On paper, Tom Seaver’s professional baseball career is remarkable. The man known in New York as “The Franchise” won the 1967 Rookie of the Year, compiled 311 career wins, recorded 20 or more wins in a single season four times, 200+ strikeouts 10 times (including nine straight seasons between 1968-1976), led the National League in strikeouts five times, won three Cy Young Awards, tossed a no-hitter and was voted to the All-Star team 12 times. Seaver’s career was cemented in 1992 with his induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame, recording a record 98.8% of the vote.
It is not a stretch to suggest Seaver is one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. But Seaver’s journey to baseball immortality wasn’t without one-way street here and a dead end there. In fact, the road was crooked from the beginning.
In 1965, the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Seaver in the June draft. Seaver demanded a $70,000 signing bonus from the Dodgers, but the team balked. The following June the Atlanta Braves drafted Seaver and the two agreed to a $40,000 deal. But, stop.
MLB Baseball Commissioner William Eckert ruled the signing illegal between Seaver and the Braves. According to the commissioner’s office the contract was terminated because the University of Southern California had already played two exhibition games when the agreement was reached and, according to MLB league rules, teams could not negotiate or sign a player after the college season began. Despite the fact that Seaver did not play in either game, the contract was void. Seaver intended to play for USC and, again, re-enter the June Draft. But the NCAA ruled that his having signed the contract had cost him his amateur status and ruled him ineligible, even if the contract were no longer in effect.
Eckert eventually ruled that MLB teams would have the opportunity to match the Braves’ offer. Three teams matched the offer — the New York Mets, Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies — and a special lottery was held for the rights to Seaver.
The Mets won the lottery and the next decade is, well, baseball history.
Seaver arrived in New York in 1967 and eventually led the Mets to a World Series in 1969 and a second appearance in 1973 against the Oakland Athletics. But his career took a sharp left on June 15, 1977, when the Mets traded Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds, a infamous day in Mets history known as the “Midnight Massacre.”
“The impact was awesome,” said former Mets infielder Len Randle. “I had no idea a player could have that much impact on a city, since Joe Namath, I guess … it was a bad move.”
The deal was like a soap opera and it eventually plunged the Mets into the darkest era in team history. They would finish last in 1977 and would lose 95 or more games in each of the next three seasons under manager Joe Torre, who would be fired after a 41-62 record in the strike-shortened ’81 season. Attendance at Shea Stadium plummeted and the Mets would not have another winning season until 1984.
Seaver reflected on the experience in an interview with the New York Daily News in 2007 saying:
“It was both the worst day of my career and the best day as I look back on it now. The team was being run into the ground by Grant – and really had started to go down after Gil (Hodges) died (in 1972). If I had stayed, once the whole face of the club had begun to change, would I have won 300 games? As it was, I got to play with Rose and (Johnny) Bench in Cincinnati, then I got to see the other league and got to play with Pudge (Carlton Fisk) and even got to experience the Red Sox in 1986 and all that Boston energy. It would have been nice to be a Met my whole career, but I’m eternally grateful to have experienced all I did.”
Five years later, in December 1982, the Reds traded Seaver back to the Mets. He was coming off a 5-13 season with a 5.50 ERA. Seaver pitched 111 innings, striking out 62 batters and did not record a single complete game. He struggled through the 1982 season with a hip injury and sore right shoulder. Many wondered if he was done. Still, the Mets wanted Seaver to return home enough to consider giving up one of their top pitching prospects. Eventually, the Reds agreed to a lesser deal and Tom Seaver returned home.
He returned to New York with a career record of 261-156. Seaver, a proud, confident and competitive man was on a mission: to win 300 games. He went right to work, throwing in the indoor cage under the right-field stands at Shea Stadium three times a week. His catcher: Jeff Wilpon, who was then a 21-year-old catching prospect for the Montreal Expos.”The Mets are a young club,” Seaver told the New York media. “I hope I can help them win. I don’t want to play for a .500 club.”
In 1983, the Mets finished in last place and last in National League attendance. Instead of winning 15 games and pitching 250 innings as he had hoped, Seaver lost 14 games, but pitched his heart out and gave then Mets GM Frank Cashen everything he’d asked for: a role model and a pitcher who could go out every five days and give the team a chance to win.
But more weirdness was coming.
On this day in 1984, the Chicago White Sox claimed Seaver from the free-agent compensation pool. The moved shocked the Mets, their fans — and Seaver.
“The Mets certainly made a mistake by not protecting me. You don’t have to be a Harvard law student to figure that out. They admit it. I’ve got a lot of thinking to do for the next 24 to 48 hours. My alternatives are to retire, or not to report and wait for the White Sox to trade me, or to negotiate a contract and play in Chicago. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m healthy, but there are other things I love besides pitching. Leaving New York, leaving my family, that would be the tough part.”
He considered retiring, but Seaver was determined to win 300 games.
“Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” Cashen told the media. “I had the final decision, I made a mistake. We made a calculated and regrettable gamble.”
Seaver made his return to New York in August 1985 as a member of the Chicago White Sox and earned his 300th win at Yankee Stadium.
Only in New York.
Only in Queens.