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Braves Throwback Thursday: Atlanta lands a big-ticket outfielder, but not the one it really wanted

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40 years ago this week, Claudell Washington signed a shocking free-agent deal with the Braves

Sports Contributor Archive 2019
Claudell Washington played for the Atlanta Braves from 1981-86, helping the Braves to the National League West title in 1982 and earning an All-Star berth in 1984. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

After a half-decade in the baseball wilderness, the Atlanta Braves finally began to show some promise in 1980.

The Braves finished that season at 81-80, their first winning record since 1974. They had an emerging core of young position players including outfielder Dale Murphy, third baseman Bob Horner, second baseman Glenn Hubbard and catcher Bruce Benedict, which they’d augmented by acquiring veterans such as first baseman Chris Chambliss and outfielder Jeff Burroughs in trades and outfielder Gary Matthews as one of baseball’s first big-name free agents.

Boosted by the strong showing in 1980 and wary of both Burroughs’ declining production and Matthews’ impending free agency after the following season, the Braves’ front office — led by owner Ted Turner, general manager John Mullen and executive vice president Al Thornwell — were determined to wade into the free agent market once again that winter. Atlanta had had mixed results with big-name signings since free agency came into being in 1976, hitting on Matthews, whiffing on first baseman Mike Lum and getting so-so production from reliever Al Hrabosky and starting pitcher Andy Messersmith, the original free agent who had had one good season in Atlanta and one bad one before his contract was sold to the New York Yankees in 1978.

Salaries had exploded in baseball since an arbitrator ruled in late 1975 that the owners’ “reserve clause” — tying a player to his team in perpetuity through a series of one-year contracts — was invalid and players could negotiate with any team after their current contracts expired. The average player salary jumped from $19,000 in 1967 to $121,000 by 1978.

In 1969, Braves superstar Hank Aaron had been baseball’s highest-paid player at $200,000 per year. A decade later, Pete Rose left the Cincinnati Reds for the Philadelphia Phillies, inking a 5-year deal that would pay him $805,000 per season.

Prior to the 1980 season, pitcher Nolan Ryan had become baseball’s first $1 million-per-season player when he signed an eight-year deal with the Houston Astros. A year later, San Diego Padres slugger Dave Winfield looked poised to shatter that record.

Winfield was just 29 years old, and had already been an All-Star four times and finished in the top 10 in the National League MVP balloting twice. He’d posted three consecutive 20-homer, 20-steal seasons, and had a career OPS+ of 134 in his seven years with the Padres.

Dave Winfield Kneeling
San Diego Padres outfielder Dave Winfield, a four-time All-Star, was the big free-agent prize of the 1980-81 offseason. (Getty Images)

Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement in place in those days, free agents could not simply sign with any team of their choosing. Baseball had what was known as a “free agent re-entry draft,” where teams picked — in reverse order of finish the previous season — the free agents with which they wished to negotiate contracts.

Teams could “draft” up to 12 free agents, but could sign only a maximum of three. The 1980 free agent re-entry draft was not scheduled until Nov. 13, but in October word leaked out in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story by Ken Picking that the Braves were targeting not only Winfield, but also Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Don Sutton and Kansas City Royals catcher Darrell Porter.

Winfield at least returned the Braves’ interest at first, attending Turner’s Halloween party and indicating that Atlanta would be among the 12 “finalists” for his services. (Winfield and agent Al Frohman had been less kind to other teams, sending letters to 17 clubs essentially telling them they had no chance of signing him and should not waste a free-agent draft pick on him.)

Other teams among the “fortunate 12” jumped into the bidding, with the two New York clubs at the forefront. The Mets were looking to make Winfield the face of a franchise that had been largely irrelevant since Tom Seaver was traded away in mid-1977.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner dreamed of pairing Winfield with superstar slugger Reggie Jackson, who had one year remaining on the 5-year contract he’d signed prior to the 1977 season. The Yankees had first discussed a sign-and-trade deal with the Padres, in which Winfield would sign an extension with San Diego and then be traded to New York for outfielder Joe Lefebvre (Winfield scuttled this idea, preferring to test free agency).

Turner was no less hot for Winfield, having been spurned — some might say “used” — two years earlier by Rose, despite offering the future “Hit King” nearly $200,000 more per year than the Phillies had. The Atlanta owner told reporters two days prior to the free agent draft that Winfield and Sutton — who had led the NL in ERA in 1980 — were his top targets.

