In 2021, you actually have to work to avoid MLB Draft content. Run a Google search, and you’ll find mock drafts, bios on all the high school and college kids waiting to hear their names called, glimpses ahead to 2022. While it’s not quite at the level of the NFL or NBA drafts, which at times manage to overshadow the games themselves, there’s no question that baseball’s amateur selection process is growing ever larger, a point demonstrated by its positioning this year as part of MLB’s All-Star Week festivities.
With all of today’s media saturation, it’s jarring to look back to 1967, when the Yankees held the top pick in just the third-ever MLB Draft. They used their selection on a kid out of Atlanta’s Druid Hills High School who was walking across the stage to collect his high school diploma when he received confirmation of his future endeavors. Ron Blomberg, who in 1973 would become the first designated hitter in Major League history, played parts of seven seasons with the Yankees. In the years since, he has remained a popular figure around Yankee Stadium and has authored two books -- 2012’s “Designated Hebrew” and 2021’s “The Captain & Me,” about his relationship with Thurman Munson, whom the Yanks selected in the first round of the 1968 Draft.
In June, Blomberg took some time to chat with Yankees Magazine deputy editor Jon Schwartz about his memories from 1967 and the ways in which the MLB Draft has evolved over the years.
Yankees Magazine: Right now, if you turn on MLB Network, they’ll tell you about all the prospects in college and high school, things like that, but when you were going through this, the Draft was really new. How much were you even aware of it coming up on the calendar as it was approaching?
Ron Blomberg: We didn’t have any of these showcases, which these kids do now. I knew about it, but I didn’t know about how big it was. But it was nice to get drafted by the team that you wanted, the New York Yankees. I was very, very lucky for that.
YM: Fundamentally, what do you think is the difference for a kid in ’67 being drafted No. 1, as opposed to No. 2 or 4 or 12 or 125? These days, there’s a lot of focus on the No. 1 pick, but fans know all of these guys a bit more. Do you think that there was some added cachet that you carried throughout your career as a former No. 1 pick?
RB: Well, sure. That was a big deal because, at that time, I signed for $105,000. My parents didn’t make that probably for 10 years, to be honest with you, back then. And our Draft back then, I think they drafted like 1,000 people; so many people got drafted. And so you had a better shot at getting drafted back then than you do now.
YM: Were you in touch with all the teams?
RB: Yes. Everybody.
YM: Did people generally expect that the Yankees were going to take you No. 1, or was that a surprise?
RB: Yeah, I knew that. They told me that if they finished last, and if I didn’t get injured, they were going to draft me No. 1. Two reasons -- because I was a pretty decent ballplayer. Plus, I was Jewish. And that was a big thing. Now, all of a sudden, I was a commodity. A good ballplayer being Jewish! Having bad teams and playing in the Bronx where a majority of the people [living] near the Stadium, on the Grand Concourse, were Jews -- that was a no-brainer!
YM: Let’s go brass tacks. Who calls you in that moment to say, “OK, it’s official, we just drafted you.” How do you find out?
RB: We had our high school graduation. I was walking across to get my diploma. And they stopped for a second and said, “We have some breaking news,” or something like that. “We just want to let you know that Ron Blomberg got drafted No. 1 by the New York Yankees,” and everybody stood up. I knew about it, but I didn’t have any idea what time it was. So, it was a great thrill for me. People told me if I got drafted No. 1 now, I would have probably signed a $14 or $15 million contract. And I can’t even count that high.
YM: You could make that work, right?
RB: Oh, yeah!
YM: So, you get your high school diploma, and you get drafted No. 1 on the same day. How do you celebrate that night?
RB: I think I had a game the next day. I hadn’t signed a contract yet, so I was legally eligible to play. And pitchers were trying to throw a step faster, trying to get me out. “Here’s a big bonus guy, a big bonus baby.” And everywhere I went, there was a paper that wanted to do an article. But you know what? It was wonderful.
