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, 45 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 Derek Jeter and Ted Simmons – two members of the Class of 2020, which will be inducted Sept. 8 in Cooperstown.
On average over the last 20-plus years, about one Hall of Fame electee per year is a former draft choice.
Jeter was taken by the Yankees with the sixth overall pick in the 1992 Draft, making him the first No. 6 overall pick to earn Hall of Fame election. He is the first member of the 1992 Draft class to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Simmons was selected by the Cardinals with the 10th overall pick in the 1967 June Draft, becoming the first player selected at No. 10 overall to earn Hall of Fame election. Jeter and Simmons bring the total number of first-round draft picks elected to the Hall of Fame to 15 and are a part of the third Hall of Fame Class to feature at least two former first-round picks.
The Class of 2019 featured an all-time high three former first-round picks: Harold Baines (No. 1 overall in 1977 by the White Sox), Mike Mussina (No. 20 overall in 1990 by the Orioles) and Roy Halladay (No. 17 overall in 1995 by the Blue Jays).
The only previous Hall of Fame class to have as many as two first-round picks was the Class of 2001 that featured Kirby Puckett, selected No. 3 overall by the Twins in the January 1982 Draft; and Dave Winfield, selected No. 4 overall by the Padres in the June 1973 Draft.
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.
Scouts canvas the United States throughout the year in preparation for the annual MLB Draft in June. (Brad Mangin / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
“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.”
Leland S. MacPhail, Sr. in his office - BL-526-70 (Don Wingfield/National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
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.”
Rick Reichardt of the Washington Senators. BL4676-70 (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
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.”
Ford Frick in his office when he was president of the National League (1934 to 1947) - BL-119-58 (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
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 was 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
Rick Monday of the Chicago Cubs stands with the American flag he rescued from two protesters attempting to set it on fire on April 25, 1976. BL-2632-76 (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)