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”
Eddie Leon in 1965, after being the Twins' first-ever draft pick

 

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.”

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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.”