A Curt Flood Award? The first should go to Andy Messersmith

“Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”—Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons.

My first notice came when I saw San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser’s praise: “How wonderful! The [Major League Baseball Players Association] is instituting a Curt Flood Award for the Oakland native whose efforts helped bring about free agency and allow players to, eventually, be paid their worth on the open market. It will be handed out for the first time Thursday.”

I know who should receive the first Curt Flood Award, and I hope to God the Players Association thinks likewise. The first Flood Award ought to go to Andy Messersmith.

Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn was the Second Shot Heard ‘Round the World. “After twelve years in the Major Leagues,” he began, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Flood fired his gun from the same city in which a certain former slave proclaimed that living now on free soil made him thus a free man.

Small wonder that George F. Will would nickname Flood Dred Scott in Spikes. “[Scott] was not the last time,” Will wrote in 1993, “that the Supreme Court would blunder when asked when a man can be treated like someone’s property . . . Six years later—too late to benefit him—[Flood’s] cause prevailed. The national pastime is clearly better because of that. But more important, so is the nation, because it has learned one more lesson about the foolishness of fearing freedom.”

Flood’s was the groundbreaker that didn’t quite make it. But the graceful center fielder kicked a door open just wide enough for further pressure. Catfish Hunter kicked it a little further open in 1974, after Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to the Hall of Fame pitcher and Hunter was thus awarded his free agency.

The Hunter case didn’t challenge the reserve clause itself. The bidding war to follow for his services was won by the team who actually offered him the third-highest dollar-worth amount among the suitors but the division of the dollars Hunter wanted most, including an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. But it shone a light his fellow players had only suspected might reveal platinum on a fair, open job market.

The official name of the case to come would be John A. Messersmith vs. Los Angeles Dodgers. (Messersmith preferred to be known as Andy, though his middle name was actually Alexander.) The official net result of his almost unexpected 1975 challenge was to finish what Flood began. Almost unexpected?

Messersmith first emerged as a California Angels comer with a bristling fastball, a deadly changeup, a 2.77 ERA, a 3.04 fielding-independent pitching rate, and an upbeat personality that didn’t mind crossing the line to periodic flakiness. The Angels traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in November 1972, in a multi-player swap that made a somewhat temporary Angel out of Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

He was just as good and stubborn on the mound with the Dodgers, finishing fifth in the 1973 National League ERA race (2.70), then becoming one of the league’s two 20-game winners with a 2.59 ERA in 1974 for a pennant-winning Dodgers aggregation. He also finished second to his relief pitching teammate Mike Marshall in the Cy Young Award voting.

“He’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever managed,” said his manager, Walter Alston, before that World Series. “He can do it all. He can pitch, field his position, has a good move to first . . . Andy is the kind of guy who wants the baseball. He wants to pitch and that’s why I put him up there with the other great pitchers I’ve had the good fortune to manage.”

Andy was also the kind of guy who proved to be just as stubborn talking contract as getting hitters out. He reported unsigned to spring training 1975, the original issue being not whether he’d get a well-earned raise from the $100,000 he earned in 1974 but how much of a raise. Then, according to Wall Street Journal writer John Helyar in The Lords of The Realm: The Real History of Baseball, the Dodgers’ then-general manager, Al Campanis, screwed the proverbial pooch:

As they sat in [Campanis’s] Vero Beach office . . . Campanis infuriated the pitcher. Quite apart from how well the pitcher had performed, quite apart from how much the Dodgers could allegedly afford, he injected a deeply “personal issue.” (Even eighteen years later, the matter cut so deep with Messersmith he wouldn’t elaborate on it.”)

Two things happened. One, Messersmith severed talks with the GM. “This is way out of the boundaries of negotiations; this is something else,” he told Campanis. “I’m not going to deal with you anymore.” He insisted on shifting the talks to Peter O’Malley, the club’s president. The other thing to emerge was a new non-monetary demand. No way, Messersmith decided, would he let Al Campanis be in a position to dictate his career. He’d already had to change teams once when he crossed his first GM, the Angels’ Dick Walsh. Now he wanted a no-trade clause in his contract. “I’m going to have some control of my destiny,” declared Messersmith.

