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Braves Flashback Friday: Andy Messersmith, baseball’s first true free agent, comes to Atlanta

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All-Star right-hander signed with Braves 45 years ago this month

Portrait of Andy Messersmith
Pitcher Andy Messersmith, baseball’s first true free agent, signed with the Atlanta Braves in April 1976. (Getty Images)

Ted Turner was a man intent on making a splash any chance he got, and less than three months into his tenure as Atlanta Braves owner, he pulled off one of the biggest coups in baseball history.

On April 10, 1976, Turner and the Braves signed pitcher Andy Messersmith — the game’s first true free agent — to a 3-year, $1 million contract. Eight days later, Messersmith was on the mound at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium starting against the Los Angeles Dodgers, his former team.

The 30-year-old Messersmith performed well in that first start but didn’t get the win; in fact he wouldn’t win his first game as a Brave until mid-May. And he pitched in only 45 games with Atlanta, which sold his contract to the New York Yankees after just two injury-riddled years.

But Turner and the Braves certainly got their headlines. Messersmith’s 20-month tenure in Atlanta was filled with twists and turns and drew plenty of attention to a franchise that wasn’t winning very much in those days.

Messersmith was one of the best pitchers in baseball in the first half of the 1970s, an All-Star with the California Angels in 1971 before he was traded to the cross-town Los Angeles Dodgers two years later. Messersmith won 20 games and finished second in the National League Cy Young voting for the Dodgers in 1974, and followed that up with 19 wins, a 2.29 ERA and a league-best 19 complete games, seven shutouts and 321.2 innings in 1975.

True free agency had not yet come to baseball at that point, though relations between players and owners were beginning to come to a head. Oakland A’s star Catfish Hunter had his contract voided by an independent arbitrator after the 1974 season when owner Charlie Finley neglected to make payments on an insurance annuity, and signed a five-year, $3.75 million deal with the New York Yankees.

Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Marvin Miller had for many years been hot to test baseball’s reserve clause, which according to accepted practice bound a player to his team through a series of one-year contract renewals. Miller believed this to be false — that the clause was effective for one year and only one year — and looked for his test case, someone willing to play out his contract option in 1975 and try to become a free agent.

He found it in Messersmith, who had been in a long-standing salary dispute with the Dodgers. Messersmith wanted $175,000 for 1975 and a no-trade clause; the club wouldn’t budge off $115,000 with no such clause.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith, shown with teammates Doug Rau (left) and Charlie Hough (right) finished second in the National League Cy Young voting in 1974 and fifth in 1975. (Getty Images)

The Dodgers unilaterally renewed Messersmith’s contract, but Messersmith never signed it. A Southern Californian since age 5, he insisted he wanted to stay in Los Angeles and pitched the 1975 season without a contract.

On Oct. 15, 1975, Messersmith filed a grievance through the MLBPA, asking to be made a free agent. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley didn’t believe there was any danger of losing his star pitcher, telling the L.A. Times “we trust this matter will be disposed of by further negotiation.”

By the end of October, no progress had been made on an extension, and a hearing was set with arbitrator Peter Seitz for Nov. 21. By this time, fellow pitcher Dave McNally (who had not pitched after June 1975 and was planning to retire), filed a similar grievance.

As most readers know, Seitz ruled in favor of Messersmith and McNally on Dec. 23, declaring them (and any future players willing to follow a similar path) free agents. Baseball’s labor war had tipped incontrovertibly toward the players.

MLB owners not only fired Seitz, but filed an immediate appeal. However, a federal judge upheld the ruling.

Messersmith was in shock, and immediately went into seclusion. When he emerged, he told The Sporting News he wasn’t sure of his future plans.

“I have no idea where I’ll go and I have no preferences,” he said. “… National League or American, East or West … it doesn’t matter.”

The Dodgers continued on as usual, offering Messersmith a three-year, $540,000 contract (but still no no-trade clause). Team president Peter O’Malley (Walter’s son) told reporters he was still “optimistic Andy will be with the Dodgers in 1976.”

