Baseball America

January Draft Had Its Moments

CHICAGO’”The draft-and-follow rule has come to an end. Only time will
tell if it will fade into obscurity like the January draft which
proceeded it.

Though
the NFL had established a draft in 1936, baseball was skittish about
doing the same in the mid-1960s. Fearing the draft might constitute a
restraint of trade that could cost baseball its antitrust exemption,
Major League Baseball established separate January and June drafts to
increase bargaining opportunities for draftees.

The first
January draft was held in 1966, with a talent pool consisting of high
schoolers who had graduated early, all junior-college players and
four-year college players who had turned 21 or completed their
sophomore seasons.

The first-ever January pick, Indiana
righthander Don Lohse (Athletics), never reached the majors. But the
January draft did launch the Hall of Fame careers of Tom Seaver (the
20th overall pick in 1966′s secondary phase by the Braves), Carlton
Fisk (fourth overall, 1967, Red Sox) and Kirby Puckett (third overall,
1982, Twins). The final January draft in 1986 yielded Moises Alou
(second overall, Pirates) and Curt Schilling (second round, Red Sox).

Seaver Signing Causes Furor

Seaver
left Southern California when the Braves offered him a $40,000 bonus.
The Trojans had begun their season by that point, so the deal violated
baseball’s college rule and commissioner Spike Eckert voided it.
Because Seaver had signed a contract, the NCAA ruled him ineligible.

Any
club willing to match the $40,000 bonus was allowed to enter a special
drawing for Seaver’s rights. The Mets beat out the Indians and
Phillies, and their transformation from laughingstock to World Series
champion had begun.

In January 1973, the Phillies landed the top
two prospects in college baseball with the No. 1 overall picks in the
regular (Arizona State shortstop Alan Bannister) and secondary (Fresno
State righthander Dick Ruthven) phases. Bannister had set NCAA records
for hits, total bases and RBIs in 1972, and might have been the top
pick in that June draft had he been subject to selection. Bannister was
a junior but he didn’t turn 21 within 45 days of the draft, so he was
ineligible.

Bannister dropped out of college that fall so he
could enter the January draft. Ruthven did the same after failing to
come to terms with the Twins as the eighth overall pick in the June
1972 draft.

Southern California shortstop Roy Smalley faced the
same situation Bannister did a year later. Some scouts thought Smalley
could go directly to the majors, but he wasn’t eligible for the June
1973 draft. He dropped out and tied what was then the draft record by
signing for $100,000 when the Rangers made him the first overall pick
in January 1974.

In 1975, the January focus was on tiny South
Carolina State. The Bulldogs dropped baseball in the fall of 1974,
immediately making outfielder Gene Richards and first baseman Willie
Aikens eligible for the January draft. They went 1-2 to the Padres and
Angels.

Beginning Of The End

Another
Southern California superstar, outfielder Steve Kemp, dropped out of
school following his junior season in 1975, when he set a school record
with a .435 average but wasn’t eligible for the June draft. The Tigers
took him No. 1 overall in January 1976.

By that point, MLB had
altered its college rule, making all juniors subject to the June draft
in 1976. That change took a lot of the steam out of the January draft,
though yet another Trojan made a splash in 1979.

Lefthander Bill
Bordley went 26-2 in two seasons and won the final game of the 1978
College World Series for Southern California. He dropped out to enter
the January 1979 draft and had a prearranged deal to sign with the
Angels for $200,000′”shattering the draft bonus record.

The
Angels owned the fourth pick in the secondary phase, and Bordley told
the three teams ahead of him that he wanted to play on the West Coast.
The Reds took him with the No. 3 choice anyway. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn
eventually voided that selection, fined California and awarded two of
its future picks to Cincinnati. He allowed Bordley to sign with the
Giants for $200,000.

The last major January draft story took
place in 1984. The Twins had drafted Tim Belcher No. 1 overall in June
1983, but negotiations broke down and he re-entered the secondary phase
of the January draft. The Yankees took Belcher with the first overall
choice on Jan. 17 and signed him two weeks later for $113,000.

MLB
had a free-agent compensation draft at the time, and the deadline for
protecting players was Jan. 12. The Athletics made a compensation
choice on Feb. 8′”and took Belcher for a fraction of the bonus New York
paid him.

The January 1984 draft was the first subject to a new
rule forbidding clubs from signing junior-college selections until
after their seasons had ended. That modification further lessened
enthusiasm for the January draft, and MLB decided to phase it out after
1986.

Two decades later, the January draft is barely remembered.
But for 20 years, it provided several big leaguers and its share of
headlines.

You can contact Jim Callis by sending e-mail to jimcallis@baseballamerica.com.

Draft | #2007

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