On December 23, 1975, A landmark decision by arbitrator Peter Seitz declares Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents. Both pitchers played the 1975 season under the reserve clause contract in the hopes they would become free to sign with any team. They felt without signing a contract during their option year, they challenged the owners’ assumption that the reserve clause meant one-year contracts were automatically renewed. Messersmith will sign with the Braves, while McNally announced his retirement in June, will not return. Seitz’s decision will lead to an agreement with the owners, whereby all players will become eligible for free agency after six seasons.
Messersmith is most famous for his role in the historic 1975 Seitz decision which led to the downfall of Major League Baseball’s reserve clause and ushered in the current era of free agency. It began when Messersmith went to spring training in 1975 and began negotiating his 1975 contract. He asked for a no-trade clause which the Dodgers refused. According to author John Helyar, in The Lords of the Realm, Messersmith was also deeply offended by general manager Al Campanis “inject(ing) a personal issue” into the talks (it “cut so deeply with him”, Helyar has written, that Messersmith since has never disclosed it), and the pitcher refused to deal with anyone lower than team president Peter O’Malley.
He also pitched 1975 without a contract, leading the National League in complete games and shutouts, finishing second in earned run average with 2.29, and winning a Gold Glove (his second) as the league’s best-fielding pitcher. Messersmith and Dave McNally were the only two players in 1975 playing on the one year reserve clause in effect at the time. McNally’s season ended early due to injuries and he returned home, intending to retire, but agreeing to players’ union director Marvin Miller’s request that he sign onto the Messersmith grievance in case Messersmith ended up signing a new deal with the Dodgers before the season ended.
“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, looking back on his decision a decade 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’.”
Messersmith and McNally won their case before arbitrator Peter Seitz, who was fired by the owners the day afterward. McNally followed through on his intention to retire but Messersmith signed a three-year, $1 million deal with the Atlanta Braves. Among other things, then-Braves owner Ted Turner suggested the nickname “Channel” for Messersmith and jersey number 17, in order to promote the television station that aired Braves games. Major League Baseball quickly nixed the idea.
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