Tom Seaver was drafted by the Braves 50 years ago today. Yes, the Braves.

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Andy at HighHeatStats.com tweeted an anniversary fact a few minutes ago: 50 years ago today, the Atlanta Braves drafted Tom Seaver. Did you know that? Most people don’t know that, but it’s one of my favorite historical baseball oddities.

The Braves weren’t even the first team to draft Seaver. The Dodgers drafted him in the 10th round the previous June, in baseball’s first-ever amateur draft. Seaver had just completed his sophomore year at the University of Southern California then and, probably realizing he was better than a 10th round pick, he did not come to an agreement with Los Angeles. There were two drafts back then — January and June — and the Braves took him on January 29, 1966.

It took close to a month for Seaver and the Braves to agree to a bonus, but they got to one on February 24, 1966, with Seaver signing a $40,000 contract. There was a slight problem, however: Seaver’s junior year season at USC was still in progress and baseball had a rule then that you could not sign a deal with a player whose season was still going on. Why? I dunno. It was just that part of the 1960s when people still followed rules. In any event, Baseball Commissioner William “Spike” Eckert ruled that the Braves’ contract with Seaver was void.

Let’s talk about Eckert for a second. Baseball’s Commissioner from 1965-1968 had perhaps the least distinguished tenure of any baseball Commissioner ever. Maybe there were reasons to be suspicious before he was even given the job in 1965. His nickname, “Spike,” came from his football-playing days, and who hires a football guy to run baseball? Virtually his entire professional career consisted of his military service — he was an Air Force general — and military consulting. He wasn’t even considered a candidate to replace Ford Frick in 1965, but was recommended to baseball owners by the legendary general Curtis LeMay. This was, literally, the only time baseball chose its Commissioner the way a lot of people think they should do so today: by throwing out a name of a smart guy you know who likes baseball and thinking he’d be OK at the gig. In this way Eckert’s supporters were the 1960s version of people who think George W. Bush or Bob Costas should be Commissioner now.

But there he was in office in 1966 when the Seaver mess went down. And, true to form, he not only was presented with a problem, but he had made it worse. Yes, he decisively voided Seaver’s deal with the Braves, but given that Seaver had signed a professional deal, voided or not, he was declared ineligible at USC. That meant that he couldn’t play anyplace. As Seaver said looking back at that time a few years ago, “so now to the professionals I’m an amateur and to the amateurs I’m a pro, and I’m stuck.” There were rumblings that Seaver’s dad was going to sue someone, probably Eckert. What to do?

Eckert held a lottery. He invited all the other big league clubs to the party, and invited them to match the Braves’ $40,000 offer to Seaver. All teams who were willing to do so would have their names tossed into a hat. Literally. The Phillies, Indians and Mets all got involved, Eckert literally put their names into  that hat and he pulled out the slip of paper wth “Mets” on it. The rest — 311 wins, three Cy Young Awards and a place on the short list for “Greatest Pitcher of All Time” — was history.

Eckert would soon be history too. Not because of the Seaver business, but because of other stuff. Eckert simply wasn’t popular in office. The fans were mad at him in 1968 when he didn’t cancel games following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. More dangerously for Eckert’s job security, the owners were mad at him because he didn’t seem to have much of a plan to counter the Players Union which, by then, had Marvin Miller at the helm and was beginning to assert itself for the first time. Eckert was eventually canned by the owners with three years left on his contract.

And he was replaced by Bowie Kuhn, who it could be argued was way, way worse.

Lou Whitaker snubbed from the Hall of Fame again

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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Long time Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker has long been one of baseball history’s most underrated players. He and Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell formed one of the best up-the-middle combos ever, teammates since Whitaker’s debut in 1977 to his final year in 1995.

