Transaction of the Day…January 7, 1987 – The Atlanta Braves and Bob Horner do not agree to a contract and Horner is not allowed to re-sign with Atlanta until at least May 1.
Seems weird that today’s transaction is actually not even a transaction, but that doesn’t make it any less important.
Peter Ueberroth, the commissioner of major league baseball, conspired with owners following the 1985 season to fix the playing field as they saw fit. Teams were given the exclusive right to sign or not sign their players and other teams wouldn’t compete for their services if the original team wanted to retain them. This led to smaller deals for free agents, both in terms of overall money and length. Great players of the time – such as Kirk Gibson, Tim Raines, and Jack Morris – were forced to accept paltry sums following excellent seasons. Raines missed the first month of the season because of a rule that players who refuse salary arbitration have to wait until May to resign.
How bad were things? Andre Dawson took a paycut after 1986 just to leave the Expos. He effectively informed the Cubs that they could decide his salary for ’87 and he would honor it just to leave the terrible turf of Montreal.
The Braves were hardly innocent even with the eccentric Ted Turner at the helm. In 1986, Doyle Alexander joined Raines as a group of All-Star quality players hitting free agency and receiving nothing in terms of competitive offers. He ended up making $50K less when he signed with the Braves in May. This would ultimately benefit the Braves when you think about it. Had Alexander been pursued properly and signed elsewhere, the Braves may have not been able to keep Alexander, who would be traded on August 12th to the Tigers for John Smoltz. Baseball’s a funny game.
Horner was also on the market that winter. He had finished his ninth year with the Braves after going from college-to-the-majors in 1978. Still productive, though a bit injury-prone, Horner had slashed .270/.335/.485 the previous two seasons while moving from across the diamond to first base. Certainly, there were interested teams in baseball who could add a guy who had his at least 20 homeruns in all but two of his 9 years in the bigs. Clearly, someone would be excited to add a bat who had an wRC+ of about 130 at the time even if the stat wasn’t invented yet.
The Braves offered Horner $3M over 2 seasons – he had been paid $1.8M in 1986 – and no team was willing to surpass what Atlanta offered. At least, no team in America. The Yakult Swallows out of Tokyo was willing to offer Horner $2.4M. Horner didn’t want to go to Japan but was so disgusted with the owners in the major leagues that he made good on his threat to leave and signed with the Swallows. Horner destroyed Japanese pitching to begin with, smashing a half-dozen homers in 4 games. He became a mini-God in Japan and, as you might expect from a big boy from the southwest, Horner stood out in the Land of the Rising Sun. When the season ended, Horner had slashed .327/.423/.683 in 93 games with 31 homers. Yakult was hopeful he would stay and gave him a $10M contract offer over 3 years. That comes out to as much as $33M in economic power in today’s money. Still, Horner said no.
Returning to America, Horner signed with the Cards to replace Jack Clark, but his power bat sagged and injuries limited him to just 60 games. On June 18, he pinch-hit for Duane Walker in the 7th and delivered an RBI double to put St. Louis up 6-1. The Cards quickly replaced him with pitcher Joe Magrane as a pinch runner. He would not play again that season due to left shoulder trouble. The Orioles brought him to spring training the next year, but he saw the writing on the wall and retired.
Bob Horner hit 218 homers in the majors, almost exclusively before his 29th birthday. Had collusion not occurred in the mid-to-late 80’s, maybe those homerun totals would be even higher. Granted, Horner struggled to stay healthy during his career, but would 300 home runs have been possible? I think so. And how much money collusion cost him – like so many ballplayers during the time – remains a debate. Had he been able to ink a long-term deal after 1987, even if he was not able to stay healthy, it would have increased his career earnings tremendously.
It was a pretty special and unique career for one James Robert Horner. From its beginnings to its depressing end, no one quite did it the way Horner did. It’s shameful that baseball owners, with not only the blessing but encouragement of the commissioner, screwed players like Horner and others.