In 1960 Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, dug deep down into his saddlebags, withdrew $2.1 million in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer royalties and purchased one (1) complete 28-man major league baseball team, which he decided to call the Angels. Last month, 16 inflationary years later, Autry paid a bit more than that for one (1) complete major league baseball player. In fact, as the result of two weeks of intense negotiation between California's General Manager Harry Dalton and Agent Jerry Kapstein, Autry spent more than $5 million for free agents Joe Rudi, Bobby Grich and Don Baylor.
It remains to be seen whether the California owner has bought himself the 1977 American League West title or a season of high-priced frustration. But it is certain that the free-agent reentry draft has sent the grand old game into a new era. For better or worse, baseball will never be the same again.
Autry's Angels and the American League champion New York Yankees are the biggest winners in the multimillion-dollar auction that is now winding down. Although six of the 24 players who were selected in the draft remained unsigned at the end of last week, the best and the brightest were already on their way to the bank. Speculation about what their signings will mean in the standings next season and to the structure of baseball in years to come has fired all the burners in the Hot Stove League.
For this year at least, the direst warnings about the new system can be discounted. Players did not stampede to become free agents, and the competitive balance of baseball (if there ever was one) was generally enhanced, not debased. Of the 12 teams that had winning seasons in 1976, three signed a total of four new players. Of the 12 that had losing records, seven emerged with 14 of the free agents. Only in the case of the Yankees—"the damn Yankees," people have begun calling them again—did the rich get richer. New York was the only one of the nine winningest teams and the only one of the four clubs that drew more than two million fans last season to improve itself. By signing former Cincinnati Pitcher Don Gullett and ex-Baltimore slugger Reggie Jackson, the Yankees may have secured the American League's Eastern Division championship and even the AL pennant for years to come.
Another burning off-season question is whether the 18 players who have signed are worth the $20 million or so in bonuses, long-term salaries and deferred payments it took to snare them. For all their celebrity and past accomplishments, there is not a man among them who batted .300 last year or drove in 100 runs or clubbed 30 homers. As for the pitchers, only Wayne Garland, late of the Orioles, won 20 games. But, as Babe Ruth once said in justifying his big salary, every member of the nouveaux riches had a better year than the President.
As surely as several clubs and a goodly number of players stand to be better off as a result of the free-agent draft, it is just as certain that a few teams, especially Oakland and Baltimore, are much the poorer because of it. In the last eight seasons, the A's and Orioles have finished first or second in their divisions 15 of a possible 16 times. Next season, without Grich, Jackson and Garland, Baltimore probably will come in fifth in the American League East. Without Rudi, Baylor, Shortstop Bert Campaneris, Third Baseman Sal Bando, Catcher Gene Tenace and Relief Pitcher Rollie Fingers, the A's might not come in at all.
Thus, it is not difficult to guess which two teams are most satisfied and which two are most outraged by the recent events in the marketplace. Says Baltimore General Manager Hank Peters, "What we've seen are a handful of clubs that have been unsuccessful at building teams go out and use checkbooks to achieve things they couldn't accomplish through organizational efforts. And it's clear that to some players loyalty means very little." Oakland Owner Charles O. Finley blames everything on those of his colleagues who are willing to pay huge salaries.
Predictably, the Yankees and Angels disagree. "This is free enterprise and survival of the fittest," says New York General Manager Gabe Paul. California, which has never finished higher than third in the 16 seasons since it joined the American League as an expansion franchise, recognized the changing times as well. "I don't believe all of this is good for baseball," says Autry. "For that reason, I'm not happy about it. But this is the way it is now, and there are certain facts of life we're going to have to live with. We have a commitment to our fans, to our sponsors and to the players who have gone through some lean years with us. We had to improve the club." Or as Dalton phrased it, "I'd rather have a few people mad at me for putting Rudi, Grich and Baylor in Angels uniforms than have everybody happy with me while we finish fifth."
And Dalton, say some of his rivals, went to devious lengths to make sure not everyone would be happy with him. Under the rules of the reentry draft, each team was allowed to sign two players or a total equal to the number of free agents it lost, whichever was greater. California was able to sign a trio of the biggest stars available because it had lost three guys named Billy Smith, Paul Dade and Tim Nordbrook from its roster of 40 major-and minor-leaguers. Dalton even went so far as to obtain Nordbrook from the Orioles last summer, then did not bother to sign him.
Largely because of Pitchers Nolan Ryan, Frank Tanana and Paul Hartzell, the Angels managed to tie for fourth in the American League West last season, although they were last in the league in hits, runs, RBIs, home runs and batting average. Rudi, Baylor and Grich should change all that, even though Grich will have to move from second to short and Baylor to DH to fit into the Angel lineup. "If you have Grich and Bobby Bonds and Rudi and Baylor and Tony Solaita—bang! bang! bang!—in the lineup, it's going to be tough for a pitcher to sneak his way through," says Dalton. California's defense and speed also will be improved, because both Grich and Rudi are Gold Glovers and Baylor stole 52 bases. "I'd start the season today if I could," says Manager Norm Sherry with understandable relish.
Kansas City Manager Whitey Herzog is less enthusiastic about throwing out the first ball. The Royals were two games under .500 in the second half of last season and had to struggle to win the West by 2½ games. When the signing season began, Herzog knew his team needed pitching and right-handed power, but he also realized that the Royals' management was opposed to bartering for players. Now, he admits. "California has to be favored."