Trammell is actually a great jumping-off point to support Whitaker’s candidacy. Here are their career counting stats:

  • Whitaker: .276/.363/.426, 420 doubles, 65 triples, 244 homers, 1084 RBI, 1386 runs, 143 stolen bases, 1197 walks (9967 plate appearances)
  • Trammell: .285/.352/.415, 415 doubles, 55 triples, 185 homers, 1003 RBI, 1231 runs, 236 stolen bases, 850 walks (9376 plate appearances)

Whitaker also had slightly more Wins Above Replacement over his career according to Baseball Reference, besting Trammell 75.1 to 70.7. FanGraphs’ version of WAR puts both players slightly lower but with Whitaker still in the lead, 68.1 to 63.7.

Trammell, like Whitaker, did not make the Hall of Fame through initial eligibility on the ballot voted on by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, beginning five years after their retirement. Trammell was elected two years ago on the Modern Era ballot. Whitaker fell off the ballot in his only year of eligibility, earning just 2.9 percent of the vote in 2001. Whitaker was again snubbed on Sunday night, receiving just six of the 12 votes necessary for induction. Trammell became eligible on the BBWAA ballot in 2002 and had a 15-year run, with his support running as far down as 13.4 percent in 2007 and peaking at 40.9 percent in his final year in 2016.

Trammell and Whitaker critics cited things like never leading the league in any important categories and never winning an MVP Award as reasons why they shouldn’t be enshrined. That last reason, of course, ignores that both contributed to the Tigers winning the World Series in 1984, but I digress.

Trammell should have been elected to the Hall of Fame on the BBWAA ballot. And, since the distinction matters to so many people, he should have been inducted on the first ballot. Among Hall of Fame shortstops (at least 50 percent of their games at the position), Trammell has the eighth-highest WAR among 21 eligible players. He has ever so slightly more WAR than Barry Larkin (70.4), who made it into the Hall of Fame in his third year of eligibility with 86.4 percent of the vote.

Now, what about Whitaker? Among Hall of Fame second basemen (at least 50 percent of games at the position), Whitaker’s 75.1 WAR would rank sixth among 20 eligible second basemen. The only second basemen ahead of him are Rogers Hornsby (127.0), Eddie Collins (124.0), Nap Lajoie (107.4), Joe Morgan (100.6), and Charlie Gehringer (80.7). Whitaker outpaces such legendaries as Ryne Sandberg (68.0), Roberto Alomar (67.1), and Craig Biggio (65.5). Sandberg made it into the Hall in his third year on the ballot; Alomar his second; Biggio his third.

Among the players on the 2001 BBWAA ballot, the only player with more career WAR than Whitaker was Bert Blyleven (94.4), who eventually made it into the Hall of Fame. Dave Winfield (64.2) and Kirby Puckett (51.1) were elected that year. Also receiving hefty support that year were Gary Carter (70.1 WAR), Jim Rice (47.7), Bruce Sutter (24.1), and Goose Gossage (41.2) and each would eventually make the Hall of Fame.

WAR is not, by any means, a perfect stat, so the WAR argument may not resonate with everyone. Dating back to 1871, there have been only 66 players who hit at least 400 doubles and 200 home runs while stealing 100 bases. The only second basemen (same 50 percent stipulation) to do that are Whitaker, Hornsby, Morgan, Sandberg, Alomar, Biggio, Chase Utley, and Ian Kinsler. Additionally, Whitaker drew more walks than strikeouts over his career, 1197 to 1099. The only second basemen to do that while hitting at least 200 career homers are Whitaker, Morgan, Hornsby, Bobby Doerr, and Joe Gordon.

Whitaker was not without accolades: he won the 1978 AL Rookie of the Year Award. He was a five-time All-Star and took home four Silver Sluggers along with three Gold Gloves to boot. Trammell took home a similar amount of hardware: though he never won a Rookie of the Year Award, he did make the All-Star team six times. He went on to win four Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers.

In a just world, Whitaker would have been on the ballot for the then-maximum 15 years. In a sentimentally just world, he would have gone in side-by-side with Trammell in 2002. Whitaker’s candidacy certainly shouldn’t have fallen to the Modern Era ballot, and it shouldn’t have been further fumbled by a committee that gave him as many votes as Steve Garvey.