BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: The Yankees left Mickey Mantle unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft.
Major League Baseball (MLB) has held six expansion drafts in its history (1960, 1961, 1968, 1976, 1992 and 1997) , where incoming expansion teams can draft players from the rosters of the other MLB teams (with each current team being allowed to protect a certain amount of players from being drafted). There have been a number of standout players drafted via these drafts (to name three - a young Lou Piniella was taken in the 1968 draft, a young Vinny Castilla was taken in the 1992 draft and a young Bobby Abreu was taken in the 1997 draft) but the vast majority of the players chosen tend to constitute organizational depth more than anything.
In addition, there have likely been only two Hall of Famers taken in any of the expansion drafts. One, Hoyt Wilhelm, was taken in the 1969 draft by the Kansas City Royals seventeen seasons into his twenty-one season career (they flipped him to the California Angels after picking him). The second, Trevor Hoffman, was taken in the 1992 draft by the Florida Marlins (and Hoffman, who the Marlins later dealt to the San Diego Padres as part of a deal for Gary Sheffield, is certainly not a lock for the Hall of Fame).
Amazingly, that number could have been three. During the 1968 expansion draft the New York Yankees left legendary slugger Mickey Mantle unprotected!
Mantle was clearly coming to the end of an illustrious career in the late 1960s. He had been moved from center field to first base in 1967 because his knees just could no longer manage the outfield. After a disastrous stretch from 1965 to 1967 (where the team finished 6th, 9th and 10th), the Yankees had improved in 1968 to get back over .500 and Mantle, even in his diminished state, was still a major part of the Yankees offense (not to mention the fact that he was far and away their most marketable player). Advanced statistics were not in vogue at the time, so much was made about Mantle’s low batting averages in 1967 and 1968 (.245 and .237, respectively). Mantle, himself, was disgusted that his .237 batting average in 1968 actually pulled his career batting average under .300. However, Mantle was still the Yankees’ leading home run hitter, he was still in the top five in the American League in on-base percentage (OBP) and was in the top ten in the AL in on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS).
The majors just happened to be in the midst of an era of pitching domination. To wit, only one player in the AL even had a .300 batting average in 1968 (Carl Yastrzemski hit .301)! So Mantle was still a productive player, even if he did not feel or look like one (and he almost certainly would have retired before 1967 had he not wanted to make a few final paychecks for his family).
His old friend Whitey Ford had retired and was named the Yankees first base coach for the 1968 season. He later recalled, “One of the sad things about coaching first base was that I was witnessing, firsthand, the demise of Mickey Mantle as a ballplayer...The worst thing about watching Mickey that year was to see him such pain. I knew his legs were killing him, but he would never complain. Sometimes he wouldn’t even want to go out, he was hurting so much.”
Still, all signs pointed to Mantle continuing to play in 1969 for the Yankees. The Yankees still wanted him, he still wanted the money and he also wanted to get his career batting average back up over .300. So in the fall of 1968, that was the presumed state of affairs - Mantle was coming back in 1969. However, there was still a little matter of the Oct. 15 expansion draft (one draft of National League players for the two new National League teams, the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos and one draft for AL players for the two new AL teams, the Seattle Pilots and the Kansas City Royals).
United Press International (UPI) columnist Milton Richman asked Yankee president and chairman of the board Mike Burke point blank - were the Yankees going to include Mantle as one of their 15 protected players for the expansion draft? Burke told Richman, “It’s unthinkable to us that Mickey will ever be anything but a Yankee. He most definitely will not be on our list of availables.”
And yet, sure enough, when October 15th came around, of the 15 players that the Yankees were protecting, Mantle was not among them. While I don’t know for sure what their reasoning is, it likely was a matter where they were unsure if Mantle was going to come back for 1969 or not. They knew he’d give it a try, but they did not know if it would actually happen. And if it did not, they would have “wasted” a spot protecting a player who was not going to play for them. So they gambled and left him unprotected. However, while Mantle was unprotected, they obviously did not want anyone to actually draft him. They contacted the front offices of the Seattle Pilots and the Kansas City Royals and asked them not to pick Mantle. They even enlisted the President of the AL, Joe Cronin, to put pressure on them not to take Mantle. After all, this was Mickey Mantle! How could he not play for the Yankees? The Pilots agreed and the Royals also agreed...at least at first.
You see, also not among the Yankees’ 15 protected players was prized shortstop prospect Bobby Murcer (who would ultimately replace Mickey Mantle as the Yankees center fielder beginning in 1969) as well as another prospect named Jerry Kenney. Kansas City’s General Manager Charlie Metro had spent a lot of time researching players and had discovered that the two were available. The AL quickly changed the rules and noted that players who were doing military service were also protected (which Murcer and Kenney both were doing at the time). So suddenly that meant that the Yankees had, in effect, 18 players protected instead of 15!
The Royals were not happy about this, so they began to make some grumblings about drafting Mantle. Joe Gordon, manager of the Royals (and former teammate of Mantle), publicly stated, “I think we would be foolish not to take Mantle if he’s available.” The Yankees became nervous and soon before the draft, a telegram came to the front offices of the Pilots and the Royals, ostensibly from Mickey Mantle. It read, “If you draft me I will not report and in all probability will retire.”
The language struck many as strange for Mantle and conspiracy theorists suggested that the Yankees sent the telegram in Mantle’s name, but whatever the case, the Pilots and the Royals took the telegram seriously (Phillies pitcher Larry Jackson actually did retire rather than report to the Montreal Expos after they took him in the 1968 National League expansion draft). Metro later recalled that Ewing Kauffman, owner of the Royals, was prepared to go along with a plan to take Mantle #1 and give him a 2-year/$200,000 contract to be the face of the Royals but when the telegram came he abandoned it.
Even during the draft, Metro pleaded with Kaufman to let him pick Mantle, but as Metro later recalled, “I talked to Ewing and I told him I wanted to select Mantle, and just before he said, ‘Charles, don’t do it, don’t do it.’ He’s the owner, so I didn’t to it, and he said if I had selected him he was going to fire me.” Metro only lasted two seasons with the Royals (he took over from Gordon as manager in 1969). As it turned out, it was a bit of a moot point, as Mantle gave it a shot in spring training of 1969 but just couldn’t bring himself to play another season.
On March 1, 1969, Mickey Mantle retired. In his retirement speech, he noted “I can’t see the ball anymore. I can’t steal second when I need to anymore. I can’t go from first to third anymore, and I think it’s time to quit trying.” Even his retirement came with conspiracy theories, as there are some who believe that since the Players Assn. considered a strike for the 1969 season, they wanted Mantle to be part of the group of striking players. So when the strike did not materialize, Mantle could retire in peace. I doubt that’s true, but it’s interesting to note how many tall tales follow Mantle around.
The legend, therefore, is...
Thanks to Milton Richman for his coverage of the story at the time, thanks to Tony Castro’s Mantle biography, Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son, for the great Ford quote and thanks to Dave Brandon of the Royals Report for his interview with Charlie Metro for the Metro quote.
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