Messersmith had been declared a free agent on Dec. 23, 1975 when arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the Players Association's interpretation of the reserve clause, but the owners took the decision to federal court. Finally, on March 9, 1976, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower courts' decision.
When the owners declined to appeal to the Supreme Court, Messersmith became the game's first true free agent.
Initially, there was little interest in Messersmith's services, even though the right-hander had won 19 games with a career-best 2.29 ERA while completing 19 of his 40 starts for his former team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the season before. (The owners had also locked out the players that spring and didn't open Spring Training camp until Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered them open on March 17.)
The Dodgers eventually relented and reportedly offered Messersmith $540,000 over three years, then the San Diego Padres joined the bidding at $1.15 million over four years.
Finally, baseball's newest owner, Ted Turner, decided to make a splash that he thought would help increase the audience for his TV channel. Meeting with Messersmith's agent, Herb Osmond, in a San Diego hotel, he signed the star pitcher for $1 million over three seasons.
Messersmith was asked to wear the No. 17 by Turner -- the number of Turner's station on the television dial.
You can read the Associated Press article from 1976 here.