Everyone knows that Tom Seaver was the Mets ace who led them to their miracle 1969 World Series win.
Everyone knows that the Mets, to their fans’ eternal consternation, traded him to the Reds for four mostly-forgotten dudes in 1977.
Everyone knows that after Seaver’s time in Cincinnati he went back to the Mets for one “eh, the magic is gone” season, had a mini-renaissance with the White Sox, and then had a final respectable season with the Red Sox before retiring following the 1986 campaign.
Everyone, of course, knows that after all of that was said and done he was, indisputably, the best pitcher of his era and is one of the few men with a legitimate claim to being the best pitcher to ever walk Planet Earth.
But did you know that he was originally drafted by the Atlanta Braves? And that he signed with them and everything? He did. But then that deal got voided and, on April 3, 1966 — 54 years ago today — he signed with the New York Mets, where he would make his name and his fame.
Actually, the Braves weren’t even the first team to draft Seaver. The Dodgers drafted him out of USC in the 10th round of baseball’s first-ever draft in June of 1965. 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. This kind of thing still happens today. It happens all the time.
There were two drafts back then, — one in January and one in June — and the Braves took him in the January 29, 1966 draft. It took close to a month for Seaver and the Braves to agree to a bonus, but they came to agreement on February 24, 1966, with Seaver agreeing to a $40,000 bonus.
There was a slight problem, however: Seaver’s junior year season at USC was in progress by February 24 — they had played in two preseason exhibition games — and baseball had a rule then which held that you could not sign a deal with a player whose season was going on. The fact that they had that rule while still having a January draft makes little sense to me, but that was the deal. No matter the justification, Baseball Commissioner William “Spike” Eckert held 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. He had no real experience for the job. Virtually his entire professional career consisted of his military service — he was an Air Force general — and private sector military consulting. He wasn’t even originally considered a candidate to replace Ford Frick in 1965, but was recommended to baseball owners by the legendary general Curtis LeMay, whose stature was such that even the Lords of Baseball were impressed. This, by the way, was the only time baseball chose its Commissioner the way a lot of people think they should still do so today: by throwing out a name of a famous and/or smart guy who generally likes baseball and arguing that he should have the job. People do that all the time with guys like George W. Bush or Bob Costas but they never get offered, let alone take the job because being smart and/or famous and generally liking baseball are not really applicable skills for the gig.
No matter how he got the job, Eckert was in power when the Braves signed Seaver. Which, yes, per the rules, was a problem, but then Eckert made the problem worse. He decisively voided Seaver’s deal with the Braves, but given that Seaver had signed a professional deal, voided or not, he was immediately 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.” It probably would’ve been better to have acted before Seaver’s season at USC had begun, but for whatever reason he didn’t.
Whatever the case, it put Seaver between that rock and that hard place, and that led to rumblings that Seaver’s father was going to sue Eckert over the matter. So Eckert acted: held a lottery.
Specifically, he invited all the other big league clubs who were not the Braves to the party and, as long as they agreed to match the $40,000 the Braves promised Seaver, allowed them to toss their name into a hat. Yes, a hat. Eckert literally put their names into a hat, pulled out the slip of paper with “Mets” on it, and the rest — the 1969 and 1973 World Series, 311 wins, and three Cy Young Awards — was history.
Eckert would soon be history too. Not because of the Seaver business, but because he 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 dangerous for Eckert’s job security, however, was that he didn’t seem to have much of a plan for countering 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 Bowie Kuhn would be given the job. One wonders if Eckert would’ve done any worse against the MLBPA than Kuhn did, but now we’re getting into speculative history.
I will engage in some speculative history about the Braves and Seaver though. In 1969 they won 93 games and lost to those Mets in the first ever NLCS. One has to assume that the Mets aren’t there without Seaver and that the Braves are better with him, so that certainly could’ve changed things. Atlanta did not finish higher than third in any subsequent season until 1982, so presumably Seaver would not have even seen a second World Series like he did in New York if he had stayed with the Braves. Hard to say. He definitely would’ve seen his numbers fall a bit, as Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium was probably the most hitter-friendly park in the game in the 1970s. It wasn’t called the launching pad for nothing. It all ended up working out OK for Tom Terrific.
I suspect, though, that he still would’ve left his first team no later than 1977 or so even if he had stayed with Atlanta. Ted Turner bought the Braves in 1976, you see, and in those early years Turner really had no idea what he was doing. I could easily see him dealing Seaver for some nobodies just like the Mets did. Well, maybe not nobodies. Turner loved big names back then. He just had a bad habit of acquiring them well after their best days were behind them. He probably would’ve trade Seaver for Jim Fregosi or Lou Brock or Catfish Hunter or somebody like that.
Could’ve been fun? I dunno.
Also today in baseball history:
1923: Two members of the Chicago Black Sox — Swede Risberg and Happy Felsch — sue the White Sox seeking $400,000 damages and $6,750 in back salary for conspiracy and injury to reputation in the aftermath of the court cases arising out of the 1919 World Series, in which they were acquitted. Their suit will be unsuccessful;
1984: Barbaro Garbey of the Tigers becomes the first Cuban refugee to play in the majors since Fidel Castro closed the border to would-be emigrants in 1961. Garbey, a member of the Cuban national baseball team, had defected in the Mariel boat lift in 1980.
1985: The MLBPA agrees to the owners’ proposal to expand the League Championship Series from the best-of-five games to best-of-seven; and
1989: Mariners’ 19 year-old center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., making his major league debut, doubles off of Oakland’s Dave Stewart in his first big league plate appearance.