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The 1976 Mariners and the Building of a Team

With the Winter Meetings coming up and the Mariners’ rebuild continuing, I started wondering about the original building of the Mariners. Follow me back to 1976 and relive the start.

Seattle Mariners
Ruppert Jones, the first overall pick in the 1976 expansion draft.
Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

On Tuesday, August 24th, 1976 the Seattle Mariners were announced to the world.

Tucked beneath a story about Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter’s plan to pardon draft evaders and above a story about the rescue of a baby from a burning building, the front page of the Night Sports Final edition of The Seattle Times announced that the new Seattle baseball club had been named. Roger Szmodis of Bellevue beat 15,000 entrants to win the franchise naming contest. For his efforts, he was awarded two season tickets for the 1977 season and an expense-paid (note: the news item does not specify whether it was an all-expenses-paid) trip on one of the Mariners’ west coast road trips.

The following evening the trident M logo was revealed, along with a column with quotes from area fans complaining about the new name. It seems everyone expected a name beginning with S to join the Seahawks, Sonics, and Sounders. Johnny Nenezich, a former Pacific Coast League umpire, was happy to register his displeasure, telling the Seattle Times, “Looks like they’ll sink right away.” One supposes the prescience of that statement depends on what is meant by “right away.”

In fact, the remaining months of 1976 were a public showcase of optimism for the maiden Mariners. The ownership group, featuring actor/singer/dancer/comedian/philanthropist Danny Kaye, was touted for its stability and steadfastness, in contrast to the weakness in the departed Seattle Pilots’ ownership. Instead of the sub-par minor-league Sicks Stadium that had housed the Pilots, the new Mariners would play in the shiny, new Kingdome, a concrete attraction for proper Seattlites looking to hide from the summer sun.

Ron Galella Archive - File Photos 2010
Danny Kaye, celebrity owner.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

But a name and a cursed logo do not make a team and the Mariners Director of Baseball Operations Lou Gorman set out to build a roster. The expansion draft was set for November 5th, but the Mariners and their expansion cousins, the Toronto Blue Jays, were given permission to purchase the contracts of players in either of the major leagues (the American and National leagues were operated separately in those days) and minor leagues. Gorman indicated the team would use the opportunity to load up on veteran presents so they could focus on young players in the draft. He said the team was looking to obtain 10 or 12 good players prior to draft day.

Gorman’s first target was the erstwhile Pilot, Diego Segui. Segui was 38 and had been released by the Boston Red Sox that year. With Gorman’s help, he joined the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League and put up a 11-5 record. Segui had contract disputes with the Islanders; they had forgotten to issue him a paycheck and the team was on the verge of being dismantled. Segui may have been the first Seattle Mariner, but his acquisition was not made official until late October due to the contract entanglements.

The first official Mariner is the generically named Dave Johnson. The Mariners purchased his contract from the Baltimore Orioles organization on October 1st and found themselves with a 40-man roster standing at 1. Johnson had appeared in a total of 17 major league games in 1974 and 1975. The 1976 season saw the 28-year-old put up an ERA of 2.81 in AAA Rochester as both a starter and reliever. The team followed with another purchase of a late-20s minor league pitcher in purchasing the contract of Jim Minshall from the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had 5 total innings of major league time to his name.

The Mariners continued purchasing contracts, acquiring a 29-year-old catcher from the Minnesota Twins, Larry Cox. Cox played for the Twin’s affiliate in Tacoma during 1976. They added 29-year-old utility player, Kurt Bevacqua from the Milwaukee Brewers. Tommy Moore, a 28-year-old minor league starter and reliever, who had thrown two no-hitters in the minor leagues, was purchased from the Texas Rangers.

The highlight of the pre-expansion draft contract purchases was 23-year-old Jose Baez from the Los Angeles Dodgers. He hit .309 for Albuquerque of the PCL in 1976, but was blocked in the middle infield from claiming a spot with the Dodgers. Hy Zimmerman of the Seattle Times, always comparing the Mariners moves with those of the Pilots, speculated that Baez would become the Mike Hegan of this expansion team. (Hegan, then 26, had been acquired as a career minor leaguer and went on to the lead the Pilots in batting average.)

