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Today in Oakland A’s history (6/8): A’s select Rick Monday with MLB’s first-ever draft pick

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In the first draft in 1965, Monday was the first overall pick.

Spring Training - Oakland A’s
Monday is wearing the glove and holding the ball in his left hand, standing next to Joe DiMaggio.
Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

The 2020 MLB season is on hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, so we’ve got some time to burn and a baseball void to fill. Fortunately, there are decades of Oakland A’s history to look back on, and even rerunball is better than no ball at all. Let’s reminisce!

The first MLB draft was held in 1965. Prior to that, there had been various sets of rules for how teams signed amateur players, but they didn’t always work out fairly. In fact, for a stretch of time, the Yankees were accused of using the Kansas City A’s as a literal farm team, stashing young players in KC for their developmental years only to have them shipped to New York for peanuts in return.

Between that kind of inequity, and rising prices in bidding wars for top amateurs, the vast majority of teams agreed it was time for a more organized setup. They voted on the draft at the 1964 Winter Meetings, and the first edition began on June 8, 1965.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City A’s were a terrible team for their entire existence, which isn’t a surprise considering all their best players were consistently gifted to the Yankees. In their 13 years there, the A’s posted a combined record of 829-1224, for a .404 winning percentage — that would be like going 65-97 in a 162-game campaign. They never won more than 74 games in a season, and won 70+ as many times (4) as they lost 100+ plus.

The worst of those years was 1964, with the A’s going 57-105. That put them last in the American League, 42 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees, who featured ill-gotten former A’s like Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, and Ralph Terry. It wasn’t the worst record in MLB, as the recent-expansion Mets (in their third season of existence) occupied the NL cellar at 53-109, but the draft’s original setup called for the leagues to alternate in their picks and this time the AL got to go first. That meant the A’s got the first selection, as the team at the bottom of the AL standings.

With the first overall pick in the first MLB draft, the Kansas City A’s chose outfielder Rick Monday out of Arizona State University. Monday had just led the Sun Devils to the College World Series championship, and along the way he was named College Player of the Year, so he certainly made sense at the top of the class. That left ASU with big shoes to fill in CF, and the next season they replaced Monday with sophomore Reggie Jackson, who would subsequently be drafted by the A’s the next year.

Monday turned out to be an All-Star for the A’s, but he was only one part of an excellent draft class. In total they pulled 10 future big leaguers, including core members of their upcoming dynasty in Sal Bando (6th round) and Gene Tenace (20th round).

Fortunately, by this point the A’s had moved on from their identity as Yankee puppets. One oft-cited reason for that collusive setup had been the team’s owner, Arnold Johnson, a business associate of the Yankees’ owners; he even owned Yankee Stadium, which he had to sell in order to buy the A’s. However, Johnson died suddenly in 1960, and later that year the team was purchased from his estate by Charlie Finley, who quickly promised to stop trading with New York.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Kansas City A’s enjoyed their “best” (least bad?) seasons after Finley took over. More importantly, they no longer gave away all their best stars and youngsters, and so by the time this ‘65 draft class came around they actually kept the players long enough for them to help the A’s win. And win they did.

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As for Monday himself, his A’s legacy didn’t turn out quite as storied as the likes of Bando, Tenace, and Jackson, and his career is better known for time spent elsewhere. But he did stay long enough to see the team become good for the first time in nearly two decades.

Monday panned out into a quality player for the A’s, making good on his huge prospect stock. He played six seasons for the club (one of them just a cup of coffee), joining them in their move to Oakland in 1968, and over that time he posted a 128 OPS+ and 15.8 bWAR. He wasn’t a power hitter for the A’s, averaging around a dozen homers per full season and topping out at 18, but he got on base and played an up-the-middle position in CF. In ‘68, when the team played the first home game at their new park, the Coliseum, Monday hit their first homer there.

The A’s won the AL West division in 1971, marking their first trip to the postseason in 40 years, and Monday was one of the better players on the team. However, he was traded after that season, to the Cubs for starting pitcher Ken Holtzman. Of course, this time it wasn’t because the A’s were handing away stars, as Holtzman was quality in his own right — and indeed, the lefty went on to be a central figure in Oakland’s three straight championships from 1972-74.

Monday just missed winning rings with the A’s, but he was still a forefather of that dynasty. He helped them return to respectability and immediately put out a winning product at their new home in Oakland, and then fetched them one of the stars that made up their title-winning core. He did alright for himself in the end, too, playing 19 seasons in the majors and finally winning a World Series in 1981, with the Dodgers — at age 35, in his third trip to the Fall Classic in an L.A. uniform.

Perhaps the memory that Monday is best known for involves the American flag. He was still a member of the Cubs in 1976, which was the bicentennial year of the United States Declaration of Independence, and during a game at Dodger Stadium two protesters ran onto the field and attempted to set fire to a flag. Monday swooped in and grabbed the flag, running it toward the dugout to safety.

“Rick Monday, you made a great play,” read the scoreboard.

Monday finally retired after 1984, with career numbers that included 1,619 hits, 241 homers, a 125 OPS+, and 33.1 bWAR. He also added a ring, two All-Star berths, and a major highlight with a clutch 9th-inning homer that decided the 1981 NLCS (en route to that ring). That’s a Hall of Very Good career.

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The 1965 draft featured some other interesting names, picked by other teams.

  • Among future A’s, Ray Fosse went No. 7 overall (to the Indians), and Ken Holtzman went in the 4th round (to the Cubs).
  • Hall of Famer Johnny Bench went in the 2nd round, and Tom Seaver was picked by the Dodgers in the 10th but didn’t sign.
  • Other All-Stars included Andy Messersmith (3rd round), Graig Nettles (4th), Amos Otis (6th), and Hal McRae (6th), among others.

You might feel sorry for the Mets, who had the worst record but settled for the second overall pick. After missing out on Monday, they chose Les Rohr, who went on to pitch a total of six games in his MLB career. But to be fair, there were plenty of other future All-Stars to choose from, including the very next pick (pitcher Joe Coleman, who went No. 3 overall to the Washington Senators).

Don’t feel too bad for the Mets, though. While they whiffed on their top pick, they made up for it in the 12th round when they chose a teenage pitcher named Nolan Ryan out of a high school in Texas. He turned out alright.

And anyway, in 1965 the Mets finished in the cellar again, and this time they did get the No. 1 overall pick — and they still bricked it anyway. They chose catcher Steve Chilcott, who never reached the majors at all, and with the No. 2 pick the A’s took Reggie Jackson.

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The 2020 MLB draft starts on Wednesday, though it will only last five rounds this year due to the pandemic. Still, it will be interesting to see what future stars the A’s might be able to find.