Messersmith was a good pitcher who spent more than a decade in the majors, but his mound performances will forever be overshadowed by the role he played in the advent of free agency. Both he and Dave McNally tested the reserve clause by playing the 1975 season without contracts in their option years. The players’ contention was that this freed them from their contracts; the reserve clause would bind them beyond their contracts for the option year and no further. The owners insisted that the reserve clause was automatically and perpetually renewed. Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled for the players, and a new era in baseball’s labor relations was inaugurated.
When he made his decision to challenge the reserve clause, Messersmith was coming off a strong 1974 season. He was 20-6 with a 2.59 ERA, leading the NL in winning percentage and tying for first in wins for a pennant-winning Dodger team. He won Game Two of the LCS 5-2 but lost the World Series opener 3-2 and also failed in Game Five, 5-2. He made himself attractive in his contractless 1975 season by leading the NL in starts (40), complete games (19), innings (322), shutouts (7), and fewest hits per nine innings (6.8). He went 19-14 with a 2.29 ERA to finish third in wins and second in ERA, and his 213 strikeouts ranked third. He made the All-Star team and won the Gold Glove Award both years.
He was not the first free agent (Catfish Hunter had been released from his contract by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn the year before, after owner Charlie Finley refused to honor a bonus in the contract), but Messersmith’s precedent was more important. He was signed by the Braves for an estimated $1.75 million after owner Ted Turner won a furious month-long bidding war. Signed on April 10, Messersmith missed spring training and proved to be the first in another category: the disappointing free agent. He pitched well enough, going 11-11 with a 3.04 ERA for last-place Atlanta. He was even named to the All-Star team for the third straight season (although he was replaced due to injury), but more was expected of the newly minted baseball millionaire. He lost most of 1977 to injuries and was sold to the Yankees for 1978. He made the rotation with an impressive spring training, but he hurt his shoulder a week before the season started when he stumbled while covering first base. He made only six appearances that year and failed in a comeback in 1979 with the Dodgers.
Before becoming a baseball pioneer, Messersmith spent five seasons as Anaheim’s hometown hero with the Angels. He pitched well for mediocre teams, never posting an ERA higher than 3.00, and went 20-13 in 1971 for the sub-.500 Angels, making the All-Star team for the first time. He joined the Dodgers for 1973 with Ken McMullen as part of the blockbuster deal that sent Frank Robinson, Bill Singer, Mike Strahler, Bobby Valentine, and Billy Grabarkewitz to the Angels.