What if Tom Seaver had become a Brave?

Atlanta signed right-hander in February 1966 before contract was voided

March 3rd, 2022

is The Franchise … but that franchise very nearly wasn't the Mets. It was almost the Braves.

The Mets didn't draft Seaver, the player who would transform them from the 40-game winners of 1962 into the World Series champion Miracle Mets of '69. The Braves did. It took a unique chain of events, and the luck of the draw, for the best pitcher in Mets history to end up in New York.

So what happened? How did Seaver get to the Mets? And what if he had been a Brave?

Here's how the Mets got a Hall of Famer, the Braves lost one and the course of baseball history changed.

The Dodgers prologue

The Dodgers drafted Seaver first. That was in 1965, in the 10th round out of USC. It made sense; Seaver was a California native. But he didn't sign. He wanted $50,000, a lot more than the Dodgers were willing to pay.

"When I asked for $50,000, I think they laughed," Seaver wrote in his book "Pitching Is My Life," which was published in 1973, at the height of his Mets career. "They thought half of that was too much."

As Gene Schoor tells it in his 1986 biography of Seaver, the Dodgers' number was $2,000, with Tommy Lasorda himself, then a scout, dispatched to make Seaver the offer. Seaver said no, and he went back to school.

Seaver-to-the-Dodgers is an interesting "what if?" in its own right. The 1965 season was the penultimate season of Sandy Koufax's career. Koufax, who was Seaver's pitching idol, would win the Cy Young Award that year, and the next one, too, before his sudden retirement. That would have been just as Seaver was arriving in the big leagues.

Imagine Koufax passing the torch to Seaver in Los Angeles. The timing would have been exactly right.

But Seaver was never truly a Dodger. He was, for all intents and purposes, a Brave. Until, by a stroke of the Commissioner's pen, he wasn't. It all happened in the span of just over two months. At the end of January 1966, the Braves had Seaver. By the beginning of April, he was a Met.

Seaver, a Brave

On Jan. 29, 1966 -- seven months after Seaver turned down the Dodgers -- the Braves picked him in the first round of the secondary January Draft. He went 20th overall this time, not 193rd, and got the deal he wanted.

Atlanta offered the 21-year-old Seaver over $50,000 total -- a $40,000 signing bonus, plus $4,000 for his college scholarship and $7,000 if he reached the Major Leagues. Braves general manager John McHale called Seaver "the best pitching prospect on the West Coast."

On Feb. 24, Seaver signed. The Braves sent Johnny Moore, the same scout who signed Eddie Mathews in 1949, to get the deal done.

Moore told the Fresno Bee, Seaver's hometown paper: "We're very high on Tom's potential. … As far as I'm concerned, there has been only one better deal [with] the free-agent Draft setup in effect since last June. That was the signing of Rick Monday by Kansas City."

Seaver was assigned to Triple-A Richmond, the club's International League affiliate. There was even a locker awaiting him at the Braves' training camp in West Palm Beach, Fla., bearing his name and the No. 65. Knowing what we know now about Seaver, a spot in Atlanta's rotation wouldn't have been far away. Moore would have forgotten all about Rick Monday.

That's when Major League Baseball intervened.

Seaver, not a Brave

On March 2, 1966, MLB Commissioner William Eckert voided Seaver's contract with the Braves.

Major League Baseball had a rule in place that a college player couldn't sign if his intercollegiate season had already started. And when Seaver had inked his contract with Atlanta, Southern Cal had already played two exhibition games.

Eckert ruled Seaver's signing was a violation of the rule, fined Richmond $500 and banned the Braves and their affiliates from signing the right-hander for the next three years.

"Most college teams don't play before the middle of March, although out there, they play something like 80 games," McHale told The Atlanta Constitution, explaining his team's decision to go through with the Seaver signing. "As it turned out, we had only about 12 days to sign the boy."

The Atlanta GM explained that he had requested and received a copy of USC's original schedule, and thought they hadn't scheduled any college opponents within the signing timeframe, but then Southern Cal played a game just before the Braves signed Seaver. McHale told the paper he would appeal Eckert's decision and try to keep Seaver. He didn't succeed.

Without a place on the Braves, Seaver went back to school again … except he wasn't allowed to play. The NCAA ruled Seaver ineligible to pitch for the Trojans because he'd signed a professional contract -- even though that contract was now void, he didn't get the money, and he wouldn't ever pitch a game for the Braves.

