Indians Lost Lottery to Land Tom Seaver
By Vince Guerrieri
Tom Seaver and the Mets seem to go hand-in-hand.
Seaver’s the only player in the Baseball Hall of Fame (where he received the highest percentage of votes, 98.84, on his first ballot) wearing a Mets cap. He was the anchor of the starting rotations of the 1969 World Champion Miracle Mets, and the 1973 team that went from last place in the middle of the season to the seventh game of the World Series, succumbing to the Oakland Athletics.
But Seaver almost debuted with the Indians.
Seaver, a Fresno native, sent to the University of Southern California. The Dodgers drafted him in 1965, but balked at his demand for a $70,000 bonus. The next year, he signed a contract with the Braves, who had just moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta.
Major League Baseball’s new commissioner at the time was William Eckert. Ford Frick had announced his retirement the year before, and a total of 150 candidates were suggested – including former Browns coach Paul Brown, who was suggested by Pirates owner John Galbreath. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay – the inspiration in part for George C. Scott’s and Sterling Hayden’s characters in “Dr. Strangelove,” and the future vice presidential candidate for George Wallace’s third-party run for president in 1968 – recommended Eckert, a West Point graduate who had gone on to become comptroller of the U.S. Air Force, and Frick said baseball needed someone outside the game to serve as commissioner.
Eckert, simply, was a cipher. He wasn’t even a baseball fan, and said he hadn’t attended a game in 10 years. Sportswriters referred to him as the “unknown soldier.”
Eckert voided Seaver’s deal with the Braves, since his college baseball season had already started – although he hadn’t played. The NCAA then ruled that since Seaver had signed a professional contract – regardless of the fact that it had been voided – he forfeited his college eligibility. Seaver’s father threatened a lawsuit, and Eckert made the decision that any team willing to match the Braves’ $40,000 contract would enter into a lottery for Seaver.
The Indians were interested, as were the Mets and the Phillies. All three team names were put into a hat, and Eckert, with Seaver listening on a long-distance call, pulled the Mets out.
The Mets – who had been the worst franchise in the majors in each of the previous four years of their existence – needed a break. They had just drafted a catcher in the amateur draft, Steve Chilcott. He would never play in the majors. The second pick, belonging to the Athletics, was used on Reggie Jackson.
Seaver almost instantly began showing the poise and talent he would demonstrate through a 20-year career, being named Rookie of the Year in 1967. The Mets started to demonstrate flashes of brilliance, culminating in their 1969 World Championship, the year Seaver won the first of three Cy Young Awards.
Seaver later said in interviews that he wouldn’t have wanted to land in Cleveland. The Mets were so bereft of talent at the time that he would get thrown into the mix, but the Indians had a talented starting rotation including Sudden Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant and Sonny Siebert, and Seaver feared he wouldn’t have seen as much playing time.
But Tiant and Siebert were gone after the 1969 season, and McDowell was gone after a mediocre 1971 effort, and the Indians sank into the doldrums for the better part of the next 20 years. It’s easy to wonder what a rotation bolstered by the best pitcher of the 1970s could have done.
Photo: Sports Illustrated