What might have been: The story of two Hall of Famers who got away from Braves

Randy Johnson, then of the Arizona Diamondbacks,  during his perfect game against the Braves at Turner Field on May 18, 2004.

Randy Johnson, then of the Arizona Diamondbacks, during his perfect game against the Braves at Turner Field on May 18, 2004.

Editor's note: At a time when sports are shut down, we're taking a look (in no particular order) at some of the bizarre moments from Georgia sports history. 

Between them, pitchers Tom Seaver and Randy Johnson won 614 major-league games, struck out 8,515 batters and claimed eight Cy Young Awards. Both were elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame by overwhelming margins in their first year of eligibility.

And both could have — should have — been Braves.

The Braves drafted and signed Seaver in 1966 but lost him on a technicality. They drafted Johnson in 1982 but didn’t offer enough money to sign him.

» MORE: Bizarre moments in Atlanta sports

Imagine how different Braves history — and MLB history — might have been if “Tom Terrific,” as Seaver was known throughout his career, and the “Big Unit,” as Johnson was known, hadn’t gotten away.

Imagine the power pitcher Seaver joining the great knuckleballer Phil Niekro at the top of the Braves’ rotation in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Imagine the 6-foot-10 fireballer Johnson joining Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz in the Braves’ rotation of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Alas, this is the bizarre story of what might have been, of two great ones who got away.

Paul Snyder remembers both cases. He was working for the Braves as director of stadium operations when Seaver was drafted in 1966 and as director of scouting when Johnson was drafted in 1982. Snyder’s career with the Braves covered more than a half-century, starting as a minor-league player, and he so distinguished himself as a scout and a scouting director that he was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2005. He was such a key to the Braves’ success that the organization twice brought him back out of retirement or semi-retirement.

“I had to retire three times before I got it right,” said Snyder, now 84 and living in the mountains about 10 miles outside Murphy, N.C. “I think it was 2012 I finally got it right.”

Although not personally involved in the Seaver saga in 1966, the Braves’ first year in Atlanta, Snyder heard about it around the office.

“Oh, I remember everyone being so upset when it went down,” he said in an interview this week.

Here’s how it went down early in 1966:

MLB had two drafts back then, one in January and one in June, each with two parts: the regular phase for players who hadn’t been drafted previously and the secondary phase for players who had been drafted but hadn’t signed. Seaver was selected by the Dodgers in the 10th round in June 1965 after starring at Fresno (Calif.) City College and Southern Cal, but he turned down the Dodgers and remained at USC. The Braves, in turn, drafted him with the 19th pick of the first round of the secondary phase in January 1966.

The Milwaukee Braves had somehow been a favorite team of Seaver’s as a kid in Fresno. He was a big fan of Hank Aaron and once told an interviewer, “I loved their uniforms, and I loved their hitters … Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock.”

So in February 1966, one month after drafting him, the Braves were able to sign the then-21-year-old Seaver to a contract valued at $51,500, which included the cost of finishing his college education. Seaver was slated to spend the 1966 season in the Braves’ farm system and, if all went well, move rapidly toward Atlanta. But … wait.

USC had played a couple of 1966 games by the time the Braves signed Seaver, and MLB had a rule against negotiating with or signing a player after his college team’s season began. The Braves argued that the Seaver signing was proper because USC’s early games were exhibitions. But MLB commissioner William Eckert ruled that Seaver’s contract with the Braves was invalid and that they no longer had rights to him.

“As I recall it, USC had not started their regular season, but they had gone down and played (exhibition games) in San Diego, and he did not make the trip,” Snyder said. “But they counted him as a member of the team.”

The case got even more convoluted when the NCAA declared Seaver ineligible to play for USC or any other college because he had signed a pro contract, even though he hadn’t yet received a dollar from that nullified deal. Seaver’s father complained to MLB about the unfairness of the situation and threatened a lawsuit. So, instead of requiring Seaver to wait until the June 1966 draft to be selected again, Eckert set up a special lottery open to any team willing to give Seaver the same $51,500 deal he had lost when his Braves contract was voided. The Braves, Eckert ruled, were ineligible for the Seaver lottery.

“The most amazing thing, of all of it, was that there were only three teams that were willing to match what we had paid him,” Snyder said. “That was just hard to believe.”

Those teams were the Cleveland Indians, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies.

The teams’ names were written on separate slips of paper and placed in a hat at the commissioner’s office April 2, 1966. Eckert pulled out the slip with “NY” written on it. “Tom Terrific” would be a Met.