The great USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux, who led the Trojans to 11 national championships, told the Los Angeles Times: "The Seaver thing was brutal."

Seaver was in limbo. His family petitioned Eckert to change his mind. Seaver's father threatened to sue. Finally, Seaver got on the phone with the Commissioner's aide, future American League president Lee MacPhail, to plead his case.

The Commissioner's Office came back with a solution. Eckert declared that, while the Braves still couldn't have Seaver, any other team could. Every MLB club had until April 1 to submit notice that they would match the Braves' offer to Seaver. Those teams would be entered into a lottery; the team whose name was drawn would get the rights to Seaver, at the price of his original deal with Atlanta.

Only three teams entered the Seaver sweepstakes: the Indians, Phillies and Mets.

The sweepstakes

In retrospect, it seems almost unimaginable. Only three teams willing to throw their hat in the ring for a future Hall of Famer.

But every other team really passed, even the Dodgers, who, although they'd drafted Seaver half a year earlier, were preoccupied with their aces Koufax and Don Drysdale holding out for bigger contracts after the 1965 World Series. The crazy thing is, the Mets almost passed, too.

Team president George Weiss didn't want Seaver. His assistant, Bing Devine, one of the architects of the Miracle Mets, tells the story in Peter Golenbock's book "Amazin'."

"Yes, [Weiss] was against taking Seaver," Devine said. "Let's be honest about it: He didn't know anything about him. And so he just said, 'We can't do it.'

"I made a big case, and I recall it was only hours before we had to make a decision and agree to that, and George Weiss finally shook his head, I'm sure not wanting to do it, and said, 'If you people make such a big case of it, go ahead.'"

So, on April 2, 1966, Commissioner Eckert put three team names into a hat. ("I don't know whose hat it was," Seaver joked in his book.) As he prepared to draw the winner, MacPhail started a call with Seaver and his parents.

"MacPhail was very dramatic, like the announcer at the Academy Awards," Seaver remembered.

"The Commissioner is drawing the name out of the hat," MacPhail said.

"'... And the name is … the New York Mets.'"

Seaver and Eckert (from Mets Virtual Vault)

Seaver, a Met

The next day, April 3, Tom Seaver was a Met.

Newspapers around the country reported the results of the Commissioner's special drawing: "Mets get Seaver OK." "Bonus Boy signs with N.Y. Mets." The United Press International wire report referred to Seaver as "controversial college pitcher George Seaver." Eckert was quoted as saying his decision was made "for the interest of the boy and the public," since Seaver signed his original contract in good faith.

As Seaver put it: "I was going to the Mets. I hardly knew what they were, but I was going."

For Seaver, a West Coast kid, New York was a faraway place. The Mets were a faraway team.

"I was interested in the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Francisco Giants, and Bad Henry Aaron with Atlanta," he wrote in his book. "I couldn't have cared less about the 10th-place team they called the Amazing Mets. I just never dreamed of playing in New York."

Seaver worked out his contract details with the Mets' chief California scout, Nelson Burbrink. He was assigned to the International League once again, but this time to Jacksonville, the Mets' Triple-A team.

His reaction to the Mets winning his lottery was prudent: "So they'd been the worst team in the history of baseball for four seasons. That could mean that they had to give me a chance quickly."

And prescient. A year later, on April 13, 1967, Seaver made his Major League debut at Shea Stadium. Two years after that, he was the best pitcher in the league, and the Amazin' Mets were World Series champions for the first time.

What if the Mets never had Seaver? …

But let's imagine what might have been if Atlanta never lost Seaver. If the contract held up, and Seaver ascended to greatness as a Brave, and the Mets never had a Commissioner's hat to drop their name into.

Start with the most immediate consequence: The Mets do not win in 1969. The Miracle Mets aren't the Miracle Mets without Tom Seaver.

Look at what Seaver did in '69. He went 25-7, leading the Majors in wins, with a 2.21 ERA and 208 strikeouts. Eighteen of his 35 starts were complete games. He pitched 273 1/3 innings. He won the NL Cy Young Award and was the runner-up for MVP, receiving the same number of first-place votes as winner Willie McCovey.

In the playoffs, Seaver beat none other than the Braves in Game 1 of the NLCS, starting a Mets sweep. In the World Series against the Orioles, Tom Terrific put the Series out of reach with a 10-inning complete-game gem in Game 4; the Mets won it in Game 5.

