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The story behind the Yankees leaving Mickey Mantle unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft

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Mickey Mantle, Kansas City Royal could have happened. Imagine if the Yankees left Derek Jeter unprotected, even if it was after 2014?

1951 Bowman Rookie Card Public Domain
1951 Bowman Rookie Card Public Domain
Wiki Commons

Last week I wrote about who the Yankees could hypothetically protect if Major League Baseball held an expansion draft this past offseason. While reading up on the topic, I stumbled across an article from 1968 that led to a shocking discovery. When MLB held its third (out of six ever) expansion draft in 1968, the Yankees chose not to list Mickey Mantle as one of the players they would protect. Meaning that if the Kansas City Royals or then-Seattle Pilots (now the Brewers) wanted, they could have drafted Mickey Mantle and made sure his entire career wasn't played in pinstripes. Or could they have?

While this may seem like a bold decision, the Yankees were not without reason. By 1967, Mantle was a shell of his former self both at the plate and on the field. The team had already moved him from center field to first base and in 1968 his decline just continued. Mantle was at the end of his career, a fact almost everyone knew, but it remained to be seen whether he'd come back for one last round in 1969 or not. Without knowing for certain, the Yankees couldn't risk losing one of their biggest icons in franchise history, right? But at the same time, would it make sense to protect someone who wasn't going to even play for them the next year? This was exactly the dilemma the Yankees faced. Yet before the actual draft, the Yankees made it seem like they certainly weren't going to take the risk of seeing Mantle finish his career elsewhere.

As mentioned in the article above, Milton Richmond, a sportswriter for UPI, asked then-Yankee chairman of the board and president Mike Burke whether or not the Yankees would protect Mantle.

Mike Burke made it as strong as he possibly could that the Yankees would protect Mantle. He was so definite about it he almost made me ashamed for even asking. He searched for the strongest word he could and finally found it. The word was "unthinkable."

"It's unthinkable to us that Mickey will ever be anything but a Yankee," said Mike Burke. "He most definitely will not be on our list of availables."

Fine.

So what happens? Comes the American League expansion draft on Oct. 15 in Boston and lo and behold, guess whose name was among the Yankee availables. That's right, Mickey Mantle's.

Now it's not as if something happened and the Yankees were all-of-a-sudden willing to let Mantle go to another team–they had a plan in place that almost ensured neither the Royals nor the Pilots would draft Mantle, and if he chose to play again it would be for the Yankees.

The Yankees front office contacted the offices of the Royals and the Pilots and requested them not to draft Mantle. They even enlisted the help of American League President Joe Cronin to "convince Kansas City and Seattle what an awful thing it would be for Mantle to be drafted."

At first both Kansas City and Seattle agreed to the deal, but once other teams got wind of this "agreement" they began grumbling, and rightfully so. All the other teams were forced to only pick 15 players, yet the Yankees got away with having 16 players protected. Things only got worse from there. Kansas City General Manager Charlie Metro did his research and came across two players who were not on the Yankees' protected list that intrigued him. A prospect named Jerry Kenney and a shortstop prospect who ended up replacing Mantle in center field by the name of Bobby Murcer.

Both Murcer and Kenney were away from the team during the draft and serving in the military, and the AL altered their rules to state that anyone doing military service was automatically protected and didn't need to be included in the 15 unavailable players, so now the Yankees had 18 players protected instead of 15. This is when the Royals joined the grumbling.

In an act of defiance, the Royals started making noise about possibly drafting Mantle and backing out of their agreement. It's not like Mantle was actually protected, and two of the players they wanted from the Yankees were no longer available.

Joe Gordon, manager of the Royals, publicly stated, "I think we would be foolish not to take Mantle if he's available." The Yankees became nervous and soon before the draft, a telegram came to the front offices of the Pilots and the Royals, ostensibly from Mickey Mantle. It read, "If you draft me I will not report and in all probability will retire."

There were some who believed that the Yankees actually sent this telegram instead of Mantle just so they could protect their interest, but nonetheless it was taken seriously by both teams, mainly the Royals who were intent on taking Mantle. It made sense for them too, even if Mantle's skills were diminished. A brand new team could always use star power, and Mantle still had the draw to bring in a crowd and fill up the stadium. Still though, it was not a risk worth taking.

On the day of the draft, Metro once again pleaded with the Royals' owner Ewing Kauffman to let him take Mantle, but Kauffman–remembering the telegram–threatened to fire Metro if he did. No point in wasting a pick on a player who was not going to play for his team.

As it turns out, all the dealings by the Yankees and the anger by the other teams and the Royals was all for naught. After trying to see if he could play in spring training, in March of 1969, Mickey Mantle announced his retirement from baseball. He ended his eventual Hall of Fame career having only played for the Yankees, the way it was meant to be.

Now even if the Royals or Pilots had taken Mantle in the draft, at the end of the day it probably would have meant very little. Sure, as a fan of a team, it's always nice when a player, especially an iconic one like Mantle, spends his entire career with one franchise, but sometimes that just doesn't work out. I say this from personal experience of being a fan of the New Jersey Devils and seeing Martin Brodeur play six games in a St. Louis Blues' uniform. I'll admit it was weird, but none of that changes the memories of Brodeur and the three cups he helped bring to New Jersey, and no one will ever remember him as a member of the Blues.

No, that's still one of the weirdest pictures I've ever seen and makes me extremely uncomfortable. Yankees fans should be happy they didn't have to see that happen to one their icons. Just imagine it. Don't want to? Can't stop me now:

OR

WEIRD.