“I try think I can sign them both,” Turner said. “I’ve talked to Winfield and Sutton and I find them both genuinely interested in playing for Atlanta. Winfield really thinks we are close to winning the division. I went to the finish line on Pete Rose and that’s where I expect to be with Winfield and Sutton. Then it’s up to them.”

Don Sutton Color
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Don Sutton was the top free-agent pitcher of the 1980-81 offseason. (Getty Images)

The Braves selected five players in the re-entry draft: Winfield and Sutton, plus outfielder Claudell Washington (formerly of the Mets) and pitchers Stan Bahnsen (Montreal Expos) and Gaylord Perry (Yankees). The Yankees and Mets also chose Winfield, as did the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, California Angels, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals (though only the Angels and Astros among the latter group were on Winfield’s desired list of possible destinations).

Winfield was reportedly seeking a 10-year deal worth $1.4 million per year (plus a $1 million signing bonus), but also desired as part of his contract help in promoting his David M. Winfield Foundation, a program for underprivileged children. Turner promised him air time on his two television stations, WTBS and CNN — both of which broadcast nationally via satellite.

Other contract demands for Winfield included a natural grass playing field (which eliminated a lot of teams in those Astroturf-heavy days, though not the Braves) and a “winning team in a major market.” Though early reports indicated Winfield preferred to play for one of the New York teams, he wasn’t tipping his hand initially.

“There’s no one perfect place,” he told reporters after the re-entry draft. “There’s no one leading the pack. I have seven or eight things to consider.”

Less than 24 hours after the re-entry draft, Turner got his headlines. The Braves signed a free agent outfielder to a massive contract.

But it wasn’t Dave Winfield.

It was Claudell Washington.

The Braves signed the 26-year-old Washington to a five-year, $3.5 million contract, a deal that, as Picking wrote in the AJC “sent shockwaves through the major-league superstructure.” Among other things, Washington received a $250,000 signing bonus, a no-trade clause and a $300,000 interest-free loan that he did not have to start re-paying until 1986.

Washington and his representatives were apparently so caught off-guard by the exorbitant offer from the Braves that they didn’t even bother negotiating with the other five teams who had selected him in the re-entry draft. The Dodgers, Pirates, Mets, Yankees and San Francisco Giants never even got a formal meeting.

National League Championship Series - Atlanta Braves v St. Louis Cardinals - Game Three
Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner sent shockwaves around baseball in 1980 when he gave free-agent outfielder Claudell Washington a 5-year, $3.5-million contract. (Getty Images)

Turner told reporters that Braves manager Bobby Cox pushed for the Washington signing, though Cox quickly admitted he wasn’t sure if the free-swinging Washington was the leadoff hitter his team truly needed. AJC columnist Tim Tucker later wrote that it was Turner — and Turner alone — who negotiated the Washington deal, ignoring advice from his front office to pursue pitching rather than more offense.

Turner was still openly covetous of Winfield and Sutton, telling reporters “one down, two to go.” He planned to meet with representatives of both his remaining targets within the next week.

“It is obvious — or at least I would think it’s obvious — that we are doing everything possible to make the Braves the powerhouse I have always wanted from day one,” Turner said. “It’s not a make-or-break situation with Winfield now, because we have Washington, Dale Murphy, Gary Matthews and Terry Harper as outfielders. I think we have made the move (signing Washington) that will help us the most.”

Needless to say, others around baseball didn’t see it that way. The reaction to the Braves signing Washington to such a lucrative deal was downright nuclear.

On Nov. 20, the Atlanta Constitution published a story with the headline “Washington Signing Incenses Executives: Turner’s Astuteness Questioned.” Picking interviewed more than a half-dozen MLB owners or general managers, including Steinbrenner, the Baltimore Orioles’ Edward Bennett Williams and Hank Peters, the Chicago White Sox’s Bill Veeck, the Minnesota Twins’ Calvin Griffith, the Mets’ Frank Cashen, and all panned the deal.

“The general consensus of baseball people, and this is not necessarily just my feeling, was that Turner was crazy for giving Washington that contract,” Steinbrenner said. “If Turner’s paying Washington more than the Angels are paying Rod Carew, does that make sense? I just hope Ted’s actions don’t create problems for all of baseball. I hope he got a superstar, because he sure paid for one.”