Short of the 10-12 players Gorman had hoped to acquire going into the expansion draft, the Mariners began to focus on their draft strategy. They decided to take the opposite approach of their Pilot forebearers. The Pilots had focused on established players, while their American League counterparts, the Kansas City Royals had gone after youth (and, it should be noted, traded for one of the Pilot’s young players, Lou Piniella, who would go on to win the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1969). Nearly a decade later, the Royals were still flush with young talent. Gorman, incidentally, had worked in the Royals’ organization during the 1968 expansion draft and, having been hired away from Kansas City, had the benefit of familiarity with their young players. Gorman named a catcher as Seattle’s highest priority, followed by left-handed pitchers, as both were in short supply. The team also planned to target speed, which they believed would give them an advantage on the fast artificial turf of the Kingdome.

Also of note when it came to team building, free agency was a fairly new phenomenon in major league baseball in the ‘76/’77 offseason. Instead of free agents just negotiating with whatever team they desired, they were subject to a re-entry draft. Essentially, teams drafted the rights to negotiate with free agents. Like the amateur draft, teams pick in reverse order of finish and alternated leagues. Up to 12 of the 24 existing teams, not including the player’s former club, could draft the rights to negotiate a contract. Teams could only sign up to 2 players from the re-entry roster, unless they lost more than 2 free agents, in which case they can replace as many as they lost. Players were able to re-sign with their current teams prior to the draft. If a player was not drafted by 2 or more teams, he was free to independently negotiate contracts with the team of his choosing. The Blue Jays and Mariners, however, were not eligible to participate in this draft.

The Seattle media was speculating that the Mariners would pick freely from the Royal’s system due to Gorman’s knowledge of them and because of their deep farm. A name thrown out several times was infielder Jamie Quirk, a 22-year-old infielder. Gorman would face off against the Blue Jays Director of Baseball Operations, Peter Bavasi, brother of future Mariners General Manager Bill Bavasi (I’m sorry, I shouldn’t bring up old stuff).

With the first overall pick in the draft, the Mariners did indeed dip into the Royal’s system. They plucked a 21-year-old outfielder named Ruppert Jones. Although, he hadn’t been mentioned in expansion draft previews, he appears to have been a valued prospect. Kansas City farm director John Schuerholtz told Hy Zimmerman of the Seattle Times, “Jones has a chance to become a superstar.”

From there, the Mariners continued to go after youth. The exception was a 34-year-old left-handed pitcher named Grant Jackson. He was the Mariners’ 6th pick and the oldest player they drafted. He pitched in 1976 as both a starter and reliever for the American League pennant-winning New York Yankees. He threw a shutout over Detroit to clinch a pennant tie, and appeared that season in the World Series. Hy Zimmerman of the Seattle Times like the pick, writing, “Grant Jackson is a sound and solid southpaw who could make the bullpen glimmer.”

A glimmering bullpen? I’m in.

Pirates v Orioles
Grant Jackson, bullpen glimer-er

A surprise available later in the draft was Minnesota’s Steve Braun. The 28-year-old utility player re-signed with the Twins on the last day of the season with the agreement that they would not protect him in the draft, no matter the round. The Mariners grabbed him in the 4th round. His availability that late led to speculation that the Blue Jays had agreed to leave him for the Mariners. Braun was eager to leave the Twins, where, despite batting .286, he was shuffled from position to position. He longed for a spot all his own and wanted to be an everyday player, mentioning in an interview that his preferred spot was left field.

Braun aside, the last rounds of the draft were not ripe with talent. The Mariners and Blue Jays were required to make all 30 picks, 5 from each team, so they could not just pass on taking players they did not want. Oakland had such a dearth of talent that a draft spectator loudly advised the Mariners to select Charlie Finley’s mule. That would probably be the first time a major league team drafted a non-human animal, but I’d have to run through all of Bill Veeck’s transactions just to make sure.

1972 World Series
Charley Finley’s mule at the 1972 World Series. Coulda been a Mariner.

All told, the Mariners took 14 pitchers as part of their 30 player haul in the draft. That includes 4 lefties, which they had targeted. The middle infield was a spot of concern, as well as catcher. But now that the bones of the team skeleton were in place, they could extract them and exchange them for other bones.

