Free Agents Signings, Andy Messersmith: Atlanta Braves, 1976-7

Let’s start with the obvious: the Atlanta Braves paid a lot of money (by the ridiculously tightfisted standards of 1976 and 1977) for 44 starts by John Alexander Messersmith, and didn’t get much for them: a 16-15 record. On the other hand, that 16-15 represented 8.0 WAR, and the Braves’ record of 131-193 over those two seasons tells you that a .500 record was a pretty awesome achievement. Phil Niekro was more durable but not much better over those two seasons (33-31 W/L) and he was Phil Niekro. Indeed, they were the only two stars on those two particular last-place teams. Phil was the highest paid Brave at that time (Aaron had moved to Milwaukee the year before) and Messersmith was making three times more. Imagine the Braves today signing someone making three times more than Freddie Freeman, say $65 million or so.

Indeed, Andy was making a lot more than everybody in baseball but Catfish Hunter, because Andy was the second free agent in the history of baseball (after Catfish Hunter.)   And Andy Messersmith was a really good pitcher when he was healthy and on a good team, one of the best in baseball history.  He is one of only 7 pitchers in MLB history to pitch 1000 innings or more and give up fewer than 7 hits per 9 innings. (The others are Nolan Ryan, Clayton Kershaw, Sandy Koufax, Sid Fernandez, JR Richard and Trevor Hoffman.) His career was cut short by injuries, and many believe that those injuries were the result of trying to live up to his big contract in Atlanta.  Maybe.  It also didn’t help that he was signed two days into the 1976 season and started a game a week later without any spring training.

Historic Impact

What Andy Messersmith really represents in Atlanta baseball history has very little to do with what he did on the field, though.  He was the first bomb dropped by Ted Turner on Atlanta, and on MLB.  It was an announcement that Ted was going to do things differently.  The signing of Messersmith was Ted showing that Charlie Finley and Bill Veeck had met their match in iconoclasm.  Baseball had worked very, very hard to stop free agency: Catfish Hunter was an aberration and was meant to punish Finley as much as it was to reward Hunter.  And when Messersmith was made a free agent through a novel interpretation of the reserve clause, there were huge pressures not to compete for his services.  Ted, armed with a checkbook, a last place team, and a television station that needed content, made the sort of bold move he would make time and again. (TBS would not actually go national until Messersmith’s second season.  It is a sign of Ted’s audacity that he would sign Messersmith a year earlier than he needed sports programming for a national audience, or even that there was evidence that a national audience would watch Braves games.)

Charlie Finley and Bill Veeck were great in their own ways, but they were cheap.  Indeed, it was their thrift that served as the impetus for their best ideas.  Ted Turner was not cheap, and the Messersmith signing proved it.  Finley was famous, among other things, for creating nicknames for players whose own names were deemed insufficiently colorful, but it cost nothing to rebrand Jim Hunter or Johnny Odom.  Ted’s twist was his infamous failed attempt to give Messersmith the nickname “Channel” which would have then adorned his back, along with his number, 17, and actually did for one start.  (Note, by the way, that nicknames on the jersey was a standard feature of the 1976 Braves, as chronicled here, including Taco Perez and Wimpy Paciorek, predating Player’s Weekend by over 40 years.)

Ted would sign Gary Matthews the next year, getting himself suspended for a year over accusations that he had tampered with the market to sign him.  But the floodgates were already open, with 32 free agents in the winter of 1976, of whom Matthews wasn’t one of the top stories: Reggie Jackson, Gene Tenace and Rollie Fingers fleeing the tight-fisted Finley were the big news.

What’s Wrong With This?

So is the signing of Messersmith one of the Braves best free agent signings, or one of the worst?  It clearly had no effect on the success of the team in his two years in Atlanta.  While his signing is an important part of MLB history, somebody would have signed him and I don’t think his 1976 season had anything to do with the 32 guys who signed the next year.  And Ted Turner was Ted Turner.  He was going to do outrageous things in pursuit of goals both financial and personal, and by his standards, this signing was probably not in the top ten of his life, even as it would be in the top two of virtually anybody else.

I’m going to choose one aspect of this deal, though, to condemn it.  The Reserve Clause was doomed, and somebody had to break the ice, and it turned out to be Messersmith.  (Hunter was not a Reserve Clause free agent.  He was made a free agent because Finley didn’t make some deferred payments he owed him and his contract was negated.)  Free agency changed baseball, but it didn’t ruin it.  I think it improved it quite a bit, actually.  But the Messersmith signing did have one effect that I think is terrible to this day.  The signing of free agents simply to show you are serious about winning, even though the contributions of those free agents to the actual probability of winning is negligible hurts the sport, IMO.  And make no mistake that that was an important component of Turner’s thinking here.  There was no way to make a last place team a contending team by signing one pitcher, even a good one, and the Braves had no hope of competing in 1976 and 1977.  But because the process of drafting and nurturing talent looks so slow, impatience leads front offices to declare their seriousness by signing Messersmith, Matthews, and Sutter.  These player’s presence as saviors does no favors to management, or to fans, or probably to the players themselves, who could surely have gotten nearly as much money in better circumstances with better teams.  A free agent contract to Greg Maddux on a very powerful Braves team is very different than the Padres signing Manny Machado.  (I have friends who believe that the Padres were a player away from contending against the Dodgers when they signed him.  I disagreed then and I disagree now.)  It’s not that I only want to see the best players go to the best teams, further exacerbating the gulf between the haves and have-nots.  It’s that money spent on demonstrating that you’re serious is money you could have better spent building an entire team.  You can’t catch the Yankees or the Dodgers by outspending them.  You catch them by building better teams than they can.  That’s hard, much harder than spending money, and usually takes much longer, but it’s more rewarding when you do… again, IMO. 

You can get press with a flashy trade, but you need players to acquire players. You can get press by firing and hiring managers. You can get press with orange baseballs, funny nicknames and midgets drawing walks. And, in the absence of quality baseball, you need press to keep fans interested. The Messersmith signing ushered in a new way to get press: making a signing that will not improve your team, no more than funny nicknames, revolving doors at manager, or Eddie Gaedel. I’m not against free agency, but I hate PR for the sake of PR. I don’t think there’s anything can be done about it, but I hate it. That’s my position, and I’m sticking to it…. until somebody tells me we can sign Mike Trout.

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