In 1960 Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, dug deep down into his saddlebags, withdrew $2.1 million in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer royalties and purchased one (1) complete 28-man major league baseball team, which he decided to call the Angels. Last month, 16 inflationary years later, Autry paid a bit more than that for one (1) complete major league baseball player. In fact, as the result of two weeks of intense negotiation between California's General Manager Harry Dalton and Agent Jerry Kapstein, Autry spent more than $5 million for free agents Joe Rudi, Bobby Grich and Don Baylor.
It remains to be seen whether the California owner has bought himself the 1977 American League West title or a season of high-priced frustration. But it is certain that the free-agent reentry draft has sent the grand old game into a new era. For better or worse, baseball will never be the same again.
Autry's Angels and the American League champion New York Yankees are the biggest winners in the multimillion-dollar auction that is now winding down. Although six of the 24 players who were selected in the draft remained unsigned at the end of last week, the best and the brightest were already on their way to the bank. Speculation about what their signings will mean in the standings next season and to the structure of baseball in years to come has fired all the burners in the Hot Stove League.
For this year at least, the direst warnings about the new system can be discounted. Players did not stampede to become free agents, and the competitive balance of baseball (if there ever was one) was generally enhanced, not debased. Of the 12 teams that had winning seasons in 1976, three signed a total of four new players. Of the 12 that had losing records, seven emerged with 14 of the free agents. Only in the case of the Yankees—"the damn Yankees," people have begun calling them again—did the rich get richer. New York was the only one of the nine winningest teams and the only one of the four clubs that drew more than two million fans last season to improve itself. By signing former Cincinnati Pitcher Don Gullett and ex-Baltimore slugger Reggie Jackson, the Yankees may have secured the American League's Eastern Division championship and even the AL pennant for years to come.
Another burning off-season question is whether the 18 players who have signed are worth the $20 million or so in bonuses, long-term salaries and deferred payments it took to snare them. For all their celebrity and past accomplishments, there is not a man among them who batted .300 last year or drove in 100 runs or clubbed 30 homers. As for the pitchers, only Wayne Garland, late of the Orioles, won 20 games. But, as Babe Ruth once said in justifying his big salary, every member of the nouveaux riches had a better year than the President.
As surely as several clubs and a goodly number of players stand to be better off as a result of the free-agent draft, it is just as certain that a few teams, especially Oakland and Baltimore, are much the poorer because of it. In the last eight seasons, the A's and Orioles have finished first or second in their divisions 15 of a possible 16 times. Next season, without Grich, Jackson and Garland, Baltimore probably will come in fifth in the American League East. Without Rudi, Baylor, Shortstop Bert Campaneris, Third Baseman Sal Bando, Catcher Gene Tenace and Relief Pitcher Rollie Fingers, the A's might not come in at all.
Thus, it is not difficult to guess which two teams are most satisfied and which two are most outraged by the recent events in the marketplace. Says Baltimore General Manager Hank Peters, "What we've seen are a handful of clubs that have been unsuccessful at building teams go out and use checkbooks to achieve things they couldn't accomplish through organizational efforts. And it's clear that to some players loyalty means very little." Oakland Owner Charles O. Finley blames everything on those of his colleagues who are willing to pay huge salaries.
Predictably, the Yankees and Angels disagree. "This is free enterprise and survival of the fittest," says New York General Manager Gabe Paul. California, which has never finished higher than third in the 16 seasons since it joined the American League as an expansion franchise, recognized the changing times as well. "I don't believe all of this is good for baseball," says Autry. "For that reason, I'm not happy about it. But this is the way it is now, and there are certain facts of life we're going to have to live with. We have a commitment to our fans, to our sponsors and to the players who have gone through some lean years with us. We had to improve the club." Or as Dalton phrased it, "I'd rather have a few people mad at me for putting Rudi, Grich and Baylor in Angels uniforms than have everybody happy with me while we finish fifth."
And Dalton, say some of his rivals, went to devious lengths to make sure not everyone would be happy with him. Under the rules of the reentry draft, each team was allowed to sign two players or a total equal to the number of free agents it lost, whichever was greater. California was able to sign a trio of the biggest stars available because it had lost three guys named Billy Smith, Paul Dade and Tim Nordbrook from its roster of 40 major-and minor-leaguers. Dalton even went so far as to obtain Nordbrook from the Orioles last summer, then did not bother to sign him.
Largely because of Pitchers Nolan Ryan, Frank Tanana and Paul Hartzell, the Angels managed to tie for fourth in the American League West last season, although they were last in the league in hits, runs, RBIs, home runs and batting average. Rudi, Baylor and Grich should change all that, even though Grich will have to move from second to short and Baylor to DH to fit into the Angel lineup. "If you have Grich and Bobby Bonds and Rudi and Baylor and Tony Solaita—bang! bang! bang!—in the lineup, it's going to be tough for a pitcher to sneak his way through," says Dalton. California's defense and speed also will be improved, because both Grich and Rudi are Gold Glovers and Baylor stole 52 bases. "I'd start the season today if I could," says Manager Norm Sherry with understandable relish.