So, you have probably heard the sad story of Larry Yount. He was Houston’s fifth-round pick in 1968 as an 18-year-old. He was a right-handed pitcher with pretty good stuff — his second year in Rookie Ball and Class A he was pretty dominant, and he got a spring training invitation from the Astros.
Then in 1971, he got a September call up to the Astros. And on September 15 — this is quirky, it was one day before his younger brother Robin turned 16 years old — Larry Yount was called from the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning of a game against Atlanta. The score was 4-2, it was in the Astrodome, the remnants of 6,513 fans in the stands. These are the moments you don’t forget.
Larry Yount began warming up for his Major League debut. He has described the awesome feeling of being right there, at the cusp of the biggest dream he’d had up to that point in his life. His elbow had hurt while warming up in the pen but obviously he would not allow something like that to interfere with the moment.
Only as he threw one, then two, then three warm-up pitches, he found that his elbow actually hurt A LOT. This was not nervous pain or a limpness he could simply work through. His elbow hurt so much that he could not pitch. He called out his catcher and the team trainer and said he couldn’t do it. They asked him if he was sure. He nodded. He came out of the game without throwing a single pitch.
And he never returned to the Major Leagues.
You can look up his Baseball Reference Page. Larry Yount is the only player in baseball history to be credited for a Major League game without ever actually playing in a Major League game.
Twenty-one months later his younger brother Robin Yount was drafted with the third overall pick of the 1973 amateur draft.
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This part doesn’t have too much to do with Robin Yount himself, but it’s worth looking back at the top of that 1973 draft for a moment. There has never been one quite like it. That was the year the Rangers decided to draft a local high school phenom named David Clyde with the first overall pick and then ruin him by sending him right to the big leagues. That, of course, is one of the most famous crazy stories in baseball history.
The second pick was John Stearns, who was mostly known as a football star at Colorado. He was a defensive back and a punter, a good player, but his fame had come from his nickname. When he was a sophomore in 1970, Sports Illustrated was previewing the Colorado football team and quoted Stearns saying this: “I can’t enjoy football without going savage. Going psycho. I would like to be remembered around the conference as a bad dude.”
From that day on, he had the nickname: Bad Dude. He was as national sensation. Sports Illustrated reported “Bad Dude” fan clubs popping all over, including Wilmington, Del., where apparently he received 52 autograph requests.
Stearns has spent more than 30 years trying to live down that nickname. He was drafted by the NFL (coincidentally just ahead of Dave Winfield) but he chose baseball after the Phillies took him with the second pick. He was traded to the Mets in the Tug McGraw deal in 1974, and he was a four-time All-Star for New York, probably best known for stealing 25 bases in 1978, tying the National League record for catchers.
THEN, the Brewers took Robin Yount with the third pick and San Diego took Dave Winfield with the fourth. That’s the only time that has happened in the first round of the draft — back-to-back Hall of Famers. It DID happen in the second round in 1971 when George Brett and Mike Schmidt were picked back-to-back. But never before or since in the first round.
But it’s more than just back-to-back picks. So far, other than 1973, there were never two Hall of Famers taken in the same first round. It has happened twice in the second round — the Brett-Schmidt draft of 1971 and the Greg Maddux-Tom Glavine draft in 1984. And it has even happened once in the THIRD ROUND, 1972, when when Dennis Eckersley and Gary Carter were taken.
But the Yount-Winfield combo is the only time two Hall of Fame players were taken in the first round. Eight of the 30 Hall of Famers to be signed since the draft began in 1965 were first round picks:
1966: Reggie Jackson (2nd pick)
1967: Carlton Fisk (4th pick)
1971: Jim Rice (15th pick)
1973: Robin Yount (3rd pick), Dave Winfield (4th pick)
1977: Paul Molitor (3rd pick)
1985: Barry Larkin (4th pick)
1989: Frank Thomas (7th pick)
Eight out of 30 seems low to me, but there are several first round picks — Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire — who might be in the Hall of Fame except for their connection to drugs. I suspect the next first round to have two Hall of Famers will be the 1987 draft, which included Ken Griffey and Craig Biggio.
Here, for fun, are all the remaining Hall of Famers and where they were drafted:
2nd round: Johnny Bench (1965), Mike Schmidt (1971); George Brett (1971); Cal Ripken Jr. (1978); Greg Maddux (1984); Tom Glavine (1984).
