This is the eighteenth in a series of examinations of baseball-related urban legends and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of all the previous baseball legends.
In honor of Opening Week 2010, each legend installment this week will be a baseball one, spotlighting legends from one of the eight playoff teams last year. Today the featured team is the current World Champion, the New York Yankees.
BASEBALL LEGEND: Derek Jeter was not drafted by the Astros in 1992 because of an Astros price limit for the pick that ended up being just $100,000 less than what the Yankees signed Jeter for.
Typically, when the story of Derek Jeter being drafted in 1992 comes up, there’s two different takes on it.
The first is that the teams ahead of the Yankees, who drafted Jeter sixth, just screwed up in their talent evaluations – that they did not realize that Jeter would be such a good player as he turned out to be.
The second is that teams ahead of the Yankees realized that Jeter WOULD likely be a good player, but since he was a high school player, the Yankees just overwhelmed Jeter with cash (as the Yankees occasionally are wont to do) and that’s why no one drafted him before the Yankees – no one else could afford that much money.
The actual story, though, is a bit different.
The late Hal Newhouser was the most dominant pitcher of the World War II era. Due to a leaky heart valve, the otherwise healthy Newhouser was repeatedly turned down by the military for service in World War II (he kept trying to sneak in, though). So when you had an excellent pitcher left behind in a league decimated by players being drafted, well, the recipe for some gaudy numbers was there, and Newhouser mixed it up quite nicely in 1944 and 1945, winning back-to-back American League Most Valuable Player awards, the only pitcher to ever win back-to-back MVPs. Newhouser also helped pitch the Detroit Tigers to the 1945 World Championship (a series now best known as the last time that the Chicago Cubs ever played for the title).
Newhouser ended up proving the skeptics who thought his numbers were strictly war-driven wrong, when he nearly won a THIRD MVP in a row with yet another dominant season in 1946 (he finished a close second to Ted Williams).
Newhouser was a seven-time All-Star and in 1992, he was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1992, Newhouser was working for the Houston Astros as a scout.
When he discovered Derek Jeter playing for Kalamazoo Central High School, he insisted to his superiors that this kid would have to be their pick with the #1 pick in the 1992 draft.
And, more or less, his superiors agreed with him – Jeter WAS their #1 target.
However, they had determined that they were not going to spend more than $700,000 on any player. They felt that Jeter, who had the option of going to college (he had a full scholarship to the University of Michigan) would use that college scholarship as leverage against a signing bonus of over $1 million dollars. They were not prepared to pay anything more than $700,000.
California State University, Fullerton third baseman Phil Nevin, the 1992 College World Series MVP, was willing to take $700,000, so Houston planned to take him #1 (Nevin ended up having a fine 12-year career, making the All-Star team in 2001).
Newhouser argued that Jeter was not going to sign for anything close to $1,000,000 and that he could get him signed for $750,000.
The Astros either did not believe that Newhouser could do that or they did not want to go even $50,000 over their price limit.
Either way, they decided to pass on Jeter.
Jeter then went to the Yankees at #6, who ended up signing him for $800,000, just $100,000 more than what the Astros paid Nevin, and actually $175,000 LESS than what the Baltimore Orioles paid their first pick, #4 overall, Jeffrey Hammonds.
Newhouser was so sure that he was right that he actually quit his job over the decision, figuring that if he could not convince the Astros to draft Jeter then what was the point of working for them?
Newhouser died in 1998, but he lived long enough to both see his number retired by the Tigers (in 1997) and also see his faith in Jeter justified by Jeter’s 1996 Rookie of the Year season.
Read here for a very good take on the situation by Buster Olney.
BASEBALL LEGEND: Branch Rickey did not think Yogi Berra would be a major league ballplayer.
STATUS: I’m Going With False
Joe Garagiola, while never really having a great career in the Major Leagues, still stuck around for nine seasons in the big leagues as a catcher before embarking on a much more successful career post-baseball as a sports announcer and then panelist on The Today Show (he would also serve as the host of a number of game shows, including To Tell the Truth).
