Transaction of Today…January 29, 1966 – The Atlanta Braves drafted Tom Seaver in 1966, but pick was voided.
A star at the University of Southern California, Tom Seaver would arrive in the majors in 1967 as the National League Rookie of the Year. Two years later, he would be awarded the Cy Young award in the NL. That fall, Seaver faced the Atlanta Braves in the first Championship Series to decide who would represent the NL in the World Series. He didn’t have his best game to open the series and surrendered five runs, but was the winner when the Mets scored five runs off Phil Niekro in the 8th to take a 9-5 lead.
You probably know the story from there. The ’69 Mets went on to beat the Braves and then complete their miracle season by defeating the heavily favored Orioles in the World Series. Seaver threw all ten innings in a 2-1 win in Game 4. The Mets were flying high on their success, though it nearly didn’t happen. Had it not been for a rather arbitrary rule, if New York had faced the Braves in the ’69 NLCS, they would have faced Seaver rather than have him on their side.
Our story begins in 1965 when baseball instituted their first draft. Eight-hundred and sixteen players were selected. In the tenth round, the Los Angeles Dodgers made their pick and with the #193rd overall selection, grabbed Tom Seaver out of the University of Southern California. A sophomore, Seaver felt his value was much higher and declined to sign.
At the time, the draft was split up to allow for winter graduates and players performing in summer leagues. That brings us to the 1966 January draft. The Atlanta Braves would pick at the end of the first round. Of the first 19 players selected before their selection, only seven would go on to sign. The 20th pick was the righty Tom Seaver.
The Braves immediately tried to lure Seaver away from a junior season at USC and a chance to up his draft stock for the June draft. It was a tough sell, but the Braves offered Seaver $40,000 and less than a month after picking the righty, Atlanta had their man.
Clearly, that was not to be. With the draft so new, some of its more arcane rules were not well-thought-out. One rule was that a player could only sign if his team’s season was not underway. USC had begun to play exhibitions in preparation for the ’66 season.
Baseball commissioner William Eckert was only on the job for three years total so he had just a few notable decisions on the job. His lasting impact on the game was to be so unpopular that the owners replaced him with Bowie Kuhn. When the Seaver mess was dropped in his lap, he was given a choice – enforce the rules with a severe punishment or fine the Braves for their mistake. He went with the latter. He voided the contract the Braves had with Seaver (and still fined them).
Seaver was stuck, though. He had signed a professional contract, which made him ineligible to return to USC. He was also going to lose his $40,000 – which prompted him to leave USC in the first place. Eckert came up with a solution – transfer his contract to another team so that Seaver could get his money and not have to wait until next June to get drafted again.
Eckert extended a chance to sign Seaver to every ballclub in baseball – minus the Braves. The only condition was that they had to match the Braves offer. Whatever team did would be in a hat and a winner pulled out. A literal hat. This is how Hall of Fame pitchers see their careers begin.
Three teams agreed to this condition. Philadelphia, Cleveland, and the hapless New York Metropolitans. The Mets were coming off their fourth-consecutive 100-loss season of their four-year run as a franchise. They needed a spark and a lot of luck. They got it when their name was pulled out of the hat.
Fifty-one years ago today, the Braves made a masterstroke. They had selected a future Hall of Famer to pair with Niekro. The potential was in place for a club that could contend for a number of years. Instead, due to a rather ticky-tacky rule, they had lost their man and after losing to Seaver’s Mets in ’69, they wouldn’t make it back to the playoffs for another decade.