The Yankees and the First Free Market
Soon after the New York Yankees' four-game sweep at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1976 World Series, George Steinbrenner assembled his brain trust to discuss the upcoming free agent marketplace, the first of its kind in baseball history. Despite the sweep, the Yankee brass had a right to be upbeat--it was their first trip to the Series after eleven mostly forgettable seasons, they had reopened the refurbished Yankee Stadium to rave reviews, and they had a fine team. Gabe Paul, the club's general manager and architect, had engineered an astounding series of trades, landing Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, Dock Ellis, Lou Piniella, Ed Figueroa, Mickey Rivers, and Oscar Gamble, all in just two years. Paul's deals brought them to the brink, and the new era of free agency promised to push them over it.
In December 1975 an arbiter had determined that pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, by playing the previous season without signed contracts, were no longer bound to their former clubs, paving the way for widespread free agency after the 1976 season. In the spring there were more than 200 unsigned players, but only 22 made it through the entire season. These 22 formed the first free agent class.
The ground rules of the marketplace have changed many times over the years, but in the first go-round teams were allowed to sign no more than two free agents, or the number of players they lost themselves, whichever was higher. The teams conducted a dispersal draft, with each club selecting the right to negotiate with certain players. Teams could pick as many players as they wished, but each player could only be selected by 12 clubs, effectively cutting his own free market in half.
Steinbrenner had completed the purchase of the Yankees in early 1973, and since that time had been right in the middle of all of the available high-profile talent.
In 1974 Steinbrenner had been convicted of making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign, and of coercing his employees to lie to a grand jury. He was suspended from the day-to-day operations of the Yankees for two years, an unenforceable prohibition that baseball tried with Steinbrenner again in 1990. The record-setting Hunter deal, we were asked to believe, was made by Gabe Paul alone, without consultation with the principal owner. No one was fooled. With Steinbrenner again the public face of the team by 1976, the Yankees were obviously going to be big players in the first free agent market.
When his front office gathered, Steinbrenner's opening words were: "We are not going to win a championship with Fred Stanley at shortstop." Indeed, the Yankees fielded nearly a complete team of All-Stars in 1976, with Stanley clearly the weak link in the regular lineup. There was only one starting shortstop available on the market, 34-year-old Bert Campaneris of the Oakland A's. Gabe Paul had another name in mind: Baltimore's Bobby Grich, an outstanding defensive second baseman who had played shortstop in the minor leagues. Grich was also a fine right-handed hitter, another thing the Yankees needed, and Paul made the case that he would be the missing piece. It was quickly agreed that Grich would be their top priority.
Their second choice was also an easy one, Cincinnati left-hander Don Gullett. Gullett was just 25, and had beaten the Yankees in the first game of the just completed World Series.
In the November 4 dispersal draft, the Yankees selected nine players: Grich, Don Baylor, Gullett, Gary Matthews, Wayne Garland, Reggie Jackson, Campaneris, Dave Cash, and Billy Smith. The order of these selections is significant, although some of it (like Baylor ahead of Gullett) was dictated by how many other teams had already selected the player. Asked about the Yankees' priorities after the draft, Steinbrenner allowed, "We are primarily interested in Grich, Gullett, Baylor and Jackson." In reality, Plan A was to go hard after Grich and Gullett. There was not really a Plan B, since George was not accustomed to needing a Plan B. The Yankees wanted Grich and Gullett, and that was that.
The club quickly contacted Jerry Kapstein, the agent for both Gullett and Grich, and secured the right to make the last offer, essentially guaranteeing that they would top the highest bid. Their initial offer to Gullett, six years and two million dollars, was enough to land their prey, thereby angering several other teams who hadn't even had the opportunity to speak with the star pitcher.
Unlike the prolonged chess matches we endure today, in 1976 the players acted as if they feared waking up from their dream. Don Baylor was signed by the Angels on November 16, and the following day brought contracts for Joe Rudi (also the Angels), Dave Cash (Montreal), Gary Matthews (Atlanta), and Bert Campaneris (Texas). The Yankees signed Gullett on the 18th, and then asked Kapstein what it was that Bobby Grich wanted.
