Andy MessersmithOctober 29, 2010
What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 6 of 25)
(continued from Jeff Burroughs)
Andy Messersmith had curly hair. I had curly hair. My brother had curly hair. I liked Andy Messersmith.
Andy Messersmith’s curly hair seems to be authentic. One of the most regrettable facets of the experimentation and freedoms of the 1970s was the rise of the male perm. This grooming choice seemed to me at the time and still seems inexplicable. I didn’t like my own curly hair. I wanted to have hair that would allow for a feathered haircut, like Scott Baio or Shaun Cassidy. I couldn’t understand why anyone would willingly change their straight hair to curly hair, especially given that the perm version of curly hair had a tense, unnerved aura about it, as if it was cornered by authorities or verging on a nervous breakdown. Plus, it could only be obtained by spending an inordinate amount of time in a “beauty parlor.” In my town, a popular epithet hurled by tough kids at kids who seemed generally or in that moment less tough was “woman.” As in: “Don’t be such a woman.” Or: “You’re a woman.” I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to invite that kind of eviscerating abuse by doing something as traditionally feminine as waltzing into a beauty parlor to have someone “transform” your hair.
Beyond the gender-identification implications of the perm, there was the simple factor of time spent at the location of a hair professional. I’ve always dreaded going to get a haircut. In fact, at this very moment my hair is long and unruly and, given my advancing age and retreating hairline, I currently look like someone who is not altogether stable, the kind of guy who fingers a half-eaten liverwurst sandwich in his pocket while muttering to himself at the library. Maybe I’m not so stable. Nobody else has problems with haircuts, yet I always put them off as long as possible, reluctant to walk through that door looking like a man who’s spent the last year living in a storage shed and bathing at the gas station. Who wants to waste a free afternoon strapped into a chair making small talk and feeling ashamed?
I don’t know how Andy Messersmith dealt with haircuts. As the 1970s wore on, he seemed to get fewer haircuts, following the trend of the times as his short hair eventually began bulging out from under his cap. I’ve done a fair amount of reading about Andy Messersmith in the last couple of days, and I think it’s possible that getting a haircut, in that it’s a public interaction, is something that Andy Messersmith may have come to dread as the decade progressed. Andy Messersmith was baseball’s first free agent (technically, Dave McNally is thought of as the co-holder of this distinction, but McNally retired upon winning his free agency); free agency changed everything, not least the way fans looked at ballplayers. Here’s what Andy Messersmith had to say about that issue in a 1986 San Francisco Chronicle article (the quote courtesy of an excellent piece on Messermith by Alex Belth):
“I did this free agency thing and that really took care of my career . . . I had always had a good rapport with the fans, especially in Los Angeles. All the energy started turning the other way when I did this thing. . . Ninety-eight percent of my mail was hate mail.”
The back of this 1978 Andy Messermsith card supports the idea that free agency changed Andy Messersmith’s world for the worse. Before coming to the Braves, he’d been among the best pitchers in the game, winning 20 games in a single season twice, striking out over 200 batters in a single season three times, and posting an ERA of 3.00 or less in all eight of his years in the big leagues. His first season on the Braves was not by any means a train-wreck, but it was his least successful campaign to date, as he coupled an 11-11 record with a 3.04 ERA. In 1977, injuries and apparent stress from not living up to the superstar status that his free agency signing required saw him post his lowest innings and win totals since his rookie season while his ERA ballooned to 4.41.
By the time this card came out, the Braves had sold Andy Messersmith to the Yankees, where his precipitous decline continued. The next season, back with the team that he’d fought to win his freedom from, the Los Angeles Dodgers, proved to be another lackluster affair and was Messersmith’s last.
I didn’t know when I was a kid what Andy Messersmith was going through. The pressure, the hate mail. I just knew that the back of his card said he was a good pitcher and the front of his card showed he had curly hair, like me, so I liked him. I like him even more when I read about what he went through, his attempt to do the right thing (as teammate Mike Marshall told Alex Belth, “Any person with a brain would realize that what we [players fighting for free agency] did was completely legal and appropriate given the situation”) setting him apart from his fans and most of his peers, a target for ridicule and scorn. I like this card of him, showing him in the silly cursive garments of his troublesome freedom, a bad team that had dumped him by the time the card hit the stores. He seems despite it all to still have a gleam in his eye, a curly-headed love for the game.
(Love versus Hate update: Andy Messersmith’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)