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Free agency turns 30

The story, legacy of the Messersmith/McNally ruling

Posted: Friday December 23, 2005 1:43PM; Updated: Friday December 23, 2005 5:41PM
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When you hear the term "M&M Boys" mentioned in baseball circles, images of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris immediately come to mind. But the M&Ms that affect the modern game the most are Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Messersmith/McNally ruling that signaled the death knell for baseball's infamous reserve system and paved the way for free agency.

Curt Flood's antitrust suit against MLB successfully raised the general awareness of the unfairness of the reserve system, but in 1972 his case ended squarely in defeat. Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Players Association, had anticipated the loss and so was not overly discouraged by the outcome. He knew the way to overturn the reserve system was more narrow and direct. It involved the interpretation of Paragraph 10a of the Uniform Players Contract, which stated that a team could renew a player's contract without the player's approval for the period of one year. The owner's contended that this clause could be renewed indefinitely. Miller believed the language was clear: one year meant just that -- one year.

In the 1970 basic agreement, Miller got the owners to agree to the introduction of an impartial arbitrator to mediate grievances between the players and owners. Previously, the commissioner had been the final arbitrator, but Miller and the players didn't believe that the commissioner was a fair judge. With an arbitrator in place, Miller's hypothesis could be tested. It was, he believed, the key to the players' salvation.

Enter Messersmith

Andy Messersmith was the Alex Rodriguez of his day -- the poster boy for free-agent greed.
Andy Messersmith was the Alex Rodriguez of his day -- the poster boy for free-agent greed.
Darryl Norenberg/WireImage
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A round-faced right-hander with curly blond hair, Messersmith had grown up in Southern California and played for the Angels and Dodgers. A bright, affable and self-effacing man, Messersmith loved pitching for the Dodgers almost as much as he loved surfing. He threw a good fastball, had a devastating change-up and a hard curve.

Historian Bill James suggests Jason Schmidt as a good contemporary comp for Messersmith, "not with the change, but in overall impact." In 1974 Messersmith was the ace of the Dodgers' staff and the best starter in the league, going 20-6 in 292 innings with a 2.59 ERA. At 29, he was in the prime of his career.

Messersmith earned $90,000 a year in 1974 and he and his agent, Herb Osmond, balked at the Dodgers' offer of a slight increase for '75. They soon ran into a bigger problem when they sought assurance that Messersmith would not be traded. He didn't want to play for anyone but the Dodgers, yet the organization had never issued a no-trade clause and had no intention of starting now. When the two sides could not come to an agreement, Messersmith chose to play out his option year without signing a new deal.

"It was less of an economic issue at the time than a fight for the right to have control over your own destiny," Messersmith told The Sporting News more than 10 years later. "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.'"

In August, Messersmith approached Miller about the possibility of taking his case to baseball's independent arbitrator, Peter Seitz, the man who granted Catfish Hunter free agency the previous winter. Miller's enthusiasm was tempered by the reality that the Dodgers still had plenty of time to settle, and that he would not deter Messersmith from doing what was best for himself in that situation.

Miller's insurance policy

Dave McNally, a veteran pitcher who was all but retired, became Miller's backup plan. A crafty southpaw (think Andy Pettitte or Mark Buerhle), McNally was a good union man and a highly successful starting pitcher on the famed Baltimore Oriole teams of the late 1960s and early '70s. He won 20 games in four straight seasons (1968-'71, with an overall record in those years of 87-31). The Orioles would have a long line of players who were actively involved in the Players Association -- from Brooks Robinson, to Don Baylor and Mark Belanger. McNally was soft spoken but he was a competitor who possessed strong convictions about the reserve system.

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