In an era when run-of-the-mill major league baseball players own fleets of Hummers and aging superstar pitchers command $1 million a start -- here’s looking at you, Roger Clemens -- it’s almost comical to learn that a reported $205,000 bonus paid to an amateur 43 years ago sent ripples through the sport.
But it did.
After Rick Reichardt, a promising outfielder and former Wisconsin football star, extracted that paltry-by-today’s-standards sum from the Angels in 1964, club owners instituted the amateur draft a year later to keep themselves from bidding up the value of top prospects.
“There was quite an uproar,” Reichardt, 64, says from his home in Gainesville, Fla., where he is a semi-retired financial planner, self-described “computer geek,” father of four and grandfather of two. “No two ways about it.”
In the days before the draft, which will be held June 7-8 this year and televised for the first time, amateurs were baseball’s only true free agents.
And Reichardt, projected to be a star, played it to the hilt.
Over a period of about two months in the late spring and early summer after his junior year at Wisconsin, where he played in the famous 1963 Rose Bowl game won by USC, 42-37, Reichardt says that he and his attorney visited virtually every major league team, taking advantage of his leverage and the ensuing bidding war. While the two of them toured Los Angeles, Reichardt notes with a laugh, “The Dodgers kind of got scared away because we made the mistake of staying in Gene Autry’s hotel on Sunset. They got all frosted about that and pulled the plug.”
Though other teams offered more money -- Charles O. Finley and the then-Kansas City Athletics offered twice as much, he says -- Reichardt says he signed with the Angels because he felt most comfortable with Autry, their owner.
“They really romanced me,” he says of the Angels, whose manager, Bill Rigney, enthusiastically compared Reichardt to Willie Mays.
Reichardt hit the first regular-season home run in Anaheim Stadium, a second-inning solo shot in a 3-1 loss to Tommy John and the Chicago White Sox on April 19, 1966, and got his picture taken with Walt Disney and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. Of Reagan, he says, “I remember his cherry cheeks, for some reason.”
Handsome and strapping -- “The first time I saw him, I thought he fell off a Wheaties box,” Joe Garagiola once said of the
6-foot-3, 210-pound Wisconsin native -- Reichardt played in parts of seven seasons with the Angels.
He played 11 major league seasons in all, hitting 116 home runs with a .261 lifetime batting average. But Reichardt never lived up to the enormous hype that preceded his debut -- in part, perhaps, because of physical limitations. He suffered from night blindness and, in 1966, had a kidney removed because of blockage. In hindsight, he says, he probably should have signed with the Chicago Cubs because, as an Angels beat reporter once told him after analyzing his statistics, “Almost all the damage that I did was in day games.”
Says Reichardt: “The combination of the kidney problem and the night blindness relegated me to sort of a solid major leaguer instead of something a little more substantial than that, but I had a very solid major league career.”
Still, he is probably best remembered for inspiring the amateur draft, which at its core protected baseball’s owners from themselves. In the draft’s first year, top pick Rick Monday from Santa Monica High and Arizona State signed for a reported $104,000, about half of what Reichardt had received. No amateur was paid a higher bonus than Reichardt’s until 1980, when the New York Mets paid a reported $210,000 to former Crenshaw High star Darryl Strawberry.
“It was nothing that I really had any great designs to do,” says Reichardt, who was a touted wide receiver at Wisconsin, but says he had little interest in playing professional football despite interest from the Baltimore Colts, who drafted him, and George Allen, who wanted him to play for the Los Angeles Rams during baseball’s off-season. “It was just happenstance. I don’t feel guilty about it at all.”
Especially because his annual salary never topped $60,000 and his career ended prematurely, he believes, because of his work as a union representative. The Kansas City Royals cut him after he singled in his only at-bat in 1974.
“There’s no question that I could have played longer,” Reichardt says, “but something was afoot. I was only 31 years old and still in good shape.”
In retirement, the ex-Angel retreated to Wisconsin, where he opened a financial planning business, got married and started a family. He and wife Mary, a homemaker-artist, relocated in 1980 to Gainesville, where Reichardt has spent time coaching his own kids and working as a hitting coach at the University of Florida.
He has soured on football -- “The sport has very few redeeming qualities,” says Reichardt, son of an orthopedic surgeon who worked for the Green Bay Packers in the 1950s -- but still follows baseball and is awed by the salaries.
“It’s absolutely nuts what these guys are getting paid,” he says.
Once upon a time, of course, the same was said of Reichardt.