Snake on the diamond

Written by: Bill Francis

Kenny “Snake” Stabler was a charismatic and unflappable quarterback who reached the heights of gridiron success. But consistent overtures from baseball nearly led the southpaw hurler to the diamond instead.

A rare left-handed QB, Stabler became a star with the Oakland Raiders, spending the first 10 years of a 15-season career with the franchise. Named to the National Football League's all-decade team for the 1970s, he was a four-time Pro Bowl selection, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1974 and led the Raiders to a 32-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the 1977 Super Bowl.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound “Snake” earned his nickname for his slithery moves running with a football. He was just as elusive, however, when it came to signing a contract to play baseball. Though he never played professional baseball, Stabler was drafted three times by major league teams: the New York Yankees in the 10th round of the 1966 June amateur draft; the New York Mets in the 11th round of the 1967 January amateur draft-secondary phase; the Houston Astros in the 2nd round of the 1968 January amateur draft-regular phase.

Stabler was a prep star at Foley (Ala.) High School, excelling in football, basketball and as a pitcher on the baseball team. The lefty won nine games his senior year, finishing with 125 strikeouts and five shutouts.

So with teams looking for the next Sandy Koufax, reports began to emerge that the teenaged Stabler was receiving five-figure offers to play baseball.

“When I was 17,” Stabler told Sports Illustrated in 2015, “the Pittsburgh Pirates offered me $50,000 to sign. But by then I'd gotten to like football. And I wanted to play for Coach Bryant.”

Stabler’s father, sensing his son was leaning toward a baseball career but who considered a better future involved attending college and tossing a pigskin, bribed the athletic prodigy with a used black 1954 Ford if he devoted his time to football.

Attending the University of Alabama, Stabler followed Joe Namath as the Crimson Tide quarterback under legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. But he also continued playing baseball at the college, now under the tutelage of Joe Sewell, the longtime shortstop of the Cleveland Indians who would be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977.

In February 1966, Stabler’s sophomore year in Tuscaloosa, Sewell was quoted in the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser: “Overall, we should be a better team in 1966 than we were last year. Pitching could be real good, especially if Freddie Glass and Kenny Stabler come around for us.”

Because of spring practice for football, Stabler’s ’66 baseball season was limited to four games, a 1.44 ERA and a 1-1 record. He tossed 25 innings while allowing 21 hits, 16 walks while whiffing 21. This would prove to be Stabler’s lone collegiate baseball season.

After the Yankees drafted Stabler in June 1966, they advised their Alabama area scout, former Indians pitcher Willis Hudlin, that he could begin to negotiate. After a few visits to the Stabler home, Hudlin reported to the Yankees that the young lefty “definitely was interested” in a pro baseball career.

“He was so eager,” Johnny Johnson, the Yankees’ vice president in charge of minor league personnel, said of Stabler, “he negotiated to the hilt. We had to alter our offer three times.”

But when the Yankees were set to offer a reported $28,000 – a sum they were sure would be accepted – they arrived at an empty Stabler home. A neighbor informed the Yankee scout Stabler had suddenly decided to return to college.

The Mets took their shot with Stabler in the January 1967 draft, but the team’s president Bing Devine was prescient at the time when stating, “I don’t know if we have any chance to sign him, but it doesn’t cost anything to draft him.”

Whitey Herzog, the Mets’ scouting coordinator, said that New York had tried to sign Stabler, but “he had just finished playing in the Sugar Bowl and had other things on his mind – like being All-America.”

In April 1967, Stabler was suspended from the Alabama football team by Bryant, who told the press, “Since January he has simply been a non-conformer so far as what is asked and expected of our athletes.”

Stabler was coming off a 1966 season in which he quarterbacked the 1966 Crimson Tide to an 11-0 record and a 34-7 victory over Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, while setting new Alabama and Southeastern Conference records in passing percentage during the year.

Another reason Bryant gave for the suspension was that Stabler on occasion didn’t show up for baseball practice and eventually quit baseball without notifying anyone.

By August 1967, the senior QB was reinstated to the Alabama football team but never played on the school’s baseball team again.

In the January 1968 draft, Stabler’s stock continued to rise when he was selected by the Astros in the second round – 24th overall. The first overall selection was high school outfielder George Hendrick, who would go on to an 18-year big league career and a four-time All-Star Game selection. Other future big league stars selected in that draft included Mickey Rivers (13th overall), Garry Maddox (38th overall) and George Foster (55th overall).

“The club understands Stabler has not made up his mind whether to play professional football or professional baseball,” said Houston general manager Spec Richardson. “We’re hoping, of course, he chooses baseball. He told us, frankly, that whoever offered the most money would get him.”

Bill Giles, vice president of the Astros, added: “We talked to him and he said he hadn’t made up his mind. He hasn’t pitched since the spring of 1966. Last year his football coach, Bear Bryant, wouldn’t let him play baseball because of spring football practice. He told us frankly that whoever offered the most money would get him.”

Stabler and his multiple talents would soon be at a crossroads between professional football and big league baseball. The 22-year-old, from his home from Alabama, said, “I’ll just wait and see how things go in the football draft before deciding what to do.”

Just three days after the January baseball draft, the American and National Football leagues conducted their second combined college draft, the 10 AFL teams and 16 NFL clubs selecting for 17 rounds. The Raiders – the defending AFL champions – would ultimately pick Stabler in the second round, 52nd overall.

Stabler said he was pleased that he was drafted by the Raiders as a football prospect, but he added that he still hadn’t decided whether to play pro football or baseball.

“I really don’t know. My lawyers called and told me about the draft. I haven’t heard from Oakland.

“I had no preference between baseball and football until I heard I was going to the Raiders,” Stabler told the Oakland Tribune in 1968. “I’m really happy Oakland got me. In my opinion it’s the best team in the AFL and I like to play on a winning team.”

Soon enough, though, the Astros director of player personnel, Tal Smith, said the Astros would not enter a bidding war over Stabler.

According to Smith, Stabler was the seventh man on a seven-man list and the other six had been already been taken when Houston’s turn came in the second round of the draft. Smith added that Stabler had been put on the list because a 1966 report showed the Astros were “mildly interested.”

In March 1968, Stabler made his future clear when he signed a two-year contract with the Raiders. One of Stabler’s attorneys, Jack E. Propst, said Houston made a “very attractive” offer but that “Kenny felt that Oakland gave him the best opportunity for his long range situation.”

“Kenny’s real happy that he’s finally made his decision,” Propst added. “Now he knows in which direction his future lies.”

A number of high profile NFL quarterbacks have been drafted by big league baseball teams over the years. Just narrowing down the list to those QBs who started in the Super Bowl includes Tom Brady (Expos – 1995, 18th round), Patrick Mahomes (Tigers – 2014, 37th round), Russell Wilson (Orioles – 2007, 41st round; Rockies – 2010, 4th round), John Elway (Royals – 1979, 18th round; Yankees – 1981, 2nd round), Dan Marino (Royals – Royals, 4th round), Joe Theismann (Twins – 1971, 39th round), Colin Kaepernick (Cubs – 2009, 43rd round), Steve McNair (Mariners – 1991, 35th round) and Kerry Collins (Tigers – 1990, 26th round; Tigers – 1991, 60th round; Blue Jays – 1994, 48th round).

Kenneth Michael Stabler, who was born on Christmas Day 1945, passed away on July 8, 2015 at the age of 69. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.

Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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