Williams called the Washington deal “the most outrageous contract I have ever heard of.” Another owner, who requested anonymity, said “I talked to one owner who said he heard Turner was drunk and thought Washington was Winfield.” (That last comment resulted a few weeks later in a printed apology by the paper, which read in part “Turner was not drunk at the time, and The Constitution did not intend to suggest that he was. We nevertheless apologize to Mr. Turner and to anyone else who so understood the article.”)

Griffith was even more incredulous, not just about the money, but the player who received it, saying “Claudell can’t field, he can’t throw and he can’t run the bases. But Turner gives him all that money. Unbelievable.”

Though no baseball owner in history has ever been happy about having to spend a dollar more than he wants to on employee salaries, the Washington signing appears to have been a tipping point of sorts. Veeck and longtime Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter sold their teams soon after, citing exorbitant free-agent spending as among their reasons for leaving the game.

And acrimony caused by the free agent winter of 1980-81 led directly to the 50-day strike of the following season, which was fought over a free-agent compensation system. Owners eventually got a watered-down version of their original demand, with the CBA in effect from 1982-85 allowing teams that lost a certain class of free agent to select one unprotected player from another team’s system.

Oakland Athletics v Boston Red Sox
Claudell Washington, right, was an All-Star in 1975, when the Oakland A’s won their fifth straight American League West title. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

But should Washington have been the catalyst for such a rift between players and owners?

The California native had been an above-average player since breaking in as a 19-year-old with the Oakland A’s in 1974, displaying doubles power and great speed — he’d been a state track & field champion in high school — as the top attributes to his game. The broad-shouldered left-handed hitter made the American League All-Star team in 1975, and carried a .280/.318/.411 batting line that was 5 percent better than league-average through his first seven big-league seasons.

“He’s the best player for his age I have ever seen or known,” A’s teammate Reggie Jackson once said of Washington.

Nevertheless, he’d already played for four different teams by the winter of 1980, getting traded from Oakland to the Texas Rangers in 1977, then to the Chicago White Sox in 1978 and finally to the New York Mets in mid-season 1980. Along the way, he’d developed a reputation as a lazy, indifferent player, especially in the field.

Asked in 1978 why it took him four days to show up in Chicago after being traded from Texas, Washington responded simply “I overslept.” His apparent lack of effort drew the ire of fans, so much so that at one point a banner was hung near his station in right field at Comiskey Park reading “Washington Slept Here” … or so the story goes.

(This anecdote is perhaps apocryphal. It first showed up in a New York Daily News column by Dick Young in June 1980, shortly after Washington was traded to the Mets. There is no reference to it in the Chicago papers during Washington’s two-season tenure with the White Sox, at least not that the author could find.)

Though he publicly put on a good face, perhaps the biggest reason Turner moved so quickly to sign Washington was that he knew he’d already lost out on Winfield. Just as he’d done five years earlier with Reggie Jackson, Steinbrenner pulled out all the stops in wooing Winfield, with “flowers, Broadway shows, dinner at the 21 Club, chauffeured limousines, even telegrams in the middle of the night — we want you in New York,” as Winfield later told author John Helyar for his book Lords of the Realm.

Steinbrenner had also included one particularly enticing contract nugget that Turner had not — a cost-of-living escalator clause that matched the rate of inflation up to 10 percent. Steinbrenner had erred in his calculations during the negotiation, Helyar wrote, and ended up giving Winfield a 10-year deal worth $23 million (rather than $16 million as “The Boss” had intended).

At any rate, Winfield officially signed with the Yankees on Dec. 15. He told reporters at the time that New York’s offer was “definitely not the highest.”

Dave Winfield at News Conference
Dave Winfield officially signed with the New York Yankees on Dec. 15, 1980, receiving a 10-year contract worth a then-record $23 million. (Getty Images)

That “highest” offer might have come from the Mets rather than the Braves, however. Thornwell told The New York Times’ Murray Chass after Winfield signed that the Braves had dropped out of the bidding several weeks prior.

“The asking price was just out of our range,” Thornwell said. “Ted went as far as he felt he could go, and then we stepped back.”

(As only he could, Turner still managed to make unsavory headlines for his unsuccessful pursuit of Winfield. The commissioner’s office briefly opened a tampering investigation regarding Winfield’s appearance at Turner’s Halloween party, but ultimately cleared the Braves’ owner.)

