Four decades later, free agency still fuels baseball
Yet none of these player proved to be the most sought after in the re-entry draft, which took place on Nov. 4 at New York City’s Plaza Hotel. That honor went to veteran catcher/first baseman Gene Tenace, who was the first player to be selected by a maximum of 12 teams. (By the end of the day, 12 other players would be taken by the maximum 12 teams.) A highly skilled offensive player who had played for all three of Oakland’s world championship teams in the early 1970s, Tenace was not a headline name like a Jackson or a Fingers. But talent evaluators understood his value because of his propensity to draw walks and hit home runs. Tenace would end up signing with the San Diego Padres, who also reeled in Fingers, making them one of the most aggressive teams when it came to spending free agent dollars.
One team chose not to take part in the re-entry draft at all. The world champion Reds, a fiscally conservative organization to begin with, did not draft a single player. They essentially thumbed their nose at the new system, expressing a desire to stress player development instead of becoming involved in bidding wars for high-priced talent.
For some players, the re-entry draft became an exercise in futility. Several brand name sluggers, all of whom were on the downside of their careers, did not find a single taker in the draft. That group included Hall of Famer Willie McCovey and former All-Stars Dick Allen and Nate Colbert. Allen would sign a bargain basement deal with the A’s, but would retire by the middle of the 1977 season. Colbert, plagued by chronic back problems, found no interest from any team and opted for retirement. McCovey left Oakland and returned to San Francisco, where he resuscitated his career, winning Comeback Player of the Year honors in 1977.
Unlike today’s free agency, where teams tend to wait weeks or even months before committing to signing players, free agents signed quickly in the winter of 1976. Only two days after the re-entry draft, Campbell signed a four-year contract worth a total of $1 million with the Boston Red Sox. Within three weeks of the draft, 11 free agents (all A-list performers) had signed new contracts.
As teams embarked on a spending frenzy, A’s owner Charlie Finley, who was losing eight of his players to free agency, observed the situation with contempt. “What the owners are doing is stupid,” Finley told the Sporting News. “They’re going to bankrupt themselves.” By 1980, Finley had seen enough. He sold the A’s, leaving the game entirely.
The first free agent class certainly had its share of busts. No bust was bigger than Baltimore Orioles ace Wayne Garland, a 20-game winner in 1976. Garland left the pitching-rich Orioles for the Cleveland Indians, accepting a 10-year contract worth a total of $2.5 million. When Garland told his mother about the money, she gave him a blunt assessment: “You’re not worth it.”
How right Mrs. Garland proved to be. After winning 13 games in 1977, Garland injured his arm and underwent rotator cuff surgery, a death knell for pitchers of that era. Garland was never the same; he would win only 15 more games over the last four seasons of an injury-wrecked career.
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In terms of booms, a Hall of Famer provided the biggest return, while also making most of the headlines that winter. Reggie Jackson became the subject of a celebrated bidding war between the Montreal Expos and the New York Yankees. The Expos, who had made Jackson the first selection of the re-entry draft, offered him more money, but Jackson chose the spotlight of New York City, “settling” for a five-year deal worth $3 million. Jackson turned out to be worth the investment – and then some. Over his five seasons in the Bronx, Jackson helped the Yankees win three pennants and two World Series.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame