Although things have changed under a new regime, the Yankees used to be the bane of the free agent market. Remember when they would just open their checkbooks and sign all the biggest names out there?
Sure, so do we.
There was a blip in the history of free agency where the Yankees were in such dysfunction that they actually had difficulty signing players – and we’re here to revisit that time on The Stud 400. Going back to the 1992 Winter Meetings, the Yankees were coming off Buck Showalter’s first season as the team’s skipper. They finished 20 games out of first place with a record of 76-86 and their playoff drought extended past a decade. If someone had told you the glory years were just a couple of short seasons away, you’d think they took a Melido Perez fastball to the coconut.
The Yankees turnaround didn’t begin during those Winter Meetings, though. Gene Michael had a goal to sign two free agent starting pitchers to go along with Jim Abbott, who he had recently acquired in a trade. The Yankees targeted free agent hurlers Doug Drabek, Jose Guzman, David Cone and Greg Maddux – and came away with none. In the case of Maddux, the Yankees offered a better deal than the Braves, but the righty chose to begin his historic tenure in Atlanta instead. The Yankees ended up signing Jimmy Key, who had two outstanding seasons in the Bronx before injuries curtailed his career.
But the focus here is Maddux and his decision to spurn the Yankees. There are major free agency moves nearly every offseason, but not many decisions have shaped the history of baseball the way Greg Maddux did when he took less money to go to the Braves instead of to The Bronx.
Before we move on to this week’s edition of The Stud 400, here’s look at the last five entries as we count down the 400 greatest moments in Major League Baseball history:
300. Eddie Plank is the first lefty to win 300 (1915)
299. Mickey Mantle’s 565-foot home run (1953)
298. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker cleared of gambling accusations (1927)
297. 75-year-old Luke Appling hits a home run (1982)
296. Angels honor Tyler Skaggs by throwing a combined no-hitter (2019)
And now, here’s Episode XXII of The Stud 400, featuring artwork by Will O’Toole.
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George Brett wins batting title in 3 decades (1990)
You’d get very few arguments declaring Brett as the best hitter of his generation. For a decade between 1976-1985, Brett’s 162-game average stat line was 22-103-.321 with an OPS of .913. Over the next four seasons, Brett’s production continued, but his batting average slipped by 30 points compared to the previous decade. 1990 was Brett’s age-37 season, so the whispers were there about a possible decline. Those whispers started to turn into shouts as Brett carried a .263 average into the All-Star Break. But if you know anything about Brett, it’s that he doesn’t go down without a fight. In the second half of the 1990 season, Brett had an incredible renaissance, batting .389 with a 1.106 OPS. Rickey Henderson had a seemingly insurmountable 74-point lead over Brett with 91 games left in the season in the race for the American League batting title. Brett surpassed then held off Rickey Henderson to win his third American League batting title, having previously won in 1976 and 1980. In doing so, he became the first player to win a batting title in three different decades.
Greg Maddux chooses Braves over Yankees (1992)
When Maddux took less money to sign with the Braves instead of the Yankees in December of 1992, his agent Scott Boras said, “Greg wanted to have the opportunity during his career to win a world championship.” Maddux accomplished that goal, winning one during his 11 years in Atlanta. Of course over that same time, the Yankees won four and lost two other World Series. If Maddux had chosen the Yankees over the Braves, it would have altered the course of history for both teams. Whether or not he was ever serious about signing with the Yankees is up for debate. George Steinbrenner contended that Maddux and Boras just used the Yankees to drive up his price, which is feasible. Either way, it was a monumental decision, the scope of which was not realized at the time of the signing.
Pete Alonso sets rookie HR record (2019)
After being a second-round pick in the 2016 draft, Alonso was fast-tracked to the Majors. Shockingly, the cheap, pre-Cohen Mets didn’t delay his service time. Alonso broke camp with the Big League club in 2019 after hitting 36 home runs across AA and AAA the year before. Alonso continued that pace as he seamlessly transitioned to the Major Leagues. He went on a season-long home run tear and on the penultimate day of the season, mashed his 53rd home run, the highest total ever by a rookie, topping the mark Aaron Judge set just two years prior. Alonso, who greatly appreciates the game’s history, was in tears when he took the field, overwhelmed at gaining his own place in baseball history.
Joe DiMaggio first player to earn $100,000 salary (1949)
During his era, DiMaggio was notorious for contract squabbles with the Yankees. In the time before free agency, players were pretty much bound to franchises unless they were traded away. There are legions of stories of the game’s all-time legends having to take pay cuts from one year to the next just because the owners felt like it. Baseball players had no leverage. Either do what the owners said or go kick rocks. One of the few players who had some negotiating power was Joe DiMaggio and his leverage was that he was Joe freaking DiMaggio.
Between 1947 and ’48, DiMaggio received a nearly unprecedented pay increase from $43,750 to $65,000, thanks to an attendance bonus that kicked in. In 1948 DiMaggio and the Yankees finished in third place, which was an absolute crisis. By that point DiMaggio had six World Series rings and as great as he was, there was always an aloofness about him that made people believe he could walk away from the game if he wasn’t happy. As the calendar turned to 1949, DiMaggio’s status remained in limbo, as usual. The Yankees options were to pay DiMaggio, or have him hold out or retire. If a Yankees team with DiMaggio finished third in 1948, what would one without him do in 1949? As usual, DiMaggio ended up winning and received the first $100,000 contract in Major League Baseball history. How did Joltin’ Joe repay the Yankees? By leading them to World Series titles in 1949, ’50 and ’51 before retiring to a career of Mr. Coffee ads.
Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell die in car accidents exactly 30 years apart (1958, 1988)
From 1928-1943, Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell were New York Giants. Ott was the first National League player to reach 500 home runs and Hubbell was a two-time MVP and nine-time All-Star. They are absolute giants of the game and defined an era of baseball in New York City. Off the field, they were great friends as well. In one of the more shocking coincidences in baseball history, both Ott and Hubbell died in car accidents on the same day (November 21) exactly 30 years apart.
On a foggy November night in St. Louis, Ott and his wife were in their car pulling out of a café when tragedy struck. Their car was struck by an oncoming vehicle and Ott and his wife ended up in critical condition with severe injuries. As the days passed, it was reported that Ott’s condition was improving. However, on November 21, it was reported that Ott had passed away from his injuries, sending the baseball world into shock. At the time, Hubbell said, “Mel was one of my closest friends. I am heartsick at the news.”
As much as Ott embraced the public, Hubbell shunned it. He lived a non-descript post baseball life in Arizona and if you came across or talked to him randomly, you’d be hard pressed to know he even played baseball. On November 19, 1988, the 85-year old Hubbell was driving in his local neighborhood when he lost control of his car and struck a utility pole. He died from his injuries two days later in the hospital on November 21, 30 years to the day that his best friend and fellow baseball immortal Mel Ott did as well.
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Stay tuned for next week’s episode of The Stud 400 when we get see how a nine-game losing streak saved a franchise, get Harry Caray and Bill Veeck together to start a great tradition and swap superstar shortstops for each other with decidedly mixed results.