handicapped.

BB: What did he throw?

Marshall: Well, he threw very hard. He was a very powerful man and he had an outstanding change up and he threw a very good breaking ball.

BB: Was it a slider?

Marshall: No, I think he threw more of a curve ball, but it was a very hard pitch. And it worked as strike out pitch. In other words, a slider is not a strikeout pitch unless you get some dufus to chase it out of the strike zone. It moves laterally within the strike zone they usually get a piece of it. But his ball had more of a down-break. It was a high-quality pitch. He was certainly an outstanding pitcher that would have been far better had he not used the traditional pitching motion for his entire life. But still, he did well. But I always look at it the as how much better people could be if they didn’t have these problems.

BB: What kind of personality did he have?

Marshall: Well, Andy’s a very up beat, out-going personality, but he’s also extremely private. On the one hand when you’re with him he can be charming and exuberant and all of that and then snap, disappear on you and you wont’ see him. I doubt very much that you could reach him or that he’d talk to you or anything.

BB: I actually did reach him and he declined to comment on anything.

Marshall: You reached him, that’s amazing. I mean I don’t know how you were able to do that, I happen to be able to get a hold of him and talk to him on occasion but I don’t abuse it. And the man just doesn’t look on his professional years as anything he wants to recall. And that’s fine. There’s people…I mean he received a lot of grief from some people for courage. The morons out there that think we aren’t nothing but puppets and chattel for their enjoyment. We’re not human beings deserving of any fair play or due process or anything.

BB: How bad a toll did the backlash in ’76 take on him mentally?

Marshall: Well, I can’t speak to that, Andy’s not one to let you psychoanalyze him nor would I even try. I’m sure that it was a difficult time for him. I think he did a good job but he did withdraw a little bit more, he became more private. Didn’t seek to be out in the public that much. That’s understandable. I would have been more the type to say, you know, kiss my behind you moron don’t you know anything. You’re not going to join your union and expect your rights but we can’t have em. Any person with a brain would realize that what we did was completely legal and appropriate given the situation.

Messersmith was a fine pitcher before he became a free agent. Yes, his injury history was probably bound to catch up with him, but the added mental pressures he faced really messed with him..

In November, 1986, Frank Blackman did a profile on Messersmith for the San Francisco Examiner. Messersmith had moved on from the professional game and was happily coaching high school kids:

“I can honestly say I’m happier now than at any time I was playing baseball…

Baseball was always too much work…It was always too heavy. It was no fun. Here we are, making more money than you can spend. You’re playing in a beautiful area. And it’s not fun. We’re not having a good time. Look out there. How many guys are really having a good time playing baseball? Really having fun?”

“Somebody asked me once what I missed most about baseball. And I said the first and the 15th.”

…”I did this free agency thing and that really took care of my career…I had always had a good rapport with the fans, especially in Los Angeles. All the energy started turning the other way when I did this thing.”

“Ninety-eight percent of my mail was hate mail. I got hit over the head coming out of a ballpark. The players, my peers, were ripping me in the press.”

…”I really think I overdid it,” he says, the pain still apparent on his face. “I tired. I wanted to. That was too much money for me. I tried too hard. I forced it.”

Life improved for Messersmith when he left baseball. Still, he and Dave McNally should be remembered for their actions in helping to defeat the reserve clause. They took a lot of hits–especially Messersmith–for their stand. It wasn’t pretty for him but it showed that you could end up with a mediocre career and still make a lot of bread in baseball. Which has become a tradition in and of itself for the last 30 years. So he’s a trend-setter in that way too.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver