May 26, 2018

Today in Baseball History: Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally

December 23, 2008 by · 2 Comments 

In the midst of a very active hot stove season, today stands out as a day in history when the baseball world stood still. 

On this day back in 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz declared Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents, eventually leading to the downfall of Major League Baseball’s reserve clause.  Both Messersmith and McNally sat out the option years of their contracts in hopes they would become free agents and be free to sign with any team they choose.  Messersmith would eventually sign with the Dodgers while McNally opted for retirement but Seitz’s decision would eventually lead to an agreement with the owners, whereby all players will become eligible for free agency after six seasons.

Dating back to the 1880’s, baseball owners had included what was referred to as the reserve clause in every player contract. The agreement allowed teams to renew a contract for a period of one year following the end of a signed contract. Since owners rarely allowed players to play without signing a new contract the process had the effect of holding the player to the team with which he first signed indefinitely. This eliminated all market competition and kept salaries relatively low.

By not signing a contract during their option year, both Messersmith and McNally felt they were free agents, but the owners disagreed, arguing that under the reserve clause the one-year contracts were perpetually renewed. Both players submitted grievances to arbitration in an attempt to fight for the right to control their own destiny.  Seitz issued his ruling that Messersmith and McNally were free agents and could sign with other teams because organized baseball could not maintain a player’s services indefinitely and was fired the following day.  MLB appealed numerous times until all appeals were exhausted.  With no other option other than giving in, MLB signed a new agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1976 allowing players with six years experience to become free agents.

After having gone 16-15 while struggling with injuries with the Atlanta Braves, Messersmith’s contract was sold to the New York Yankees.  The Yankees released him after the 1978 season and he signed, ironically, with the Dodgers. Ironically again, when the Dodgers signed him for that final go-round, they gave him the very thing their first refusal drove him toward testing and defeating the old reserve system: a no-trade clause. But the injuries and stress as the reserve clause’s conqueror had taken too much toll; Messersmith pitched in only 11 games for the 1979 Dodgers, going 2-4 with a 4.90 ERA, and retired after the Dodgers released him.

McNally retired after the 1975 season and had no intention of claiming his free agency. Players’ union executives asked him to add his name to the grievance it had filed in opposition to the reserve clause and he agreed. Baseball owners wanted his name off the grievance so the Expos offered McNally a $25,000 signing bonus and a $125,000 contract if he made the team, but McNally declined. The hope was to sign Messersmith at the same time, thus eliminating the challenge.

The path blazed by Curt Flood that started back in 1969 had finally reached its end thanks to Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally.  It would change the world of baseball from that day forward.  When Messersmith was asked why did it he responded “I did it for the guys sitting on the bench, the utility men who couldn’t crack the lineup with (the Dodgers) but who could make it elsewhere. These guys should have an opportunity to make a move and go to another club. I didn’t do it necessarily for myself because I’m making a lot of money. I don’t want everyone to think, ‘Well, here’s a guy in involuntary servitude at $115,000 a year. That’s a lot of bull and I know it.”


2 Responses to “Today in Baseball History: Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally”
  1. Jim Forbes says:

    Did the reserve clause in 1880 apply to minor league baseball players?


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  1. […] an argument between the players and the owners. Seitz came down the chimney and left baseball a decision that would change the game […]

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