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Draft Spotlight: Billy Cannon

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Baseball was making a concerted attempt in the late 1970s and early 1980s to beat other sports in their pursuit of multi-sport athletes.

But the Yankees, emboldened by their success in attracting major league free agents to New York, tried to pull a fast one on the other clubs in 1980 with Billy Cannon Jr., son of the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner. As a player with an intriguing two-sport background, Cannon was the kind of player Yankees owner George Steinbrenner coveted.

But by forfeiting their picks in the first two rounds in that years draft, the Yankees were obvious longshots in the Cannon sweepstakes. Almost every other club viewed him as a first-round talent.

Shortly before the draft, however, Cannon’s father advised all clubs that his son intended to go to college and indicated only an offer in excess of $250,000 would make him change his mind. Teams passed on Cannon through the first two rounds.

But the Yankees, who paid out a draft record $208,000 bonus to Todd Demeter a year earlier, weren’t scared off. They went for Cannon, 18, and he was set to accept a huge bonus contract from Steinbrenner and begin a career that had been his lifelong dream.

“He feels about baseball like I felt about football,” said Billy Sr., then a Baton Rouge, La., orthodontist. “Billy’s always dreamed of the big leagues, playing in the World Series, things like that. Baseball’s always had a way of crowding the other things out.”

But Toronto, Boston and two other clubs that had been interested in Cannon protested the selection, charging tampering. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn conducted two days of hearings and ruled the Yankees illegally obtained the rights to Cannon, violating draft rules by negotiating with a player prior to the draft.

Kuhn advised Cannon that he would not be permitted to sign with New York. Not then, or ever. It was a blow to the Cannon family, especially Billy Jr., who was packed and ready to report to short-season Oneonta as soon as the paperwork was out of the way.

“I’m very disappointed for my son,” the elder Cannon said, “because after going up there and looking at the stadium and meeting the players, envisioning himself in that role, it’s very disappointing for a young man.”

“The commissioner admitted that he had no concrete evidence that any actual tampering took place. He accused me of not dealing fairly but the fact is, I didn’t break any rules. I might have bent them a little for the best interests of my son, but if legally trying to look after a players welfare is construed as tampering, then maybe they better come up with a better definition of the word.”

Kuhn proposed a special draft lottery, which was initially rejected by the Cannon family but then took place in mid-August. Every major league team but the Yankees could bid, and at the cost of a third-round pick in the 1981 draft, the Cleveland Indians acquired Cannon’s rights.

The Indians could not satisfy his bonus demands, and a short time later Cannon ended another battle for his services by committing to Texas A&Mmuch to the dismay of fans at Louisiana State, his father’s alma mater. He played both baseball (outfielder) and football (defensive back), but didn’t excel in either.

As a senior at Texas A&M, Cannon devoted his energy to football and became the first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1984 NFL draft. He played one season as a linebacker, but was forced to quit when he injured his neck in his rookie season. Doctors advised him that he risked permanent injury if he continued playing.

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