Andy Messersmith, 24, throws a "hard curve" that hums like a fastball, surprises like a slider and hooks like a curve—that flares, like a flat rock thrown sidearm, or like the cutting edge of a scimitar. And then he throws a hearty fastball that rises a little and sometimes moves in other directions; an overhand curve that proceeds dramatically from eye level to just above the dirt; and two different changeups, one of which edges away, like a screwball, from a left-handed hitter. Taken all in all, that is what you call "stuff." It is the stuff that the Baltimore Orioles last winter wanted to discuss trading Frank Robinson and Tom Phoebus for, but the Angels said no. It is the stuff that a 20-minute movie is being made about, by Messersmith and Doug Barrymore, who was involved with Robert Redford in the early stages of the acclaimed ski movie Downhill Racer. But Messersmith almost lost it all several weeks ago, on camera, because having stuff is not enough for him; he is using the movie to fight a war that he insists on winning.
Several cameras, including a super-slow-motion one designed for studying ballistic missiles in flight, were focused on Messersmith and the ball during the Angels' game with Kansas City on April 19. He pitched eight innings worthy of John Wayne and Audie Murphy, and then he got wounded going beyond the call of pitching duty—strained his right shoulder sliding acrobatically for an essential extra base, and since then Dr. Robert Kerlan had to coax that great stuff back with cortisone.
Kerlan said Messersmith would probably miss two or three starts, and the Angels were inclined to agree, but Messersmith said, "He doesn't know me very well." The moody righthander has pitched right on through his supposed convalescent period, hurting more than usual and losing two while winning one. Now, after beating the Yankees last Saturday night with a complete-game six-hitter aided by his own home run, single and expert sacrifice bunt, Messersmith is 4-3, healthy, averaging almost a strikeout an inning and about ready to establish himself as the best pitcher in the American League.
The movie should be enlightening; from the stands it is hard to appreciate why the hitters are fishing around for Messersmith's offerings prematurely or hacking at them belatedly or taking them bemusedly for strikes. The hitters themselves may prefer something with Yvette Mimieux. They are already inclined to agree with what Billy Martin and Mayo Smith both stated flatly last year: that Messersmith "has the best stuff in the league."
"Good stuff" is a curious term. The words suggest something gratifyingly material, whereas in baseball they describe that which, ideally, one cannot get ahold of. Imagine that you are trying to bang a drum and Messersmith keeps moving it so that you just miss either the beat or the part of the skin that goes "boom" or the drum altogether. Last year, when Messersmith, with minimal help from the other Angels, won 16 and lost 11 in his first full big-league season, the league hit .190 against him. The next hardest-to-hit American League pitcher was Mike Cuellar at .204, and Denny McLain was down the list at .237. But such statistics are obscure, and Messersmith is acutely aware that the only thing that makes a pitcher substantial is his number of wins.
Barrymore says he chose Messersmith as the subject of the film because "he is the next Koufax." In terms of style, that is not strictly true. Lefty Phillips, currently manager of the Angels and formerly pitching coach of the Drysdale-Koufax Dodgers, points out that "Koufax had those big hands, those long fingers." He also had that big, powerful motion, whereby his stretching, pumping body served his wonderfully lissome, though ultimately arthritic, arm. "This body," says Messersmith, tapping himself on the barrel chest, "is nothing to me. It's all in this arm." And he holds up a substantial appendage that indeed has a tacked-on look, compared with Koufax' more sinuous build. Messersmith's right hand, which Barrymore has been filming as it shifts gears on Messersmith's Road Runner (for fast, arty crosscutting from baseball-in-hand to shift-knob-in-hand and back), is not extremely large, and his fingers might even be called stubby. "I'm built stocky," says Messersmith. "I can't give it a big kick and wind up like Juan Marichal. I used to watch McLain a lot out there. He's compact. He keeps his arm in a tight circle when he throws." And Lefty Phillips extols Messersmith's "release point. By that I mean his body's not out ahead of his arm; there's no waste motion as he releases the ball. Andy's curveball doesn't come up there and hang, szzzzzz, without coming through and, umf, breaking."
While offering this analysis, Phillips is working on a mouthful of Favorite chewing tobacco and employing his distinctive mode of speech, which suggests a man complaining about his lunch in the act of eating it. Still, he may be getting too dry and technical for the layman. And anyway, Messersmith can speak for himself.
Though strapping (6'1", 200 pounds) and even something of a Paul Hornung golden boy in appearance, Messersmith is not a conventional athletic type. He is probably the only major-leaguer who ever rapped at some length with Mario Savio at Berkeley during the time Messersmith (who plans to finish up his degree in business this winter) was there on a baseball scholarship. "I wasn't particularly interested in the Free Speech Movement, because I had my hands full with playing baseball and trying to study," he says. "But I went up to Mario and talked to him after a couple of speeches he made. He was a leader of the school, and I felt I ought to know what he had to say. He's an intelligent man. He saw what was wrong with the school, and he had the guts to speak out. Then people jumped on his back and said he was a radical. Maybe he was, but he opened things up at Cal. Now you can go into the dean's office and feel like you can talk to the guy. Before, you'd go in there and—forget it, you knew you couldn't say anything to him."
Unlike many ballplayers who seem to be reluctant to overindulge in self-consciousness or to give themselves away, Messersmith is anxious to describe his life on the mound. "That's why I'm excited about this film," he says. "I want it to show not just how to throw a curve and all that stuff, but 'Why do I pitch?' 'What's my thing?' 'What is it like?'
"There are things I want to find out myself. I don't have any idea what my stuff looks like to the hitter—I've always wanted to be able to hit against me. The other day they put a belt camera on me and another on the hitter and we focused on his face to catch his expression as he follows the pitch and swings. I haven't seen the print but I hope it'll show what it's like out there.