If he takes a good look over his other shoulder. Herzog might also see Texas sneaking up on him, the Rangers having signed Campaneris and former Yankee Pitcher Doyle Alexander.
Last year's second- and third-place Western Division teams, Oakland and Minnesota, seem to have fallen far back. "We have a good chance of losing 100 games next summer," says the A's Bill North. New Manager Jack McKeon believes he and Finley "can patch this thing up and turn the club around," but with a mediocre farm system, no one is quite sure how.
The Twins lost only one unsigned player of any importance—Bill Campbell, the league's leading reliever, who went to Boston. But the draft to stock the American League's two new teams was especially painful for Minnesota, because leadoff batter Steve Braun went to Seattle and Bill Singer, the only starter with a winning record, to Toronto. Owner Calvin Griffith considers the reentry process to be "the ruination of our game," but by stubbornly refusing to contend for talent, he may be guaranteeing that it will have a particularly ruinous effect on his team.
With the decimation of Baltimore, New York might have ignored the bartering and still have retained its Eastern Division championship. But as long as George Steinbrenner is in charge, the Yankees are sure to dance every dance. With the glamour and financial fringe benefits of New York City and barrels of money to use as inducements, Steinbrenner snatched Catfish Hunter in 1974 and almost nabbed Andy Messersmith last spring. By scoring big in the free-agent free-for-all, he caused Baltimore's Ken Singleton to say, "The Yankees are getting to the unbeatable stage."
Jackson will give the Yanks charisma, power, a dependable rightfielder and positive thinking. "I'd like to think we're the best team in baseball right now," he says. With Gullett, perhaps the game's best lefthander when he is healthy, New York could be just that.
The loss of Jackson, Grich and Garland is likely to drop the Orioles behind Boston and Cleveland. Just a year removed from the World Series, the Red Sox still have the talent to challenge the Yanks. Boston also has a smart front office that hopes it has allayed any future free-agent problems by signing most of its important players to long-term contracts. At least that's the theory. In practice, it may not work out so well. Pitcher Luis Tiant, for example, feels like a second-class citizen after hearing about all the booty won by the free agents and wants his contract renegotiated for the second time in less than a year.
A few weeks ago Indian Manager Frank Robinson said, "We need one more productive hitter and an established starter to win it all." By signing 26-year-old Garland to a contract that, incredibly, stretches over 10 years, Cleveland landed an established starter, but in the expansion draft it gave up its most productive hitter, DH Rico Carty. Don't worry, nobody else understands the Indians' reasoning either.
The acquisitions of Garland by Cleveland and Bando by Milwaukee seem to disprove one of the standard fears expressed by the reentry draft's opponents: that players would strenuously avoid the Midwest and head for coastal glamour spots. And by getting no one at all, Detroit may have debunked another of those anxieties: that a team's holdover players would complain when a big contract was added to the payroll. "I was really disappointed," says Tiger Centerfielder Ron LeFlore, "but our GM, Jim Campbell, said if he spent a lot he would be afraid to face the team. Well, isn't he afraid to face us after getting nothing?"
The draft had far less effect in the National League, where only four players left their clubs. Despite the loss of Gullett, who played only a minor role in winning the 1976 pennant, smugly superior Cincinnati, which refused to participate in the reentry process, still should dominate its division, especially because its closest pursuers, Los Angeles and Houston, also decided to stand pat. The Astros may regret that decision, if San Diego Owner—and McDonald's hamburger magnate—Ray Kroc, who picked up Tenace and Fingers and finished second in the Jackson Sweepstakes, has improved his team enough for it to overtake Houston.
In the National League East, Second Baseman Dave Cash moved from the top of the standings in Philadelphia to the bottom in Montreal, a switch that will hurt the Phillies more than it will help the Expos. Montreal could have significantly strengthened itself if the $20,000 Owner Charles Bronfman invested in romancing Jackson had paid off. It didn't, although the Expos' final offer reportedly was about $1 million more than the contract Jackson signed with New York.
The Phillies will use either bench warmer Terry Harmon or Fred Andrews, a minor-leaguer, at second. Neither will match Cash in hitting, fielding or leadership. The Phils also lost First Baseman Dick Allen—though willingly and without regrets.
The departures of Cash and Allen might have made Philadelphia vulnerable to a challenge from Pittsburgh. But Richie Hebner, the most important free agent still unsigned, probably will not return to the Pirates. That means the Bucs must find a third baseman. Worse, they also must come up with a catcher to replace three-time All-Star Manny Sanguillen, who was lost in the absurd deal that sent him—plus $100,000—to Oakland in a trade for Manager Chuck Tanner.
Despite pressing needs, the East's other teams—the Mets, Cubs and Cardinals—did not seriously pursue free agents. "Mercenaries don't win wars," explained Chicago GM Bob Kennedy. Neither do conscientious objectors.
The Cubs and every other team will have another chance next year. Kapstein, who represented 10 of the best in this year's free-agent class, believes there will be more players available, though perhaps not as many stars. In the meantime, there will continue to be doomsday predictions of five to six franchises folding, of part-time players wanting $200,000 salaries, of vast player migrations. More consoling is General Manager Phil Seghi of Cleveland, who says that despite the "player quake," baseball will get "bigger, better and stronger."
And, it should be added, more fun to follow in the off-season.
While Steinbrenner or Autry may have purchased the pennant, Finley's A's and the O's were left with flagging prospects.