Caught in the Draft

Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series
Written by: Matt Kelly & Craig Muder

In 1965 in New York City, the future of the National Pastime forever changed with the inaugural MLB Draft.

Of the tens of thousands of players drafted since MLB’s amateur draft began in 1965, 30 players who were signed by the team that drafted them have gone on to earn a place in the Hall of Fame. The first was Johnny Bench, drafted by the Reds in the second round in 1965 and elected to the Hall of Fame in 1989. Ten years later, Nolan Ryan – taken in the 12th round of the 1965 draft by the Mets – joined Bench in Cooperstown.

The most recent players drafted who earned Hall of Fame election are Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson and John Smoltz – three members of the Class of 2015, which will be inducted July 26 at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown.

The Class of 2014 at the Hall of Fame also featured three former draft picks: Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas. On average over the last 20-plus years, about one Hall of Fame electee per year is a former draft choice.

Class of 2015 at the Draft

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Johnson was taken in the second round (36th overall pick) of the 1985 MLB Draft out of the University of Southern California by the Montreal Expos. That same year, Smoltz was taken with the final pick in the 22nd round by the Detroit Tigers, having just finished his senior year at Waverly High School in Lansing, Mich.

Smoltz is now the player drafted in the lowest round to be elected to the Hall of Fame – supplanting Ryne Sandberg, who was a 20th-round draft choice of the Phillies in 1978.

Johnson and Smoltz join Barry Larkin as Hall of Famers drafted in 1985, which is tied with 1971 (Jim Rice, George Brett and Mike Schmidt) and 1973 (Robin Yount, Dave Winfield and Eddie Murray) as the most prolific Cooperstown draft years in history – with each of those three drafts producing three Hall of Famers.

Biggio was taken in the first round (22nd overall pick) by the Astros in 1987 and becomes the 10th former first-round choice to earn Hall of Fame election.

From the Draft to the Hall

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Reggie Jackson, drafted No. 2 overall by the A’s in 1966, is the highest draftee ever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Ken Griffey Jr. was the No. 1 overall pick by the Mariners in 1987. If he remains retired, Griffey will become eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2016.

A list of drafted players who eventually were elected to the Hall of Fame, in chronological order of their draft selection:

• Johnny Bench – Drafted by Reds in June 1965 with second-round pick

• Nolan Ryan – Drafted by the Mets in June 1965 with 12th-round pick

• Reggie Jackson – Drafted by the A’s in June 1966 with first-round pick (No. 2 overall)

• Carlton Fisk – Drafted by the Red Sox in Jan. 1967 with first-round pick (No. 4 overall)

• Bert Blyleven – Drafted by the Twins in June 1969 with third-round pick

• Goose Gossage – Drafted by the White Sox in June 1970 with ninth-round pick

• Jim Rice – Drafted by the Red Sox in June 1971 with first-round pick (No. 15 overall)

• George Brett – Drafted by the Royals in June 1971 with second-round pick (No. 29 overall)

• Mike Schmidt – Drafted by the Phillies in June 1971 with second-round pick (No. 30 overall)

• Dennis Eckersley – Drafted by the Indians in June 1972 with third-round pick (No. 50 overall)

• Gary Carter – Drafted by the Expos in June 1972 with third-round pick (No. 53 overall)

• Robin Yount – Drafted by the Brewers in June 1973 with first-round pick (No. 3 overall)

• Dave Winfield – Drafted by the Padres in June 1973 with first-round pick (No. 4 overall)

• Eddie Murray – Drafted by the Orioles in June 1973 with third-round pick

• Andre Dawson – Drafted by the Expos in June 1975 with 11th-round pick

• Rickey Henderson – Drafted by the A’s in June 1976 with fourth-round pick

• Wade Boggs – Drafted by the Red Sox in June 1976 with seventh-round pick

• Paul Molitor – Drafted by the Brewers in June 1977 with first-round pick (No. 3 overall)

• Ozzie Smith – Drafted by the Padres in June 1977 with fourth-round pick

• Cal Ripken Jr. – Drafted by the Orioles in June 1978 with second-round pick

• Ryne Sandberg – Drafted by the Phillies in June 1978 with 20th-round pick

• Tony Gwynn – Drafted by the Padres in June 1981 with third-round pick

• Kirby Puckett – Drafted by the Twins in Jan. 1982 with first-round pick (No. 3 overall)

• Greg Maddux – Drafted by the Cubs in June 1984 with second-round pick (No. 31 overall)

• Tom Glavine – Drafted by the Braves in June 1984 with second-round pick (No. 47 overall)