MLB owners continued to fight the rules, and locked players out of spring training in late February 1976. After the intervention of commissioner Bowie Kuhn, camps opened on March 18, three days after Messersmith was officially (and finally) declared a free agent.

What Messersmith could command on the open market was up for debate. While he was a very good pitcher, he was not considered an ace of Hunter’s caliber.

In addition, owners didn’t want to set a precedent by backing up the proverbial Brinks truck to sign him. Herb Osmond, Messersmith’s agent, told reporters that six clubs — including the Braves, Angels, San Diego Padres, Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals — had expressed interest in Messersmith, but only Atlanta and its maverick new owner had delivered a firm contract offer.

“I anticipate a lot of action,” Osmond said. “Andy’s still a hell of a pitcher and, no matter what’s going on in those negotiations between the owners and the players, he’s the only free agent around now. Some teams could obviously use him.”

Ted Turner bought the Atlanta Braves in 1976, and quickly set about making waves across Major League Baseball. (Getty Images)

In addition to Turner’s deep pockets and willingness to spend, one other thing the Braves had going for them was the presence of several of Messersmith’s former teammates on their roster. In December 1975, Atlanta and L.A. had swung a six-player trade, which brought outfielders Jimmy Wynn and Tom Paciorek and utility men Jerry Royster and Lee Lacy to the Braves in exchange for outfielder Dusty Baker and first baseman Ed Goodson.

Lacy predicted Messersmith could lift the Braves — who had gone 67-94 in 1975, their first season following the departure of franchise icon Henry Aaron — into the pennant race.

“Andy could be the key to the Garden of Eden,” Lacy told the Atlanta Constitution for a story published on March 20. “He could be the key to heaven. If we could get him, we would be in business.”

But the market continued to be slow, with the Angels and White Sox joining the Braves with first bids on Messersmith. Osmond told reporters he’d gotten only “feelers” from seven other clubs.

By March 24, the imperious Turner was losing his patience and threatened to pull the offer to Messersmith if no decision was reached soon. The following day, the Dodgers made what they termed their “final” bid, one said to be slightly higher than one they’d offered a few months prior (Messersmith turned it down).

The White Sox soon pulled out as well, unwilling to go higher than three years and $750,000. By the end of the month, Turner claimed he’d been stood up by Messersmith and Osmond at a scheduled meeting in Tampa.

“I’m losing my enthusiasm,” Turner said. “Not about things in general, but about the Messersmith thing. It’s a catastrophe.”

The reason for Messersmith’s hesitancy soon became clear. A new bidder had entered the arena, the same one who’d signed Hunter the previous winter — George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees.

Messersmith and Steinbrenner quickly hammered out a four-year contract, but talks broke down after the pitcher claimed the Yankees “altered terms offered to him.” Yankees general manager Gabe Paul told reporters Osmond had signed a memorandum of understanding on Messersmith’s behalf, though Messersmith’s camp claimed “Andy hasn’t signed a thing.”

(It was later revealed in a report by Murray Chass of The New York Times that the breakdown between Messersmith and the Yankees occurred because the club tried to insert a clause in the contract where it would receive 40% of all the pitcher’s endorsement earnings. Such an arrangement would have been illegal.)

On April 4, the Yankees publicly pulled the offer. Turner responded by saying “Good. I wonder if I should try to call him again. I don’t know if I want to get into all that again or not.”

By this time, the Padres offered a 4-year contract at $800,000 per season, plus a $300,000 signing bonus (for a total of $1.1 million). Messersmith and Osmond stood firm at $1.2 million, causing San Diego owner Ray Kroc to say he’d witnessed “the most amazing display of arrogance I’ve ever seen.”

Talks also fell through with the Angels, Messersmith’s original club. With the Braves set to open the 1976 season in San Diego on April 9, Turner set a meeting with Messersmith for the following day in Newport Beach, Calif., just up the coast.

Turner offered a total package of $1 million over five years. The pitcher countered at four years, $1.2 million.