O’Malley was more to Messersmith’s taste but no more amenable to a no-trade clause. “We’ve never given one,” he said, “and we aren’t going to start now.”

So Messersmith refused to sign a new contract and pitched 1975 without one. “At the start,” he’d say later, “it was all personal. Al Campanis had stirred my anger, and it became a pride issue. When I get stubborn, I get very stubborn.” The National League’s hitters got a not-so-friendly reminder. Messersmith led the league with forty starts and seven shutouts, and finished second with his 2.29 ERA, and the hitters only hit .213 against him.

“Every time he took the ball,” Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons said, “everybody in management wanted him to fail and everybody from the players wanted him to succeed. He was doing it for us all.”

By August, however, Messersmith found himself pitching for something above and beyond the need to stuff Al Campanis. The union’s original executive director, Marvin Miller, called him. By that time baseball had only one unsigned player on active duty—Messersmith himself. Miller wanted to know if Messersmith would consider filing a grievance seeking free agency if he finished the season unsigned.

The Dodgers didn’t make it simple for him. Neither did the near-constant questions from sportswriters Helyar summed up as, “So how ’bout that contract, Andy?” They kept hiking the money the longer and the better Messersmith pitched. Come September, Helyar noted, the offer was three years and $540,000 total. But the offer still excluded the no-trade clause that was Messersmith’s most unbreakable demand.

“We had no intention of trading Andy Messersmith,” O’Malley insisted. “He was a quality individual, a quality performer, and a delight to have on the team.” Messersmith took one look at Campanis still in the front office and decided there was no dollar amount able to buy him off.

“When Peter came up with the dough, I was adamant,” Helyar quoted Messersmith remembering. “The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t bring the no-trade to the table. I’d gotten stimulated by Marvin and [union general counsel] Dick [Moss]. Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.”

Miller’s only concurrent worry was whether the incredible money would back Messersmith off the grievance track. The union director thus enlisted pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but contemplating retirement following persistent arm soreness. McNally agreed join a grievance. Messersmith had no intention of backing away from it. “I’ve come this far,” he said. “I need to see this through.”

There’s no reason why a club should be entitled to renew a player’s contract year after year if the player refuses to sign and wants to go elsewhere. I thought about it for a long time and I didn’t do it necessarily for me, because I’m making a lot of money. I didn’t want people to think, ‘Well, here’s a guy in involuntary servitude at $115,000 a year.’ That’s a lot of bull. But then, when you stop and think about the players who have nowhere to go and no recourse … this isn’t for a guy like me or any other established ballplayer unless you’re having problems with your owner or something like that. It’s more for the guy who is sitting on the bench and who believes he hasn’t been given a chance.

When the hearings in the case finally took place before arbitrator Peter Seitz, Messersmith stood his ground. And the earth moved under his feet.

After first flattening Kuhn—especially the commissioner’s staggering bid to claim that the end of the reserve clause would mean corrupted or thrown games—Moss delivered a knockout punch with the least likely glove: Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith, courtesy of a Minneapolis Star story from March 1974: “If [a player] doesn’t sign by March 10, I can invoke the option clause. If I do that, I can cut him as much as I want up to 20 percent. Of course, he would then be playing out his option. At the end of the season he would be a free agent.”

In other words, for decades the owners used the strict language of uniform players contract Section 10(A) unlawfully, agreeing among themselves not to sign players who refused their incubment teams’ offers. Seitz, who preferred (and indeed all but begged) that the owners and the players negotiate and settle themselves, was left no choice after the owners’ Player Relations Committee leader John Gaherin told him, “There’s no change in our position. So turn the crank.”

Seitz turned the crank. Miller signed “assent” and Gaherin signed “dissent” on the document aboard which Seitz ruled in favour of Messersmith. (And McNally, though it was understood if often forgotten that the former Baltimore Orioles standout had signed onto the case strictly as a human insurance policy.) Gaherin promptly and almost apologetically handed Seitz a letter firing him as baseball’s arbitrator.

“Curt Flood stood up for us,” Simmons said. “[Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all. It’s what showed a new life.”

It would also have been nice and in the spirit of Flood and Messersmith if the union had thought concurrently to finish what former executive director Michael Weiner began in 2011, and bring complete and final pension redress to what remain 600 plus short-career major league players frozen out of the 1980 pension re-alignment.

Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig made possible their current stipend of $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. The bad news: those players can’t pass the stipend on to their families should they pass on before the stipend ends. They also can’t be part of the players’ medical plan. Miller himself is known to have said that failing to review and revamp that 1980 pension realignment while he led the union was his biggest regret.

But if there’s a better inaugural recipient of the Curt Flood Award than the man who finished what Flood began, I’m unaware of him. Baseball players since have known what they owe Flood. They don’t always remember what they owe Messersmith, too. Giving him the first Flood Award would remind them powerfully.

Marvin and Ted, a love story

2019-12-08 TedSimmonsMarvin Miller Press ConferenceWhen all was said and finally done, Marvin Miller got what he no longer wanted. He’d said it expressly and pointedly enough, citing specifically the assorted Veterans Committees he believed with certain merit were often enough stacked for certain results. “At the age of 91,” he said, “I can do without farce.”

Miller’s name turned up on the Modern Era Committee ballot now concluded, and there emerged a bristling debate as to whether Miller’s express wishes did or didn’t supercede the prospect that, at long enough last, he would attain even posthumously the honour many believed too long overdue but his family believed should be set aside according to his very own wishes.

More than most baseball men Miller knew that the Rolling Stones were right about one thing at least, namely that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need. What he needed from this year’s Modern Era Committee to go into the Hall of Fame was twelve votes, and he got them, one shy of the thirteen awarded to enshrine former catcher Ted Simmons.

Wherever he reposes in the Elysian Fields now, Miller didn’t get what he wanted but got what he needed, and it’s to lament that previous Veterans Committees or their 21st Century successors-by-category didn’t give it to him while he was still alive and well enough to accept and appreciate it. But there’s a nice synergy in Miller going in however posthumously with Simmons who is very much alive, well, and working as an Atlanta Braves scout today.

Even as Curt Flood’s reserve clause challenge awaited its day before the Supreme Court, Simmons himself came close enough to challenging the clause himself, entering his second year as the St. Louis Cardinals’ regular catcher, who thought establishing himself thus even at age 22 was worthy of just a little bit more than a $6,000 or thereabout pay raise.

Simmons refused to sign for 1972 for a penny less than $30,000. The Cardinals’ general manager, Bing Devine, said not so fast, son, and held in the lowest $20,000s. Simmons opened the season without a contract, the Cardinals renewed him automatically as the rules of the time allowed, and everyone in baseball cast their jeweler’s eyes upon the sophomore catcher who defied the athletic stereotype (among other things, he’d serve time on the board of a St. Louis art museum and a knowledgeable one at that) and the clause that owners abused for generations to bind their players like chattel until they damn well felt like trading, selling, or releasing them.

This wasn’t a veteran who’d seen too much and heard too much more; this was a kid whom you might have thought had everything to lose but who lived as though principle trumped even a three-run homer. He played onward and refused any Cardinals entreaty that didn’t equal a $30,000 salary, then went to Atlanta the selected All-Star choice as the National League’s backup catcher. He’d barely landed and checked in when Devine rang the phone. Would Simmons kindly accept $75,000; or, the $30,000 he asked for for 1972 and $45,000 for 1973?

Miller watched Simmons very nervously, knowing the kid pondered taking it to court if things came that way, never mind that Flood had yet to get his Supreme Court ruling. (And lost, alas.) He understood completely when Simmons accepted Devine’s new proposal, but the Simmons case handed Miller intelligence you couldn’t buy on the black market or otherwise: the owners would rather hand a lad $75,000 than let any arbitrator get to within ten nautical miles of the reserve clause.

A former United Steelworkers of America economist, Miller won skeptical players over in the first place by being just who he was, and he wasn’t the stereotypical union man with a bludgeon instead of a brain, pressing hardest on the point that no concern of theirs was out of bounds and that the doors to the Players Association’s office would remain open whenever they wanted. His mantra was, “It’s your union,” a mantra one wishes was that of numerous other American labour unions to whom the rank and file were and often still are, generally, to be seen and not heard.