• Barry Larkin – Drafted by the Reds in June 1985 with first-round pick (No. 4 overall)

• Randy Johnson – Drafted by the Expos in June 1985 with second-round pick (No. 36 overall)

• John Smoltz – Drafted by the Tigers in June 1985 with 22nd-round pick

• Craig Biggio – Drafted by the Astros in June 1987 with first-round pick (No. 22 overall)

• Frank Thomas – Drafted by the White Sox in June 1989 with first-round pick (No. 7 overall)

A change in the wind

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Before the draft was implemented in 1965, the best amateur players annually offered themselves to the highest bidder in a pre-Andy Messersmith/Dave McNally version of free agency.

Of the four major professional sports in North America, baseball was the last to implement an amateur player draft behind football (1936), basketball (1947) and hockey (1963). Prior to the draft, high school and collegiate players could sign with any major league club that offered them a contract.

That free-flowing structure encouraged players to sign with teams that offered them the most money. The wealthiest clubs – most notably the Cardinals, Dodgers, Braves and Yankees – were able to claim the game’s best young talent more often than not.

“Kids wanted to sign with the Yankees, the most glamorous team in baseball at the time,” recalled then-Yankees president and future Hall of Famer Larry MacPhail. “If two or three teams were after them, and one was the Yankees, we generally had the inside track.”

While the Yankees claimed 10 American League pennants and seven World Series titles from 1949-1960, rival teams began offering higher and higher signing bonuses to prospects in order to compete. While several bonus rules were adopted in an attempt to control spending in the 1940s and 1950s, they did little to quell baseball’s rampant arms race.

“We’d pass a bonus rule, and by the time we got out of the room we already figured how to skin the cat,” said then-Detroit Tigers general manager Jim Campbell. “There was no way to really police it.”

The case of Rick Reichardt

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The totals garnered by baseball’s “bonus babies” continued to escalate until they came to a breaking point in 1964. That’s when the California Angels offered Rick Reichardt, a talented but unproven outfielder and football star at the University of Wisconsin, a $205,000 signing bonus. While Reichardt was an impressive prospect who drew comparisons to Yankees star Mickey Mantle, his signing bonus equaled the total salary of many of the top major league players.

“Rick Reichardt was the best prospect I ever saw,” said Art Stewart, a longtime big league scout and the current Senior Advisor to the General Manager for the Kansas City Royals. “The bidding war for him during the summer of 1964 got so out of control that the owners created the Draft the next year. That’s how good Rick Reichardt was.”

Though kidney failure and night blindness would ultimately keep Reichardt from perhaps realizing his full potential, his record-high signing bonus helped many major league executives realize that a player draft was needed. In 1964 alone, teams paid more than $7 million to court amateur players – more than they spent on the salaries of major league players.

“We can’t go on like this,” an AL official admitted to the Sporting News. “Most of the clubs are mortgaging their future to meet the present competition.”

League owners ratified a draft proposal drawn up by Commissioner Ford Frick and National League President Warren Giles – two future Hall of Fame executives – at the 1964 Winter Meetings. Though the Yankees and Dodgers voiced their displeasure with the new system, scouts and executives from all 20 teams convened on June 8, 1965 at New York’s Commodore Hotel for the inaugural amateur draft.

“There was tremendous excitement,” former Baltimore Orioles farm director Lou Gorman recalled. “We’d all end up at Toots Shor’s bar or someplace the night before the draft. There would be all kinds of rumors flying around.”

Monday goes first

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The Kansas City Athletics selected Arizona State outfielder Rick Monday with the first overall pick as part of a first round that lasted just 28 minutes. The A’s $100,000 signing offer was a win for Monday, who had originally been offered a $20,000 bonus by the Dodgers after high school, but it signified an even bigger win for baseball owners. Monday’s bonus was approximately half of what the undrafted Reichardt had received the previous year, and no drafted player would surpass Reichardt’s total until Yankees draftee Todd Demeter in 1979.

Looking back, the draft’s biggest accomplishment may be in the way it has been able to disperse that kind of extraordinary talent across the major leagues. Five decades after baseball’s inaugural draft, every team now has the capability to rebuild itself quickly.

“It’s given teams that have a difficult time competing for free-agent talent a fair share, or even more than a fair share,” said Hall of Fame executive Lee MacPhail in the 1980s. “Close races in all divisions today goes back to the free agent draft. If you didn’t have it, it would be a disaster.”

Matt Kelly is the Communications Specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum; Craig Muder is the director of communications at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series