The two sides compromised at three years and $1 million, including a $400,000 signing bonus, plus a no-trade and no-cut clause. The deal also included a series of rolling renewals, resulting in the headline on the April 11, 1976, edition of the Atlanta Constitution reading “Messersmith signs as a Brave ‘forever.’”

Atlanta Braves Andy Messersmith
Andy Messersmith officially signed with the Atlanta Braves on April 10, 1976, and was on the mound eight days later. (Getty Images)

Turner didn’t back away from terming the deal a “lifetime” contract, saying “Andy will be a Brave as long as I am. And I plan to be around a long, long time.” Osmond added, “As long as he’s capable and the Braves want him, he’ll be pitching for them.”

Osmond also scoffed at rumors that Messersmith had a sore arm, though Turner declined to insist on a pre-contract physical, possibly worrying his new free-agent prize would get away if he didn’t sign him immediately. Messersmith said as a lifelong Californian, he’d “miss the surf,” but Turner had an answer for that too.

“We’ve got lakes in Atlanta,” he said. “We’ll just buy some giant egg-beaters, make some waves and he can surf at Lake Lanier. No problem.”

Messersmith had worn No. 47 as a Dodger, but wound up with No. 17 in Atlanta. There was a reason for that as well, as the always publicity hungry Turner seized an opportunity to promote his soon-to-be-unveiled new satellite TV offering, Superstation WTCG.

“Super 17, that’s Andy,” he said.

Said Messersmith, “I’m glad that it’s over. I’m glad that’s behind me. Now, I can pitch.”

The regular season had already started by the time Messersmith signed, so he had no opportunity for spring training or to ramp up for the season other than throwing bullpens and in batting practice. Nevertheless, his Braves debut was scheduled for April 18 — Easter Sunday — against none other than the Dodgers.

A crowd of 21,734 showed up at Atlanta Stadium to watch Messersmith take the mound against his old club. He worked a scoreless first, then the Braves scored three runs in the bottom of the inning to give him an early lead.

Messersmith went just four innings, allowing a run on three hits with three walks and three strikeouts. Erring on the side of caution, manager David Bristol sent reliever Roger Moret out for the fifth.

“I’m the last guy in America to want to take Andy Messersmith out of a game,” Bristol told reporters after the game. “But we’re gonna have him for a while, not just on Easter Sunday.”

When asked if it troubled him to come out so early, Messersmith replied “nope, not a bit.”

Wynn slammed a three-run homer in the sixth to put Atlanta up 7-1, but Moret and fellow reliever Adrian Devine nearly let the lead get away. They allowed five runs in the seventh before Elias Sosa came on and got an inning-ending strikeout, then retired six straight to close out a 7-6 Braves victory.

Messersmith’s next outing came on April 21, when he entered a 2-0 game in the eighth inning in relief of starter Dick Ruthven and got the last six outs for the save. It would be his only relief appearance as a Brave.

Back in the starting rotation vs. Philadelphia on April 24, Messersmith was battered for five runs in five innings and got a no-decision in a 10-5 Atlanta loss. He then lost five straight starts, including 3-0 to the New York Mets on April 28, with the only runs coming on a three-run homer by Dave Kingman.

Atlanta had been 8-5 on April 25, but then lost 13 straight games to all but fall out of the race in the National League West. It was during that stretch that Turner began “kicking around” the idea of using nicknames rather than last names on the back of Braves players’ jerseys.

For Messersmith’s May 2 start against the Phillies in Atlanta, the Braves featured such players as “Nort” (shortstop Darrel Chaney), “Howdy” (third baseman Darrell Evans) and “Cannon” (Wynn). And then there was Messersmith, whose jersey nameplate read “Channel,” just above his jersey number, 17.

The free advertising for Turner’s television station didn’t help Messersmith’s pitching, as he gave up four runs in seven innings of an 8-2 loss. He then lost 3-1 to Pittsburgh on May 7 and then 6-3 to Tom Seaver and the Mets on May 12.