3rd round: Bert Blyleven (1969); Gary Carter (1972); Dennis Eckersley (1972); Eddie Murray (1973); Tony Gwynn (1981).
4th round: Rickey Henderson (1976); Ozzie Smith (1977).
7th round: Wade Boggs (1976).
9th round: Goose Gossage (1970).
11th round: Andre Dawson (1975).
12th round: Nolan Ryan (1965).
20th round: Ryne Sandberg (1978).
January Draft: Kirby Puckett (1982);
Free agent: Tom Seaver (1966); Bruce Sutter (1971); Robert Alomar (1985);
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You might remember this: In the 1977 off-season, Robin Yount considered giving up baseball and becoming a professional golfer. He was unhappy with how little he was getting paid but, perhaps more, he was just not sure he loved Major League Baseball that much. Yount had grown up racing motorcycles, playing golf and playing baseball, and all seemed about equal in his mind. He only went the baseball route because it was the road that looked most open to him. At 22, though, he wondered if he might like life better as a golfer.
Yount had started young and had already played four full seasons in the big leagues (Yount is still the last player to hit a home run as an 18-year-old). His first four seasons were certainly good but he had never made an All-Star Team, never hit even 10 homers in a season, never hit .290.
A scout told Pat Jordan at Sports Illustrated in 1974: “He’s the most complete young ballplayer I’ve ever seen.” But he wasn’t a star. There was a sense that Yount was just not all in. It was like he was waiting for something.
And, perhaps, that 1977-78-79 soul-search was exactly what he was waiting for. He came into spring training in 1978, had a couple of injuries, moped around. The golf thing came up for him again and again, so much that people around him were sick of hearing about it. Some of the stories of the time tagged Yount as a bit of a diva, a man who had it all but was unhappy anyway.
But then a series of things happened. One,Yount got what, at the time, was considered a fat contract: Five years, $2.35 million contract. That $2.35 million was the TOTAL for the five years (just to remind you how much times have changed) but it still it made him one of the game’s better-paid players. He got married. He showed up early for spring training in 1979. He began to work out and get much stronger. Signs pointed to him becoming committed to baseball in a way he never had before. Yount would admit later that this was true. He was drifting in his early years. It wasn’t until 1980 or so that he got serious about the game.
The jump was astounding. Yount was an early champion of working out, something which meant something very different in 1980 than it does now. In 1980, Yount led the league with 49 doubles (his career high had been 34) and hit almost three times as many home runs (from eight to 23). You can only imagine what 60 Minutes would have done with that surge in performance.
The next year was the strike season, but then in 1982 Yount had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. He hit .331 with a career high 29 home runs, led the league in slugging, doubles and hits, scored 129 runs, drove in 114, stole 14 bases, played spectacular defense at shortstop (for which he was rightly given the Gold Glove) and carried the Brewers to their one and only World Series appearance.
Yount had only a slightly less brilliant year in 1983 and slightly less again in 1984. Then, shoulder problems forced him to move out to center field. He wasn’t quite as good out there, but he was still quite good. For the next five years he did hit .306/.375/.472 and in 1989 he won the MVP award after hitting .318 with 21 homers, 103 RBIs, 101 runs scored and 19 stolen bases. The award probably should have gone to Rickey Henderson but Yount was plenty good and became the first player to win MVP awards at two different premium positions (this, admittedly, is my own personal category with “premium position” including catcher, shortstop, second base, third base and center field).
One odd thing about Yount was how few All-Star appearances he made. He received MVP votes in seven different seasons but he was only chosen to the All-Star Game three times — and never after his age 26 season. Ripken’s dominance at shortstop, the popularity of Rickey and Kirby Puckett and the relatively smallness of the Milwaukee market might explain why he didn’t get much love from the fans in the later year, but I’m not sure why he wasn’t selected as a bench All-Star more often. It didn’t seem to bother him much.
Yount’s early start allowed him to put up some big career numbers — 3,000 hits and more than 1,600 runs scored. When he retired in 1993, he was only the seventh player to hit 250 homers and steal 250 bases. The others in the club included Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Joe Morgan and Andre Dawson and superb players Bobby Bonds, Vada Pinson and Don Baylor. It’s a much bigger club now.
Yount was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, the same year as his close friend George Brett and Nolan Ryan. A friend told me that during the week in Cooperstown he heard someone ask Yount what it felt like to be part of that supergroup. His response: “It’s good to be Ringo.” I don’t know if that really happened, but I hope it did.