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Braves Throwback Thursday: The curious case of Tom Seaver

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Atlanta ‘illegally’ signed future a Hall of Famer, 54 years ago this month

Mets
Tom Seaver led the New York Mets to a World Series title in 1969 and won three Cy Young Awards with the club. But for some draft-related misfortune, he might have been an Atlanta Brave instead.
Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves didn’t lack for stars in the early years after the franchise moved from Milwaukee.

Hank Aaron was already established as an MVP and perennial All-Star by the time the Braves arrived in Atlanta prior to the 1966 season. Phil Niekro had his first big year as a Brave in 1969, when the club won the inaugural National League West championship and reached the postseason for the first time in 11 years.

The Braves also featured future Hall of Fame first baseman Orlando Cepeda for a time, and had a number of “Hall of Very Good” players in that era, including catcher Joe Torre (who would later be inducted into the Hall as a manager), outfielder Rico Carty and third baseman Darrell Evans. Atlanta won that lone division title in 1969 and finished third in the NL West in 1974, but that was pretty much it in terms of winning teams in the years before Aaron was traded the Milwaukee Brewers to finish his career.

Imagine how good those early Atlanta Braves teams could have been with Tom Seaver — arguably one of the top five starting pitchers in MLB history — heading up their rotation. It very nearly happened, if not for some all-time misinterpretation of draft rules by the Braves’ front office, a situation that came to a head in February 1966, 54 years ago this month.

Seaver grew up in Fresno, Calif., first attending Fresno City College before transferring to USC and posting a 10-2 record with 100 strikeouts in 100 innings in 1965. For whatever reason, he was a Braves fan as a youngster in the 1950s, later telling interviewer Marty Appel “I loved their uniforms, and I loved their hitters … Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock.”

Seaver had been selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 10th round of the 1965 June draft, but decided to stay in school after the Dodgers offered him only $3,000 to sign (Seaver had asked for $50,000). There were several “phases” of the draft in those days, and the Braves chose Seaver with the 20th pick of the 1966 January draft, which was set aside for players who had been drafted previously but had not signed.

The Braves’ selection of Seaver didn’t receive much fanfare, either locally or nationally. The Atlanta Constitution didn’t even report it, and the Los Angeles Times noted it only at the bottom of a story focusing on the Dodgers selecting Mike Garrett, USC’s Heisman Trophy-winning running back (Garrett stuck with football and went to play eight seasons professionally with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers, winning a Super Bowl with the Chiefs after the 1969 season).

The Fresno Bee, Seaver’s hometown newspaper, reported on Feb. 28, 1966, that Seaver had signed with the Braves for a $40,000 bonus. According to the report, Seaver’s bonus was exceeded at that time only by the $100,000 Arizona State outfielder Rick Monday had received from the Kansas City Athletics after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 1965 June draft, the first ever held.

What Braves officials did not know at the time — or at least claimed not to know — was that draft rules prohibited a player signing a professional contract after his high school or college team’s season had begun. Being a warm-weather college program, USC had played a handful of games before Seaver signed with Atlanta in late February, including an exhibition vs. a team of U.S. Marines based in San Diego, in which the 6-foot-2 right-hander struck out 15.

On March 6, baseball commissioner William “Spike” Eckert voided Seaver’s contract, levied a $500 fine against the Braves’ Triple-A Richmond farm club (with whom Seaver would have been contracted) and prohibited Atlanta or any of its affiliates from signing Seaver for three years. John McHale, Atlanta’s general manager at the time, said the “illegal” signing was an honest mistake.

McHale told the Atlanta Constitution he had requested a USC schedule from the school and saw that there were no games against college opponents scheduled before the team signed Seaver. The Trojans apparently later added at least one game against Cal Poly, unbeknownst to the Braves.

“Most college teams don’t play before the middle of March, although out there (in California), they play something like 80 games,” McHale said. “As it turned out we had only about 12 days to sign the boy.”

Seaver signing a pro contract also meant he was ineligible to continue his career at USC. It was just a matter of where he would wind up.