The long-term arc of the Mets franchise also looks much different.

How do the Mets win the pennant in 1973 with no Seaver? As dominant as Seaver was in '69, he might have been even more so in '73, when he won his second Cy Young Award. Seaver went 19-10, captured the MLB ERA crown with a 2.08 mark and won the NL strikeout title with 251 K's. He was overpowering in the postseason, with a 1.99 ERA and 35 strikeouts in his four starts.

Without the 1969 World Series title, and without the 1973 pennant, who knows how long it would have taken the Mets to shake their "lovable loser" reputation.

… What if the Braves got to keep him?

Hank Aaron was Seaver's hero. He said he "always thought of Aaron as excellence." As Bill Madden chronicles in his 2020 biography of Seaver, when Seaver signed with the Braves, his childhood friend Russ Scheidt's parting words were, "Say hello to Hank Aaron for me." Seaver could have helped Aaron bring a World Series to Atlanta.

The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966. Before that, as the Milwaukee Braves, they'd won the World Series in 1957, behind a 23-year-old MVP Aaron.

That turned out to be the only championship of Hammerin' Hank's career. The Braves only made the playoffs once between their inaugural season in Atlanta and Aaron's retirement in 1976. That was 1969. Seaver and the Mets beat them. The Atlanta Braves didn't win a World Series until 1995.

If Seaver had been there, he could have helped rewrite the story of the team's early years in its new city.

With Seaver, maybe the Braves beat the Mets in '69 (if the Mets even make the playoffs). Atlanta would have had Seaver and fellow Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. Instead, they had Ron Reed and Pat Jarvis following the great knuckleballer.

It wasn't lost on Seaver what Aaron did against his Mets in that NLCS: "Henry Aaron, still my hero, hit a home run in each game and had a great series with seven RBIs," he made sure to note in "Baseball Is My Life" while reflecting on 1969. If he could have been on the mound for Atlanta ...

(The other big possibility here is that if the Miracle Mets aren't there to upset the 109-win Orioles in the World Series, those Orioles become an even greater dynasty. Baltimore had already won the 1966 World Series behind its Hall of Fame trio of Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer, and they'd win again in 1970. Add 1969, and that's three titles in five years.)

At the least, if the Braves had Seaver for the decade-plus he spent in New York, they would have had their chances to win a championship. Seaver pitched for the Mets from 1967-77, the year he was traded to the Reds in the Midnight Massacre. He was the best pitcher in the world. Over those 11 seasons, Seaver was worth 79.1 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball Reference, by far the most of any pitcher. Gaylord Perry was next with 69 WAR. Niekro, with the Braves, ranked fourth with 62 WAR.

Interestingly, the "what if?" of Aaron teaming up with a fellow Hall of Famer on the Braves was often on Seaver's mind. But the second Hall of Famer wasn't himself -- it was Willie Mays. Mays had once come close to signing with the Braves, but the Giants paid him the money the Braves wouldn't. The Braves similarly outbid the Giants for Aaron two years later.

In "Baseball Is My Life," Seaver discusses memorable hitters he's faced. Mays and Aaron are the first two. Seaver wrote: "I think back at the idea that if the Giants made their offer to Aaron $500 higher, they, instead of the Braves, could have signed him. The idea of Mays and Aaron possibly having been on the same team for so many years is frightening."

Either he didn't see himself in the same light, or he didn't say so. But the idea of Seaver and Aaron on the same team for so many years is frightening, too.

Franchise legacies

The Dodgers, Braves and Mets are all defined in large part by their pitchers.

The timeline of Mets eras follows the handing of the ball from one ace to the next, from Seaver to Dwight Gooden to Jacob deGrom. And No. 41 is their greatest ace of all.

The Dodgers, from Koufax to Kershaw, and the Braves, from Spahn to the Maddux-Smoltz-Glavine Big Three, have all-time starting rotations that would stack up against any franchise. Seaver could have made those historic pitching teams even greater. But with a once-in-a-lifetime contract situation, baseball history chose the Mets.

"It sounded so simple," Seaver wrote in "Baseball Is My Life." "Simple, all right, except that it turned out to be as complicated a stew as I could imagine. I'm sure somebody in the Atlanta organization thinks about it every time I win a game. Possibly the Dodgers, too."