Here’s a photo of Messersmith wearing the “Channel 17” jersey:

Through his first seven appearances (six starts), Messersmith stood at 0-4 with a 5.11 ERA. Kingman, the Mets’ outspoken slugger, pulled no punches when he said “He can throw better than that. He’s just not the pitcher he was last year.”

The Braves had bigger problems by that time, as Turner was called on the carpet by National League president Chub Feeney for a variety of offenses, including an illegal incentive program for players, yelling “don’t sign” to Cardinals pitcher Al Hrabosky (a pending free agent) during a game and the whole “Channel 17” flap.

Messersmith finally picked up his first win as a Brave on May 17, firing a complete-game seven-hitter to beat the Houston Astros and flame-thrower J.R. Richard 3-2. Feeney ordered “Channel” to be taken off Messersmith’s jersey on May 20, and the following day, he pitched a three-hit shutout in an 8-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants.

There was a minor blow-up on May 26, when Messersmith was removed from a 2-1 game vs. the Cincinnati Reds after walking Pete Rose to lead off the eighth. He initially turned his back on Bristol and refused to give up the ball, but after Moret and Max Leon finished off a 4-3 victory told reporters, “everything’s good. We won.”

Messersmith had given up just two runs in his last 25 innings, and lowered his ERA to 3.34. On May 30, he lost 5-2 to the Astros in Atlanta, wearing “Bluto” on the back of his jersey.

Messersmith’s finest hour as a Brave came on June 6 in Montreal, as he retired 24 straight Expos after walking Mike Jorgensen with one out in the first inning. Pepe Mangual singled past Chaney with one out in the ninth, the Expos’ first — and only — hit in a 2-0 Atlanta victory.

He followed that up with another 2-0 shutout on May 9 vs. the Cubs in Chicago, then reeled off five straight complete games — four of them victories. He had lowered his ERA to 2.55, and was named National League Pitcher of the Month for June.

Messersmith beat the Giants 7-2 in San Francisco on July 2, running his record to 8-6 with a 2.37 ERA. That earned him a spot on the National League All-Star team, his fourth such honor in six years with three different clubs.

Messersmith had apparently been troubled by a hamstring injury for several weeks, and pulled out of the All-Star Game a few days later. He was replaced on the squad by Ruthven, who was the Braves’ only representative.

There were whispers around the game that Messersmith’s injury was not real, though Bristol insisted that it was. However, he lost his first three starts after the All-Star break, and confided to a reporter in late July “I’ll be glad when this year is over.”

Atlanta Braves
Andy Messersmith was an All-Star for the Braves in 1976, though he missed the game with a hamstring injury. (Getty Images)

Messersmith beat Houston and San Diego in back-to-back complete games to get to 11-9 on the year by Aug. 3. He went seven innings and got a no-decision against the Giants on Aug. 7, but then was sent home from a road game at Philadelphia on Aug. 11 due to shoulder soreness.

He missed just one start, but lost 4-0 to St. Louis on Aug. 14. After a no-decision against Cincinnati on Aug. 19, Messersmith was hammered for eight runs in three innings of a 14-3 loss to the Phillies on Aug. 24 in Atlanta.

The Braves were 57-70 and 23 games out of first at that point, so there was no reason to push things with their million-dollar pitcher. On Aug. 30, he was officially shut down for the season with shoulder soreness.

Messersmith’s 1976 numbers weren’t bad, particularly considering his late start and lack of spring training. In 29 appearances (28 starts) for a Braves team that finished 70-92 and in last place, he went 11-11 with a 3.04 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 207.1 innings.

Baseball Reference gives him credit for 5.5 Wins Above Replacement that season, more than the 5.3 he’d posted when he’d finished second in the Cy Young voting with the Dodgers in 1974. He did all that despite pitching all season with injuries and after being “emotionally drained” following his protracted free agent case and the subsequent negotiations.

Messersmith was given the Braves’ Opening Day start at Houston in 1977, and gave up just two runs in nine innings. The Braves lost 3-2 in 11 innings when the Astros’ Joe Ferguson hit a walk-off homer against reliever Bob Johnson.

