Born: August 6, 1945
Town: Toms River
John Alexander Messersmith was born August 6, 1945 in Toms River. The kid everyone called Andy showed an early grasp for the art of pitching. He had a good fastball, but it was his ability to change speeds from the same arm motion that baffled enemy hitters. He never developed much of a breaking ball; throughout his career he would use his change-up to ruin hitters’ timing and make his average fastball look unhittable. That was enough to earn him a scholarship to the University of California.
Andy went 8–2 as a sophomore in his first college season and earned All-America recognition. He was promptly drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the third round. Andy decided to stay in school and returned to the Golden Bears in 1966, winning 8 games a second year in a row. This time he was drafted in the first round by the California Angles. Andy made 41 starts in the minors before being called up to the big leagues midway through the 1968 season.
Andy joined the Angels’ starting rotation in 1969 and had a great season. He went 16–9 and garnered a few MVP votes at the end of the year. In 1971, he was in the running for the Cy Young Award with a record of 20–13. Andy could be wild at times, but he brought nasty stuff to the mound, so it was rare when batters put good wood on the ball consistently. The best strategy was to wait for Andy to fall behind in the count and take a swing at his fastball. For most of his career he gave up around 7 hits per nine innings.
Following the 1972 season, Andy was the key man in a blockbuster trade with the Dodgers. The Angels got back five players, including Bill Singer, Bobby Valentine and Frank Robinson. It turned out to be a good deal for the Dodgers. In his second year in LA, Andy led the National League with 20 wins and finished second to teammate Mike Marshall in the Cy Young Award voting. The Dodgers won the pennant that year, but Andy was unable to beat the Oakland A’s in the World Series, dropping both of his starts.
Despite this disappointment, Andy loved it in LA. The following spring, while negotiating his 1975 contract, he asked the Dodgers for a no-trade clause. The team refused, and as a result Andy played the entire year without a contract. All he did was lead the NL in complete games and shutouts, win his second straight Gold Glove, and finish runner-up in the ERA race with a mark of 2.29.
Andy insisted that, according to the wording of the reserve clause in effect at that time in player contracts, the Dodgers no longer controlled him after the season. Essentially, he was declaring himself a free agent. When an arbitrator ruled in his favor, Andy was able to shop his services and signed a three-year $1 million contract with the Atlanta Braves. More important was the fact that the grip baseball owners had on players was starting to loosen. Andy’s case—following on the heels of legal maneuvering by Curt Flood, Catfish Hunter and Dave McNally—set the stage for the era of free agency. Andy always claimed he took the stand for the guys on the Dodger bench, who were good enough to play on other teams, but were stockpiled by the team thanks to the old reserve clause.
Andy hadn’t counted on the notoriety his case would generate, and found it hard to focus. He pitched poorly at times and in 1977 was injured. The Braves sold him to the Yankees, who shipped him back to LA after one season. He was never healthy again and retired at 33 following the 1979 season.
Andy’s lifetime record was 130–99. His career ERA of 2.86 is still one of the lowest since the Dead Ball era. The four-time All-Star stayed in California after his playing days and got into coaching. Known for his laid-back style, he was head coach at Cabrillo College near Santa Cruz from 1986 to 1991 and again from 2005 through 2009.