It must have been quite an honor, such a marvelous niche in baseball history. Eddie Leon still can recall his reaction upon learning, from his summer-job boss at the University of Arizona, that he had been chosen as the first draft pick in Twins history.
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s probably not good,’ ” Leon, now a retired real estate developer in Tucson, Ariz., said of that 1965 amateur draft, baseball’s first. “I knew the reputation of [Twins owner Calvin] Griffith, that he didn’t spend money.”
That reputation was borne out over several months of unsuccessful negotiations, giving Leon another footnote in Twins history: first unsigned draft pick. Five times in the June draft’s 55 seasons, the Twins have failed to sign their first pick, and Leon, an 18-year-old sophomore shortstop at Arizona, wasn’t particularly happy to be the first.
“I had planned to sign with the Yankees, who wanted me, but then [Major League Baseball] created the draft and I couldn’t,” Leon said. “Then the Twins took me. Negotiations did not go well.”
The draft had been created to slow the growth of signing bonuses, following the bidding war that produced a $205,000 contract for Angels outfielder Rick Reichardt the previous summer. It worked: Reichardt’s contract ranked as the largest ever for an amateur player for 15 years.
“Unless I’m offered considerably more than $20,000, I will stay in school. It will take a lot of money to get me to sign a contract right now”
Arizona State outfielder Rick Monday was considered the top prospect in the 1965 draft, held June 8 in a ballroom of the Commodore Hotel in New York, and he agreed to a $100,000 bonus. Leon, coming off a .338 season with eight homers for Arizona, was considered the second-best college player in the draft, and after seven high school players were chosen, the Twins used the ninth overall pick to select him.
Their contract offer fell a little short of Leon’s price.
Sid Hartman’s column in the next morning’s Tribune quoted Leon as saying, “I want to play, but it will depend on what offer I get. Unless I’m offered considerably more than $20,000, I will stay in school. It will take a lot of money to get me to sign a contract right now.”
Twins scouting director Sherry Robertson had no intention of offering that much.
“Their attitude was, you’ll take what we say. I was from a really poor family. My dad was a janitor, my mom was home raising kids, so we didn’t have any money at all,” Leon said. “It was a more than a week before I was even contacted by the Twins. [Scout] Dick Wiencek called from the College World Series and said he would see me in a few days. But there was a rule that they had to make an offer within 10 days, and I said, ‘Well, I’m your No. 1 pick, you might want to make an offer by the deadline.’ He showed up at my house the next day.”
Wiencek laid out the Twins’ offer, but Leon was unimpressed. The team said it added up to more than $20,000, “but they were including the incentive money you get for spending 90 days at Double-A, and Triple-A, and the majors. Plus, they were trying to count amounts they would include in the next two years’ salary. The bottom line was, they were going to give me $7,500 cash. Monday got $100,000, I was the second college player taken, and it didn’t seem like a reasonable offer.”
It was a common refrain that summer. The Twins didn’t sign their second-round pick, Mississippi State outfielder Del Unser, either, or third pick John Dow of Bemidji High. The first draftee to sign with Minnesota was fourth-rounder Graig Nettles, taken 74th overall.
As negotiations “got crossways,” as Leon puts it, Robertson himself showed up at a collegiate summer league game to personally scout Leon. Afterward, Robertson told Leon “that I’m not worth a bigger offer,” Leon said. “One game, and he says that,” and negotiations were over.
Leon was drafted again by the Cubs in 1966 but turned down their $50,000 offer to remain in school. After graduating with a civil engineering degree, he was chosen by the Indians, signed for $20,000, and embarked on a career that included six years in the majors, most of it with the Indians. He had a .236 career batting average in 601 games.
Any regrets about passing up the Twins? Only one, Leon said.
“Well, I eventually became good friends with Harmon Killebrew. I was on the board of his foundation when he lived in Phoenix,” Leon said. “I think about that sometimes. I would have liked to played shortstop between Harmon and [Rod] Carew in the Twins’ infield.”