YM: You’re a Yankees fan. Obviously, we know what the teams were doing in the 1940s, the ’50s, early ’60s. But if they were drafting first in 1967, that means there was a downturn. Do you feel in that moment like you were being drafted by the historic, legendary New York Yankees, or were you being drafted by the team with the worst record in baseball?
RB: I didn’t even look at the record. I just looked at New York Yankees. That’s like getting drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. Being drafted by the Yankees, the first thing you talk about is Yankee Stadium. You’re talking about Yankee pinstripes. You’re talking about Mickey Mantle. You’re talking about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford. You’re talking about the best of the best. That’s a high of all highs. I didn’t even look at the record because we hardly got to see games down in Georgia. You get drafted by the New York Yankees, you don’t care about a record; you want to put that uniform on and play in Yankee Stadium for the New York Yankees.
YM: What did you even know about New York City, and what were your first impressions?
RB: I remember when I got drafted by the team, they took my mom and dad up to New York. I had never been on an airplane. My parents couldn’t afford anything. I’m coming from Georgia, and Atlanta was just about 25,000 people back then. That’s a real, Southern, "Gone with the Wind" town. None of my friends had ever been to New York. I mean, they couldn’t afford to go up to New York. But you see "King Kong," and he’s up on the Empire State Building. And you watch horror shows, any type of shows, and everything’s in New York. You see the streets in New York, with hundreds of thousands of people. And I’m walking down the street with like 10 people. How in the world could this happen? I’ve had so much fun, even though I’ve been out of baseball for so long. When my book “Designated Hebrew” came out, it was extremely successful. And my latest book, “The Captain & Me,” has just been incredible. I just put out a new T-shirt, and we sold hundreds already. So, hey, if I was in Kansas City or Texas, you think I could do all that?
YM: In baseball, as opposed to most sports, you can get drafted No. 1 and everyone around says, “Oh my god, you’re a New York Yankee!” And then you get on a bus, and instead of going to the Bronx, you’re going to Johnson City, Tenn. What are those years like in between? No matter how highly acclaimed you were in high school, what’s it like to then work your way up from the bottom?
RB: Well, when you are a star in high school, you learn very quickly: There’s a lot of great athletes that are out there. And I have seen so many great athletes from Rookie ball in Johnson City, to Kinston, N.C.; to Manchester, N.H.; to Syracuse, N.Y. There were so many great athletes, but they didn’t have the heart to really give it 120 percent. And I’ve seen so many great ballplayers, not just baseball, but basketball, football, golf -- they don’t have the heart, and they’re not good under pressure. It takes a certain player to reach the top of the top. And it takes a certain person to be able to play in New York. You know right off the bat if you can play in New York. If you don’t have that drive, they’ll destroy you; they’ll run you out of town.
YM: So, to close the circle, you go from scouts following you, starring in high school, you’re drafted No. 1, you work your way up the Minors, then you get that callup to meet the Yankees for a game in Washington. How much of a release is that moment after everything leading up to it?
RB: My best friend in baseball right now is Art Shamsky, and he has lived up in New York for the last 50 years. He was happy to play for the Mets, and he played on a few teams in Oakland and Chicago and Cincinnati. But he said, “If I just had played one game for the New York Yankees, it’s night and day.” If you just have one day with the New York Yankees, when you wear that NY emblem and the pinstripes, it means so much to you. And I’m so happy to do that with all the fans in New York.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Past Yankees Drafts
Head of the Class
It’s harder to find gems in baseball’s Draft than it is in other sports. Most teams stash their picks in the Minors for years, hoping that they eventually develop into big leaguers. Other times, an organization watches a player it drafted and developed peter out before becoming a star elsewhere. Still, occasionally, everything works out perfectly. Such was the case in 1992. With the sixth overall pick, the Yankees selected a kid from Michigan who went on to a 20-year Hall of Fame career with the Yankees. And according to Baseball Reference, Derek Jeter is by far the Yankees’ most successful Draft pick since the system began in 1965. Jeter’s 71.3 bWAR is -- unsurprisingly -- unmatched by any player the Yankees have ever drafted.