Ahead of the Simmons issue still lay Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter to shine a light on what a fair, open market portended for baseball players, when Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on insurance payments mandated in Hunter’s contract, and an arbitrator hearing Hunter’s grievance ruled in favour of the righthander. At once, Hunter’s Hertford, North Carolina home hamlet became baseball’s hottest address, teams swooping in prepared to offer him the moon, the stars, safe passage through the Klingon Empire, and grazing rights on the planets of his choice.

Hunter merely astonished one and all by finally signing the third-richest offer in front of him, at seven figures plus for the next five seasons, and one that came at almost the eleventh minute, because the Yankees—whose representative Clyde Kluttz went back with Hunter his entire career to that point—were willing to divide the dollars according to his wishes, right down to an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. After writing the division on a napkin in a diner nook, Hunter’s first question ahead of the dollars to be done was whether the Yankees could or would do that. They could. They did.

And ahead of that, still, lay Andy Messersmith, one of the game’s best pitchers, pitching for and haggling contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in spring 1975. When those hagglings turned a little too personal for Messersmith’s taste, thanks to general manager Al Campanis injecting personal and not baseball issues and stinging the pitcher to his soul (and to this day he refuses to discuss it), Messersmith refused to talk to any executive lower than heir apparent Peter O’Malley and demanded a no-trade clause in the contract to come.

Like Simmons, Messersmith refused to sign unless he got the clause, out of refusing now to let the Al Campanises dictate his future if he could help it. Like Simmons, Messersmith played on in 1975, pitching well enough that when fans and artery-hardened sportswriters weren’t needling him about his unsigned contract the Dodgers were trying to fatten his calf in dollar terms. They offered him princely six-figure annual salaries at three years, but they refused to capitulate on the no-trade clause.

“I never went into this for the glory and betterment of the Players Association,” Messersmith, ordinarily what John Helyar (in The Lords of the Realm) described as happy-go-lucky and a little flaky, said much later. “At the start it was all personal. Al Campanis had stirred my anger, and it became a pride issue. When I get stubborn, I get very stubborn.” Indeed not until August 1975 did Miller reach out to the still-unsigned Messersmith, the last man standing among six players who opened 1975 without signed contracts. Only then did Messersmith agree to file a grievance seeking free agency if he finished the season unsigned.

Messersmith followed through. (Retiring pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but intending to stay retired, agreed to join the grievance as insurance in case the Dodgers’ dollars seduced Messersmith, who wouldn’t be seduced.) The owners refused to listen when such representatives of their own as their Player Relations Committee leader (and then-Milwaukee Brewers chairman) Ed Fitzgerald, pleaded with them to consider negotiating a revision of the reserve system. “We need to negotiate while we’re in a power position,” he pleaded. Plea denied with the very pronounced sound of a gunshot’s bullet going through the owners’ feet.

And—abetted among other evidence by a newspaper article, in which no less than Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith acknowledged a proper reserve clause application would make a player a free agent after one signed season and one option season, properly applied—arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in Messersmith’s favour. “Curt Flood stood up for us,” Simmons would say. (Helyar described him as choked up.) “[Catfish] Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all.”

Miller was smart enough not to demand immediate free agency for all, recognising as he did that teams did have certain rights in players they developed even as he knew, and insisted, that baseball players should have the same rights as any other American from the greenest labourer to the most seasoned executive to test themselves on a fair, open job market when they were no longer under contract.

It did more for the good of the game than the artery-hardened hysterics of the day would have allowed, especially in their lamentations over the coming death of competitive balance. (Pace Mark Twain, the reports of its death were extremely exaggerated, and still are: among other things, more teams have won World Series since the Messersmith ruling than won the Series before it.) But few things were more astonishing than the owners’ subsequent chicaneries, unless it was seeing the years go passing by with the idea of Miller in the Hall of Fame not as popular with many of his former clients as his work on their behalf.

Simmons, of course, went forward to enjoy a career that should have gotten him elected to Cooperstown; his peak value matches that of the average Hall of Fame catcher. He went one and done in his only year’s eligibility on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot. Exactly why never seemed clear, other than perhaps residual ill will over Simmons’s late-career tangle with Whitey Herzog (who traded him to the Brewers citing defensive shortcomings, after he declined repositioning the field), but the advanced metrics show Simmons the tenth best catcher to strap it on, ever. Maybe they had a problem marrying baseball’s most honorific museum to an art museum board director.