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40 years ago today, Andy Messersmith becomes a free agent

Andy Messersmith (center) would return to the Dodgers in 1979, after his arm was shot.
Andy Messersmith (center) would return to the Dodgers in 1979, after his arm was shot.
Photo: Getty Images

It was 40 years ago today that arguably the most important moment in the history of baseball labor relations happened, with a Dodgers pitcher the central figure. On Dec. 23, 1975, Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith and Expos pitcher Dave McNally won their arbitration hearing, opening the door for free agency in MLB.

Messersmith was the Dodgers' best pitcher from 1973-75, with a 2.51 ERA (a 137 ERA+) during that span, averaging 37 starts, 288 innings, 18 wins and 204 strikeouts per year with Los Angeles. He finished in the top five in National League Cy Young Award voting twice, including fifth place in 1975, when he was 19-14 with a 2.29 ERA in a league-leading 321⅔ innings.

But Messersmith refused to sign his contract in 1975, his age-29 season. Instead, the Dodgers renewed him at $115,000, a raise from $90,000 after finishing second in Cy Young voting the year before, but less than Messersmith wanted. At issue for Messersmith, and ultimately in the arbitration case that decided the matter, was baseball's long-standing reserve clause.

From Fred Rothenberg of the Associated Press on Nov. 21, 1975:

The Dodgers, and the rest of baseball's owners, say that the have the right to renew a player's contract - without his signature - forever, and in the case of Messersmith, he is their property for the 1976 season, and for any season thereafter.

The players association says that invoking the renewal clause is a one-shot action. It cannot be renewed over and over again, and that thus Messersmith is a free agent because he played 1975 without a contract.

Messersmith, per the AP, was seeking over $700,000 total over four years, including a retroactive raise for 1975. Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley said in March 1976 said the club's final offer to the pitcher was three years and $540,000, per United Press International: $150,000 retroactively in 1975, $170,000 in 1976, and $220,000 in 1977.

Instead, the two sides went to arbitration, which would alter the course of baseball history.

Independent arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the players, with the ruling revealed on Dec. 23, 1975. The key part of the ruling, retrieved from the Associated Press, is, "There is nothing in section 10(a) which explicitly, expresses agreement that the Players Contract can be renewed for another period beyond the first renewal year."

The scope of free agency was seen one year prior, when A's pitcher Catfish Hunter was declared a free agent after owner Charlie Finley failed to comply with certain language in the righthander's contract. Hunter made $100,000 in 1974 with Oakland, but as a free agent signed a five-year contract with the Yankees worth $3.75 million.

The prospect of that much money on the table both excited players and terrified owners. Seitz, who was also the arbitrator who made the decision was that allowed Hunter free agency after 1974, was fired by MLB owners immediately after his decision in the Messersmith/McNally case.

"I've never been terminated that way, two minutes after I signed the order I'm gone," Seitz told the AP.

The Seitz ruling meant both Messersmith and McNally were immediately free agents, and others in baseball with enough service time could similarly refuse to sign a contract for 1976 and be free agents after.

"I am enormously disturbed by this arbitration decision," commissioner Bowie Kuhn told the AP after the Seitz decision. "It is inconceivable that after nearly 100 years of developing a system for the overall good of the game, it would be obliterated in this way. It is certainly desired that this decision be given a thorough judicial review."

In March 1976, the Seitz decision was upheld by a federal appeals court.

O'Malley was not happy.

"In the interest in the longevity of the franchise, you just can't starting playing with Monopoly money. The profit line in professional sports is too thin," O'Malley told the AP. "I realize that trying to determine a player's worth is a gray area and some franchises might be willing to offer considerable money. But I doubt that this one will."

After initially saying the Dodgers wouldn't make another offer to Messersmith, they changed their mind two weeks later, with O'Malley saying he offered Messersmith "a little more than the previous package" of three years, $540,000, only this time for 1976-78.

Messersmith turned it down, and with good reason. He signed with the Braves for three years and $1 million total.

That deal with Atlanta came after Messersmith turned down four years and $1.15 million from San Diego, causing an angered Padres owner to call the pitcher arrogant and saying to the AP of Messersmith, "He can go work in a car wash."

Braves owner Ted Turner had a great retort: "We just felt Andy Messersmith was too good to work in a car wash."