The reserve clause was dead, and to the shock of the reporters who spent so many years carrying the owner’s water, it did not mean the end of the game. The reserve clause what the rule that essentially tied a player to a team for as long as that team wished to renew his contract. If he didn’t like his pay, his only choice was to hold out and hope the owner would raise the offer. Not only was there no free agency, there was no arbitration. The owner could pay the player whatever they wanted. With only the rare exception, every deal was a one year deal. Nothing was guaranteed.
The seeds of change were planted when the union hired Marvin Miller. The days of team control would soon be over. In 1975, Andy Messersmith, one of the best pitchers in the National League, filed a grievance over the reserve clause with the support of the union. Their argument was that the language that allowed the owners to renew a player’s contract for one year meant one year only. The owners believed it allowed them to renew the contracts for one year over and over and over again. Messersmith won.
Messersmith hit the open market and the big dollar offers didn’t roll in. No one seem interested in beating the Dodgers three year offer to the talented right hander. Looking to make his first splash as an owner, Turner offered Messersmith a million dollars over three years. He accepted and the Braves had their first ever big dollar free agent.
Unfortunately, Messersmith’s impact on the team was small. He was outstanding his first season, but, bone spurs in his elbow would send his career into a tailspin. He’s remembered more for wearing a jersey with the word Channel above his number 17, an advertisement for Ted Turner’s superstation, before the National League shut it down.
Messersmith’s impact on baseball as a whole is much greater. He’s the guy who took the chance, and it paid off. He proved that the one eternal truth of Major League Baseball is that the owners are liars. The reserve clause did not end the sport. In fact, it ushered in the great period of competitive balance the game had ever known. For the first time, players were able to take their skills onto the open market.