However, interestingly enough, while Garagiola might not have been the best catcher in the major leagues, he turned out not to even be the best catcher on his STREET, as he grew up on the same street in St. Louis with future Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra!
In 1942, both teenagers were seen as roughly equitable, with Garagiola actually receiving slightly more favorable reviews from most scouts.
In that same year, the St. Louis Cardinals and their then General Managers Branch Rickey signed Garagiola to a contract along with a $500 signing bonus (which was a nice chunk of change in 1942).
At the same time, Rickey seemed quite dismissive towards Berra as a ballplayer, including reportedly saying that Berra was too awkward and would never make it in the big leagues.
Ultimately, the Cardinals did offer Berra half of what Garagiola was offered, which Berra turned down.
The next year, the New York Yankees ended up throwing their money around and made Berra the same bonus offer (although, as it turned out, he would have to stick with the team all season to get the bonus money, something that was not made all that clear when he was first signed) and Berra, naturally, went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Yankees.
Here is Berra and Garagiola together in 1947…
Berra held a grudge against Rickey for years, bitter over Rickey’s dismissive attitude toward him.
However, I don’t believe Rickey WAS really that dismissive toward him, and even Berra, much much later in his life, seemed to come around to that way of thinking, as well.
You see, in 1942, Rickey was nearing the end of his tenure as the General Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.
After that season, he became the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
As soon as he became the head of the Dodgers, he sent Berra a contract and the signing bonus that he wanted.
Since nothing had changed for Berra between earlier that year and when Rickey sent him the contract (as in, Rickey did not re-scout him or anything like that), it sure seems awfully suspicious, doesn’t it?
A great talent evaluator like Rickey, coming to the end of his tenure with one team, KNOWING he is soon going to take over another team, decides not to sign a player with the first team then, upon moving to the new team right away sends the same offer he refused to make before?
It sure sounds like Rickey was trying to stash Berra away so that he could get him when he was with the Dodgers, doesn’t it?
Berra himself ultimately came around to that line of thinking, saying in his 2005 auto-biography, Ten Rings: My Championship Seasons (with co-author Dave Kaplan) :
Looking back, I think Rickey knew he was a lame duck with the Cardinals. He knew he was going to the Dodgers and maybe he was trying to hide me. Maybe it was true, because I got a telegram in November from Rickey telling me to report the next spring to Bear Mountain, about thirty miles north of New York City, where the Dodgers held their wartime training camp. But it came a few days after I’d just signed with the Yankees for the same $500 bonus Joe got.
Since then, Berra has said multiple times in interviews that he thinks that was likely the case (although he spins it as “Rickey wanted me, but I didn’t go with him because of the earlier snub, even if it was a calculated snub”) that Rickey DID want him, but not as a Cardinal.
And I think that appears to be the most likely scenario – you don’t sign a guy and then, as soon as you take over a new team, you send him a contract and tell him to report to training camp?
I certainly cannot guarantee that I know what the inner workings of Rickey’s mind were, but I think it is likely enough that I’m willing to go with a “false” here, especially for the more specific claim (that has been made many times over the years) that Rickey did not think that Berra would make it as a major leaguer – THAT seems to be pretty plainly false, as he offered him a professional contract the same year that he supposedly doubted his abilities to ever play pro ball.
Okay, that’s it for this week.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments. My e-mail address is email@example.com
Tags: Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Baseball Hall of Fame, Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodgers, Buster Olney, Derek Jeter, Detroit Tigers, Hal Newhouser, Houston Astros, Jason Giambi, Jason Varitek, Jeffrey Hammonds, Joe Garagiola, MVP Award, New York Yankees, Nomar Garciaparra, Phil Nevin, Rookie of the Year Award, Seattle Mariners, Shane Spencer, St. Louis Cardinals, Summer Olympics, Todd Pratt, Topps, World Series, Yogi Berra