493rd Time's a Charm
Once you reach the Draft’s later rounds (and more on those in a bit ...), it can be hard to find real game changers. But somehow, the Yankees have had quite a bit of luck in an unlikely Draft slot. Four times in franchise history, the Yankees have made the 493rd pick of a Draft. Two of those players -- Johnnie Pleicones (1985) and Tim Cooper (1989) -- never reached the big leagues. The other two, however, enjoyed more than a cup of coffee in The Show. In 1979, New York looked to Evansville, Ind., with the 25th pick of the 19th round. Don Mattingly went on to become one of the most popular players in New York for nearly a decade and a half and earned an MVP Award and a spot on six All-Star teams. Two years later, the Draft war room found Bob Tewksbury waiting in that same 493rd slot. While Tewksbury’s best years came in St. Louis, he was still quite a find that late in the Draft.
Welcome to the Club
Nearly three decades after using their top pick on Derek Jeter, the Yankees opened their 2021 Draft by using the 20th overall pick on another shortstop, Trey Sweeney. With the Draft held as part of All-Star Week for the first time, the Louisville, Ky., native was in attendance at the Bellco Theatre in Denver. After Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the pick, Sweeney -- a 6-foot-4 shortstop who played three seasons at Eastern Illinois University -- donned the pinstripes for the first time as he chatted with Yankees representative Nick Swisher.
“It feels great to put this iconic logo on my chest and my hat,” Sweeney said in an MLB Network interview. “I’m just thankful and blessed.”
Sweeney’s left-handed bat has Yankees scouts excited, and when the 21-year-old Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year was available at No. 20, Damon Oppenheimer, the team’s vice president of domestic amateur scouting, pounced.
“He has excellent raw power and contact ability, and he can hit to all fields with strong plate discipline,” Oppenheimer said.
And as for that other legendary Yankees shortstop, the one slated to enter Cooperstown just about eight weeks after Sweeney’s journey with the franchise began?
“There’s nobody like The Captain,” Sweeney said. “Definitely some big shoes to fill. It’s my honor to try to do that in any way I can, to come in and work hard and try to follow in his footsteps and be a great Yankee. I’m up to the challenge, and I’m really excited for it.”
Last, But Not Least
Ron Blomberg’s selection in 1967 was one of just two times in history that the Yankees have had the first overall pick (the other such selection, Brien Taylor, never reached the majors). Yet while starting the Draft festivities might be an uncommon occurrence in the Bronx, the team does hold the mark for the latest Draft pick in history.
In 1996, the Draft lasted 100 rounds, and with the final pick (No. 1,740), the Yankees selected Aron Amundson out of East Oklahoma State College. Six rounds earlier, the club picked but didn’t sign Clay Condrey, who eventually became the latest Draft pick ever to make the Major Leagues when he reached The Show with San Diego in 2002. But Scott Seabol, the Yankees’ 88th-round pick in 1996 (Pick No. 1,718) holds the distinction of the latest Yankees Draft pick to appear for the team. Seabol pinch-hit for David Justice on April 8, 2001, popping out to second base in his only Yankees at-bat.
Party Like It's 1990
With the 10th pick in the first round of the 1990 Draft, the Yankees selected Carl Everett, who was later taken by the Marlins in the 1992 MLB Expansion Draft and enjoy a solid 14-year big league career. In many cases, if you can pick a player with Everett’s baseball card stats, that’s a sign of a successful year. But the Yankees were just getting started.
Fifteen rounds later, the club chose Ricky Ledée, who played a role on three Yankees World Series championship teams, and Shane Spencer (28th round) also got three rings with the Yankees. The real value, though, was reserved for rounds 22 and 24, where the team locked in on Andy Pettitte (pick No. 594) and Jorge Posada (No. 646). Pettitte and Posada combined for 102.9 bWAR over their careers, and joined Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera to make up the Core Four. Rivera, a native of Panama, wasn’t subject to the Draft, but he did sign with the Yankees as an international free agent on Feb. 17, 1990, adding to the year’s miraculous haul.