What Bobby Grich wanted, it turned out, was to play for the Angels, in his beloved southern California. When Grich heard that Baylor, his best friend in baseball, had signed with California, he called Kapstein and asked him to contact Harry Dalton, the Angels' general manager, whom Bobby knew well from their years together in Baltimore. The Angels had shown little interest in Grich because they already had a well-regarded second baseman, 24-year-old Jerry Remy, and because everyone assumed the Yankees would outbid everyone for him. California had selected Grich with their last pick in the draft, and was the twelfth and final team to choose the second baseman. Dalton's priorities were Baylor and Rudi, and he quickly landed both.
The rule allowing each team to sign only two free agents contained a single exception: a team could sign enough players to replace their own lost players. The Angels played the 1976 season with two unsigned players: seldom used utility men Paul Dade and Billy Smith. On September 9, the Angels purchased infielder Tim Nordbrook from the Orioles, an unusual transaction for a team that was in fifth place, 17 games behind the Royals. What made this deal interesting was that Nordbrook was also soon to be a free agent, giving the Angels a total of three. The Angels made no effort to sign Nordbrook, so they ultimately "lost" three players who combined for 25 at bats, and 4 hits, in the 1976 season.
Bobby Grich was aware of all this, and knew that the Angels could sign a third player. When Kapstein passed on Grich's interest to Dalton, Harry told him that the Angels had already spent more money than they had wanted and were out of the market. The four-time Gold Glove winner persisted, telling Dalton that if the Angels made a decent offer he would take it without any bidding war. Dalton agreed, talked to Gene Autry, and got the OK to invite Grich to Anaheim to work out a contract.
But not before Grich had his promised meeting with George Steinbrenner. The Yankees put on quite a show, telling Grich that he would guarantee them the championship, that he would be an outstanding shortstop, the missing piece to a coming dynasty. Bobby said he'd think it over, that he was leaning toward the Angels but he was impressed with the Yankees pitch. Of course, George wasn't used to people "thinking it over," so he told Grich that if he signed with the Angels he would lodge a protest with the commissioner about their suspicious purchase of Nordbrook. This was a mistake. Grich left the meeting, called his friend Dalton to ask whether the Yankees had a case, and quickly worked out an agreement with the Angels.
The Yankees did not want to be publicly spurned by anyone, so they leaked a story that they had soured on Grich's demands (though he had made none) and were wary of his ability to play shortstop. The guy they wanted all along, it turns out, was Reggie Jackson. This was convenient, since by this time there were only two free agents left on the Yankees draft list: Jackson and Billy Smith. There was no way the Yankees were going to come away with only one free agent, and there is no way they were going to sign the likes of Smith. So, of course they wanted Reggie Jackson. They got him pretty quickly, for five years and three million dollars.
Gabe Paul got his shortstop in March, trading the displaced right fielder Oscar Gamble to the White Sox for Bucky Dent. The Yankees went on to win the next two World Series titles, thanks in large part to two big years and post-seasons from Jackson.
It is interesting to speculate on what would have happened had the Yankees landed Grich in 1976. Jackson earned the nickname Mr. October in New York, and Dent had one of their most famous home runs. Grich, on the other hand, had many fine seasons ahead of him, and Gamble had a great year for Chicago in 1977 and several more good ones. What we are left with is this: had the Yankees acquired Bobby Grich, all of what followed, the subsequent trades and signings, the managerial changes, the infighting, the wins and losses, the whole Bronx Zoo saga, all of it would have been different. How it would have turned out is anyone's guess, but it's hard to imagine how it could have been as fascinating as what actually transpired.
Mark Armour is an engineer and writer from Oregon. He and Daniel Levitt wrote the award-winning book, Paths to Glory, and are at work on a follow up. Mark has also written extensively for Baseball Prospectus, several other leading baseball web sites, and many SABR publications, and is the director of SABR's Baseball Biography Project.