Just a year later, in 1967, Seaver reached the big leagues and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. In 1969, he went 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA and won his first of three Cy Young Awards as the “Miracle Mets” won the NL East, beat the Braves in the NL Championship Series and won the World Series.

Seaver pitched 20 seasons in the majors, including 11-plus with the Mets and five-plus with the Cincinnati Reds.  He won 311 games, had a career ERA of 2.86 and struck out 3,640 batters, still the sixth most in MLB history. His career record against the Braves was 32-10 with a 2.28 ERA, a constant reminder of what they could have had.

Bill Bartholomay, who died earlier this year, was the head of the Braves' ownership group when the team moved to Atlanta in 1966. Last year, in an interview with the AJC, he mentioned losing Seaver.

“It still makes me feel sort of sick every time I think about it,” Bartholomay said then.

Tom Seaver, then with the Mets,  poses for a photo in 1973. 

Credit: AP Photo

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Credit: AP Photo

The Johnson case was less complicated, although no less a loss for the Braves, than the Seaver case.

In the fourth round of the June 1982 draft, the Braves selected the towering left-hander, then an 18-year-old Californian just out of high school.

“He was from a little town called Livermore,” Snyder recalled.

The Braves tried to sign Johnson, but couldn’t agree on the bonus amount.

“We could not get together,” Snyder said. “We stopped, I think, at around $42,000 or $44,000, something like that. … I don’t recall (what it would have taken to sign him). I know we were way over what we had been allotted (in the budget) when we went that far.

“After it was all said and done, yeah, we should have gone to $142,000,” Snyder added with a laugh. “But, I mean, he wasn’t what he ended up being. There was a lot of improvement made. A lot of people did a lot of hard work with him, and he had to do some work himself. Usually, tall pitchers like that will have a tendency to lose their mechanics. They kind of come and go. But once Randy got his, it stayed with him pretty good.”

After the Braves drafted him, Johnson weighed whether to sign with them or go to college. A significantly higher offer could have shifted his decision toward Atlanta, but Johnson opted for college over what the Braves were offering. He signed with USC and played three seasons for the Trojans.

Johnson was drafted again in June 1985, that time in the second round by the Montreal Expos, and began his pro career then. He reached the big leagues in 1988 with the Expos, who unwisely traded him to the Seattle Mariners a year later. He would solve his early-career control problems to become one of baseball’s most dominant and most intimidating pitchers.

A few years ago, ESPN ranked the 10 greatest left-handed pitchers of all time. Johnson was No. 2, behind only Sandy Koufax.

Johnson pitched 22 seasons with six big-league teams, mostly with the Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks. He won 303 games, had a career ERA of 3.29 and struck out 4,875 batters, the second most in MLB history (behind only Nolan Ryan). He won five Cy Young awards, one in the American League with Seattle and four in a row in the National League with Arizona from 1999-2002.

Nineteen years after the Braves drafted him, Johnson pitched twice against them in the 2001 NLCS. He won Game 1, throwing a three-hit shutout, and Game 5, allowing two runs in seven innings, as the Diamondbacks took the series four games to one. The Braves haven’t won a postseason series since then.

Johnson provided the Braves another reminder of what  might have been on May 18, 2004, when he pitched a perfect game against them at Turner Field. He was 40 years old. The Atlanta crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Seaver, now 75, retired from pitching at age 42 in 1987. Johnson, now 56, retired at age 46 in 2010. Seaver was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1992 with 98.8% of the vote and Johnson in 2015 with 97.3% of the vote. Seaver’s family announced last year that he had been diagnosed with dementia and had retired “from public life.”

Hypotheticals are always good fodder for sports conversation, never more than in these days without games, so this question fascinates: How would baseball history be different if the Braves had kept Seaver and signed Johnson?

Without Seaver, the 1969 Mets presumably wouldn’t have become the “Miracle Mets.” Maybe the Braves, who won the NL West that year, would have won the NLCS and reached the World Series. Maybe, with Seaver, they would have been the “Miracle Braves.”

And as stellar as the Braves’ starting pitching was in the 1990s, would Atlanta have won more than one World Series if Johnson had been in the rotation with Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz? You’d surely think so. Of course, it’s also possible that if the Braves had Johnson, they wouldn’t have signed Maddux. Who knows?

But we know this: If the Braves had signed Tom Seaver a bit quicker in 1966, and if they had opened the checkbook a bit wider for Randy Johnson in 1982, they could have landed two of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.

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