Sunday, October 23, 2011

#267 - Andy Messersmith

After a bunch of posts where the subject's photo is appropriately in a ballpark we get this one of Andy Messersmith in someone's backyard. Andy doesn't look too happy here but he should be. He is about to embark on his best season, one in which he would be the best starter on the best team in the NL and have an excellent run until the Series when the Oakland juggernaut stopped LA cold. If it wasn't for teammate Mike Marshall's record-breaking season, old Andy here would have won the Cy as well. After that season and another excellent one the following year things would get rigidly un-fun for him in baseball as injury and being a high-profile trail-blazer pretty much stole his career from him. Then the glum face would have been appropriate.

Andy Messersmith was born in Jersey, moved to California and then went to Berkeley where he was an All-American pitcher his sophomore year in '65, going 8-2 with a 1.63 ERA. He was drafted by the Tigers but when they wouldn't meet his price instead played a summer in Alaska (with Graig Nettles, Danny Frisella, and Tom Seaver) and returned to Berkeley for his junior year. He was then drafted by the Angels in the first round of '66 with whom he signed for a $30,000 bonus. He went right to Triple A and while his stats were pretty good - 4-6 in the rotation with a 3.36 ERA - he was moved a rung lower in '67 where his 9-7 record was pretty good but his 4.34 ERA and over a hit an inning made Angels manager Bill Rigney think he was a washout. But in '68 he was back at Triple A Seattle where his command of pitches and 2.96 ERA with 86 strikeouts in 85 innings moved manager Joe Adcock to convince Rigney to pull Andy up top. It would be a good move as he put less than a baserunner on base per inning and added four saves and a shutout to his four late-season wins. In '69 things began badly as he went 0-5 to start the season with a 3.98 ERA and was briefly pulled from the rotation. But he then picked up a screwball and mastered it well enough to go 16-6 the rest of the way with an ERA under 2.00 and held the AL to a .190 average against him. In '70, an aggressive guy at the plate and on the basepaths, he hurt his shoulder sliding into second and his totals came in although his control continued to improve. '71 would be his first season in which he started exclusively and the result was pretty huge as he won 20 with four shutouts and came in fifth in the AL Cy race. After the season Baltimore would offer up Frank Robinson and Tom Phoebus for Andy but California shot the deal down. In '72 a broken finger would drop a bunch of starts off his calendar and the resulting losing record would instigate the Dodgers to go into overdrive to get him, the final arrangement being Andy and Ken McMullen for Bobby Valentine, Frank Robinson, Billy Grabarkewitz, and Bill Singer.

In his first year as a Dodger Messersmith more than turned his record around as he posted another fine ERA and expanded his pitching repertoire to include a fastball, two curves, and two change-ups. By now he was considered the league's best at the last pitch, mastering its speed so that it looked so much like a fastball that batters were constantly well ahead of it. Everything would come together in '74 as he went 20-6 to lead the NL in wins, posted a 2.59 ERA, and recorded a career-high 221 strikeouts. He also won the first of two consecutive Gold Gloves and hit .240 with eight doubles and 11 RBIs. He won his only start in the playoffs against Pittsburgh but then lost two against Oakland. When it came time to negotiate his '75 contract things turned testy when GM Al Campanis made it personal and Andy played that season without a contract, refusing to negotiate with Campanis. His numbers didn't suffer as he won 19 with an NL-leading 2.29 ERA, 40 starts, and seven shutouts. When the player's union sued the owners over the reserve clause, Andy's was the name on the suit and after an arbitrator ruled for the players free agency was born. He signed with the Braves for three seasons for $1,000,000, $400,000 of it up front.

But things went south pretty quickly for Messersmith. Experiencing both recurring injury problems and fans' wrath for his perceived greed, he began the season 0-4 but recovered to 9-7 by the All-Star game for which he was selected. Shortly thereafter he broke his elbow and finished with 11 wins. In '77 the win total fell to five as the elbow required an operation and after the season he was sold to the Yankees. There, according to Sparky Lyle's book "The Bronx Zoo" he was having an excellent spring training when he hurt his shoulder covering first base. He wouldn't get his first start until late May when he gave up one hit in five innings. His next few games weren't as good and after an 0-3 record had been accrued Lyle noticed that when Andy dressesd he couldn't even lift his right arm. He wouldn't pitch again that season and was released in November. The Dodgers signed him but his arm was toast and after going 2-4 with a 4.91 ERA in 11 starts he was released. Andy finished with a record of 130-99 with a 2.86 ERA, 27 shut-outs, and 15 saves. He was a four-time All-Star. In the post-season he was 1-2 with a 3.86 ERA. Only Sandy Koufax (2.76), Jim Palmer, and Tom Seaver (2.86) have pitched as many innings as Andy since WW II and have as good a lifetime ERA.

Since he finished playing Messersmith has twice taken on head coach stints at Cabillo Community College in Soquel, California: from '86 to '91 and from 2008-'09. Outside of that he has done some youth league coaching but it has been very difficult to get good info on how he has spent his time since baseball (when asked, he still won't talk about the personal issue in his '75 negotiations with the Dodgers). When asked about him, though, the players on his teams at Cabrillo were universal in saying he was a great coach. Quality over quantity.

Regarding the star bullets, he is one of very few guys to win 20 in both leagues as well as strike out over 200 in both leagues. He was 8-8 at the '71 All-Star break. Regarding his signature one wonders how Andy gets out from John Alexander.

The California connection helps here huge:

1. Messersmith and Aurelio Rodriguez '68 to '70 Angels;
2. Rodriguez and Jim Northrup '71 to '74 Tigers.

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