He won his next two starts, but then missed 10 days with what was termed “pain in his left side” (likely what we’d now call a strained oblique). He came back April 30 against the Cardinals in St. Louis, but left after just three innings when he re-aggravated the injury.

This time, he landed on the disabled list and was sidelined until May 22. Pitching exclusively out of the stretch to compensate for his injury, he went six innings and got the win in a 5-2 victory over the Cubs.

Messersmith then won 8-3 at San Diego on May 26, and stood at 4-1 with a 3.76 ERA. He would win just one more game as a Brave, beating the Padres again 5-3 in Atlanta on June 25.

The Braves were a horrible team in 1977, and were 28-47 by the end of the June. Atlanta Constitution sports editor Jesse Outlar openly speculated in his July 1 column that the club might try to trade away some of its pitching to the Dodgers, who were trying in vain to catch the powerful Cincinnati Reds in the NL West.

Outlar wrote that perhaps the Braves would be open to dealing Ruthven, Phil Niekro or even Messersmith. However, one anonymous scout dismissed the latter idea.

“When Andy Messersmith is right, he’s one of the very best,” the scout said. “But he’s had his problems in Atlanta. He hasn’t been the same pitcher since he missed spring training in 1976.”

On July 3, Messersmith told the AJC that a trade back to the Dodgers was “out of the question” (remember, he had a full no-trade clause). L.A. general manager Al Campanis, who hadn’t helped matters by attending Messersmith’s previous start vs. the Dodgers in Atlanta, also flatly denied the rumor.

It ended up being moot, as Messersmith was injured on the very first batter of his next start in Houston. After leaping to try and snag a high-hopper off the bat of Astros leadoff man Julio Gonzales, Messersmith fell on his pitching arm and left the game.

Two days later he was placed on the 21-day disabled list with a “stretched elbow.” He flew to Los Angeles to visit famed orthopedist Dr. Frank Jobe, with season-ending surgery among the possible outcomes.

Messersmith at first opted for rehab instead of an operation, and threw batting practice until he was activated from the DL on Sept. 2 after rosters expanded. He never pitched in a game, however, and finally went under the knife on Sept. 12.

Atlanta Braves
Andy Messersmith pitched two seasons for the Atlanta Braves before his contract was sold to the New York Yankees in December 1977. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Messersmith’s second season with Atlanta ended with a 5-4 record and a 4.40 ERA in 11 starts. The Braves finished 61-101, to that point the worst record since the franchise left Boston for Milwaukee in 1953 (and still the second worst for an Atlanta team).

Seeking to cut costs on a bad team, Turner sold Messersmith’s contract to the Yankees for $100,000 on Dec. 8, 1977. Messersmith expressed regret at the way his Atlanta tenure turned out.

“Ted went out on a limb to get me, and I didn’t pan out for him,” he said. “I’m sorry about that. It leaves a bad feeling inside, a real bad feeling. I wish I could have done better. That’s the thing I hate about it.”

Steinbrenner, buoyed by the fact that his team had just won its first World Series in 15 years, asserted “this is going to be the best deal the Yankees ever made.” But Messersmith fell and separated his shoulder during his spring training, and pitched only 22 1/3 innings (with a 5.64 ERA) for the Bronx Bombers in 1978.

His million-dollar contract expired, Messersmith re-signed with the Dodgers for 1979. But after posting a 2-4 record and a 4.91 ERA in 11 starts, he was diagnosed with nerve inflammation in his pitching arm and had season-ending surgery that ultimately led to his retirement.

Messersmith’s career was over at age 33, after 12 seasons, 130 victories, a 2.86 ERA (good for an ERA+ of 121), four All-Star appearances and two Gold Gloves. His Atlanta tenure did not end in glory, but “Channel 17” signing with the Braves forever changed the face of modern Major League Baseball.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; Newspapers.com; SABR Bio Project; Atlanta Braves 1977 Media Guide