By that time, the Braves had also missed out on their other big target. Sutton signed with the Houston Astros on Dec. 4, spurning lucrative offers from the Yankees and Expos for a 4-year, $3.2-million deal and the chance to make half his starts in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome.

The 35-year-old Sutton had initially expressed interest in the Braves, particularly in the idea of being groomed as a broadcaster on TBS or CNN after his career ended (he would of course join the Braves radio and TV broadcast team in the early 1990s and stay in the booth for more than two decades). But Atlanta’s offer came up short of what other teams could promise.

“Quite frankly, I will not go as high as $900,000 a season for Sutton,” Turner told the AJC. “I guess I could equal it if I sold Sutton my farm.”

The Braves ended up signing Perry to a one-year, $300,000 deal. The 42-year-old spitballer posted a 3.94 ERA in 23 starts during the strike-shortened 1981 season before moving on again to the Seattle Mariners.

Before the 1981 season began, the Braves traded away two of their erstwhile star outfielders for more pitching. They dealt Matthews to the Philadelphia Phillies for starter Bob Walk, and Burroughs to the Seattle Mariners for reliever Carlos Diaz.

Winfield was of course a star in New York, leading the Yankees to the World Series in 1981 and posting a line of .291/.357/.500 with an average of 27 home runs and 106 RBIs from 1982-88 before back trouble cost him the 1989 season. In May 1990, the Yankees traded him to the California Angels for pitcher Mike Witt (that’s only part of the story, of course, as Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball in 1992 for paying a gambler named Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Winfield and his foundation, ostensibly as a way of getting out of paying the remainder of Winfield’s salary).

Winfield overcame his back trouble to remain a productive player into his 40s, winning a World Series with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 (beating the Braves in six games). He retired after the 1995 season with 3,110 hits, 465 home runs and 64.2 Wins Above Replacement, landing in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2001.

In Atlanta, Washington wound up being exactly the good-but-not-great player he’d always been. In six seasons with the Braves, he batted .278/.325/.420 — an OPS+ of 111.

The Braves regressed to 50-56 in 1981 — costing Cox his managing job — but won the National League West by a game over the Dodgers in 1982. Typically batting third in the order ahead of Murphy and Horner, Washington hit 16 homers, drive in 80 runs and scored 94 that season.

Washington’s production fell off in 1983, a year he later admitted was troubled by cocaine use. To his credit, however, he sought help and overcame his addiction, and enjoyed the best season of his career in 1984 — batting .286/.374/.468 with 17 homers and making the NL All-Star team.

That May, Washington was involved in a memorable on-field incident with the Cincinnati Reds’ Mario Soto. After Washington homered in the first inning, Soto hit him with a pitch in his second at-bat.

Washington simply took his base, but flung his bat in the general direction of Soto on the first pitch of his next plate appearance. Benches cleared, Washington shoved an umpire and wound up getting suspended for three games (Soto threw the baseball at Washington, but missed and struck Braves coach Joe Pignatano in the leg instead).

Here’s video:

Washington had another good season for a terrible Braves team in 1985 (posting an OPS+ of 117), resulting in a one-year contract extension. However, he had been arrested for drug possession in February of that year, but was able to avoid a 60-game suspension by donating part of his salary to substance abuse treatment programs.

Washington’s play declined dramatically in 1986, and that June Atlanta traded him with shortstop Paul Zuvella to the New York Yankees for outfielder Ken Griffey Sr. and shortstop Andre Robertson. Washington finished his career in the American League, spending three seasons with the Yankees and two with the Angels.

Washington retired after the 1990 season, having played in 1,912 games over 17 seasons, He collected 1,884 hits, hit 164 home runs, stole 312 bases and batted .278/.325/.420, a mark that was six percent above league average. (His horrendous fielding dragged down his overall value, however, resulting in a final WAR total of just 19.6).

Washington stayed mostly out of the spotlight following his retirement from baseball, and never appeared at any Braves-related alumni events. He re-settled in his native northern California and ran a construction company before he was diagnosed in 2017 with prostate cancer, which killed him this past June 10 at age 65.

So maybe Claudell Washington wasn’t quite worth the money the Braves paid him, but he ended up having quite a career. We can’t all be Dave Winfield, I guess.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

References: Newspapers.com; Sporting News archives (via Paper of Record); SI Vault; SABR.org; John Helyar, Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball (Ballantine Books, 1994)