Designated HitterJune 02, 2005
The Yankees and the First Free Market
By Mark Armour

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.

  • After the 1973 season, the Yankees tried to hire Dick Williams, who had just won two consecutive World Series with the Oakland A's, but could not get the A's to release him from his contract. The Yankees refused Charlie Finley's demand for players, and eventually hired Bill Virdon instead.

  • In December 1974, the Yankees landed star right-hander Catfish Hunter, who had been made a free agent when Finley reneged on one of the provisions in his contract. Hunter received a record five-year, three million dollar deal.

  • The next off-season they went hard after Messersmith, another one-person free agent class, and announced his signing on March 31. After some bickering over deferred payments, Messersmith claimed that there was no binding agreement, a claim the commissioner upheld, and the pitcher eventually signed with the Braves.

  • At the June 15 trading deadline in 1976, the Yankees, already in first place by 10 games, traded for Ken Holtzman and purchased Vida Blue for $1.5 million. Bowie Kuhn disallowed the Blue deal, along with the Red Sox purchases the same day of Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi.

    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.

  • Comments

    If Grich had signed with the Yankees and played as he went on to play with the Angels, then he's in the HOF now.

    Who knows, Brian. Grich very well could be. He was an excellent player either way and perhaps the most underrated of his time.

    If he signs with the Yankees, maybe he doesn't damage his back moving an a/c unit in his condo in Long Beach (which caused him to miss most of 1977 and to put up his only poor offensive season in 1978). However, Yankee Stadium doesn't treat right-handed hitters particularly well. And it is a myth to think that Yankees are treated better than others when it comes to HOF voting.

    Great article by Mark. Well researched with lots of insight re the first free agent draft and the Yankees in particular. I own Paths to Glory. I just finished reading many chapters in the book for a second time. I wholeheartedly endorse it.

    Unfortunately this stuff is before my time... but I just wanted to chime in and say that this was a magnificent article. I really enjoyed it. Thanks.

    I'll echo Byron.

    Question: What kind of format is Paths to Glory in? Is it a "book", or is it a formulaic thing like the Neyer/Epstein "Baseball Dynasties" effort? I enjoyed that, but I prefer something that reads more like a novel, I suppose.

    I just picked up (let's try a tag) Forging Genius and 3 Nights in August yesterday, and am curious if Paths to Glory should be on the shopping list next.

    Excellent stuff, Mark. That's a piece of Yankee history I knew nothing about. A lot of fun to speculate about that alternate reality.

    Thanks to everyone for reading the article. I find the story pretty fascinating myself, and the speculation about how history would have have changed is boundless. The problem is that the Yankees were always pretty active traders, and everything that happened post-1976 would have been completely different. Had Grich stayed in NY and won a couple of World Series (perhaps not the same 2 the Yankees actually won), his HOF case would have been even stronger than it already is.

    I should also mention that I have been a big Red Sox fan my whole life. This particular Yankee team, which I rooted against as a teen-ager, is nonetheless my favorite, both as players and more importantly as a story. Having lived through it once, it is still mind-boggling to read through all the stories again.

    Justin, Paths to Glory is a book with individual chapters about many teams. It is written in a novel-style prose, just the way you prefer. Buy it, you'll like it.

    Excellent, informative article. I think in '77 Grich did play shortstop but was injured, then went back to secondbase. Hmmm, what might, or might not, have been.... what an infield that would have been, maybe not as good defensively but better offensively by a decent margin (to be kind-- actually, I think it would have been a lot better). One can wonder how Grich would have faired defensively at shortstop but, based on the kind of offense he could provide, he could have been average or slighly above-average and it would have been fine. Thanks for the memories, and the dreams....

    Good story. It is mind bending to think about how big money is destroying the game I love. I still HATE the Yankees though.