Every one of the other 19 MLB teams were permitted to submit bids for Seaver of at least $40,000 (his original bonus agreement with the Braves), with the winning club’s name to be drawn — literally — out of a hat in early April near the end of spring training. Three clubs did so — the Cleveland Indians, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets.

“I got a call saying the Indians, Phillies and Mets wanted me,” Seaver told Dave Burgin of Newspaper Enterprise Association in July 1966. “The guy said the name of my team was about to be drawn out of a hat. He said, ‘You are now property of … the New York Mets.’”

The 21-year-old Seaver signed with the Mets on April 4, 1966, for a bonus of roughly $51,000. He made his pro debut with Triple-A Jacksonville three weeks later on April 25, allowing two runs on six hits with nine strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings of a 4-2 win over Rochester.

That 1966 season would be the only one Seaver would spend in the minors, as he posted a 12-12 record with a 3.13 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 210 innings for the Suns. He made the Mets’ big-league club out of spring training the following season, and won National League Rookie of the Year honors after posting a 16-13 record and a 2.76 ERA for a team that lost 101 games.

Seaver would quickly become the best pitcher in the National League, turning in ERAs of 2.20, 2.21, 2.82, 1.76, 2.92 and 2.08 from 1968-73. He won Cy Young Awards in 1969, 1973 and 1975 and finished in the top 10 in the voting three other times before he turned 30.

Most famously, he led the “Miracle” Mets to the World Series championship in 1969, posting a 25-7 record, a 2.21 ERA and 208 strikeouts in 273 1/3 innings. He beat the Braves 9-5 in Game 1 of the inaugural National League Championship Series, outdueling Niekro to spark a three-game Mets sweep (Seaver went 1-1 in the Mets’ five-game victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, losing Game 1 by a 4-1 score, but winning Game 4 2-1 with a 10-inning complete game).

Seaver went on to pitch 20 seasons in the majors with the Mets (whom he led back to the World Series in 1973, though they lost to the Oakland A’s in seven games), Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox. He totaled 311 victories, a 2.86 ERA and 3,640 strikeouts in 4,783 major-league innings.

Seaver’s strikeout total is sixth in MLB history, while his 109.9 Wins Above Replacement ranks 21st overall and seventh among pitchers (and second only to Roger Clemens among those who pitched after World War II). He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992 with a then-record 98.8 percent of the vote.

To add insult to injury, Seaver was particularly effective against the Braves during his career, posting a 32-10 record and a 2.28 ERA in 53 career starts vs. Atlanta. Only against the Kansas City Royals (1.77 ERA in 9 starts) and San Diego Padres (2.02 in 47 starts) was he more dominant.

So how good would the Braves have been in the late 1960s and early-to-mid-70s if they had been able to hold onto Seaver?

Here are Atlanta’s regular-season win totals from 1967-76, Seaver’s first 10 major-league seasons: 77, 81, 93, 76, 82, 70, 76, 88, 67, 70.

Here are Seaver’s Baseball Reference WAR numbers from that same period: 6.0, 6.8, 7.2, 5.8, 10.2, 5.2, 10.6, 6.1, 7.8 and 5.4.

It’s not an exact science, but it seems like Seaver alone could have lifted the Braves to a division title in 1971 (when they won 82 games and finished third, eight games behind the Giants) and would have put them in contention in 1974 (when they won 88, but finished 14 back of the Dodgers). The 1969 team with Seaver might have won more than 100 games and would have had a much better chance against the Seaver-less Mets in the NLCS.

Though Seaver pitched in the majors through 1986, and performed at a well-above-average level most years until 1985, widespread free agency came to baseball after the 1976 season. Thus, there’s no guarantee that “Tom Terrific” — lifelong Braves fan or not — would have remained in Atlanta past that point. Infamously, the Mets traded him to Cincinnati midway through the 1977 season.

But thanks to the first in what would be a nearly two-decade string of Braves front-office debacles 54 years ago this month, we never got the chance to see what might have happened had he begun his Hall of Fame career in Atlanta.

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

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; SABR.org; Newspapers.com; Sporting News archive (via PaperofRecord.com); “The Early History of Tom Seaver,” panneralumni.com