The Mariners were delighted with the way the draft played out for them. Danny Kaye exuberantly told the media, “This team we drafted is actually better than the one we picked in our mockup sessions.” He went on to say, “I’m a guy who used to save nickels to get into the Ebbets Field bleachers. Now, I’m a club owner. It is a Mitty dream come true.” Another owner, Les Smith, said, “We are as delighted as we can be. We got the club we went after.”

(There were no quotes from another owner, James Stillwell. It’s unclear if he attended the expansion draft in New York because in mid-October his Mercer Island home burned to the ground. It was a total loss estimated at $500,000. Stillwell’s son, Steve, had pitched for the Seattle Rainiers, who were disbanded following the 1976 season.)

Lou Gorman was likewise thrilled with his roster of players. “We will be very competitive. We will fool some people. I’m delighted. I’m elated.” he said.

Bill Stein, drafted from the White Sox in the third round, assured Mariners fans, “We will finish higher than last.”

Here’s the ball: Blue Jays’ Alan Ashby displays the ball (in his glove) to home plate umpire Rich Ga
Bill Stein, noted hyperbolist, shown here being thrown out at home by the expansion rival Blue Jays.
Photo by Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Mariners were widely considered to have “won” the draft over the Blue Jays. Sports reporters in attendance at the draft even speculated the nascent Mariners were better than several established teams.

Not having yet satisfied their quota of old minor league pitchers, the Mariners proceeded to purchase the contract of right-handed pitcher John Montague from the Philadelphia Phillies. Montague had spent parts of 3 season in the major leagues. He was 29.

The Mariners weren’t quite done drafting though. At the beginning of their very first annual Winter Meetings on December 6th, the Mariners would participate in the Rule-5 Draft, then called the “regular winter draft.” The picks would cost $25,000 each, and unlike the expansion draft, National League players would be available. The Mariners once again plundered Kansas City’s system and chose Charles Beamon, a 23-year-old first baseman.

I want to pause here and add a few notes about the Mariner’s farm system. The Mariners were to begin play without a farm system to speak of. They had a team in the Arizona Instructional League and the Bellingham Mariners in the short-season A Northwest League. (It wasn’t until 1978 that they would field a full-season A and AAA team, and 1980 before they had a AA team.) As Hy Zimmerman succinctly wrote in the Seattle Times, “Big-league clubs do not spend money on farm systems just to provide jobs. Farms are used to develop young stars. The Mariners do not have any young stars.”

Okay, but what about those players that were just below the major league level, or who would bounce back and forth? The Mariners must have been planning to have those, right? They would indeed, and those players would simply play for another organization’s AAA team. It worked out that the division rival Oakland A’s were happy to allow the Mariners to stash their players in their AAA team in San Jose. Very normal by today’s standards.

The Mariners signed their first minor league player on December 14th, 1976. 20 year old Vincent White had been released by the Baltimore organization. He became the first Bellingham Mariner.

Back to early December, the Mariners’ 40-man roster stood at 38 and the Mariners still had some holes to fill. The top of their needs list was a shortstop and a catcher. Grant Jackson and Steve Braun, the only recognizable major league names taken by the Mariners in the draft, were mentioned in trade rumors almost immediately after the draft. Jackson in particular was a hot commodity, given his southpaw status. Several teams expressed interest, namely the California Angels who offered the Mariners a choice of a trio of outfielders.

The Jackson sweepstakes were won by the Pittsburgh Pirates who offered shortstop Craig Reynolds and utility infielder Jimmy Sexton in return. Gorman expressed his happiness at shoring up the middle infield. Of Reynolds he said, “I’m not saying Reynolds is Dave Concepcion or Mark Belanger, but he is a good boy.” (No word on whether the Mariners rewarded Reynolds with treats or ear scratches after making plays.)

That trade was the last roster move of 1976. The 40-man roster stood at 39, and the Mariners still needed an everyday catcher. A minor flurry of moves would happen in 1977 before the inaugural season officially began. For now though, the Mariners spoke words of optimism and the fans seemed to be excited.

The Mariners didn’t sink immediately, as Johnny Nenezich scoffed that they would. The initial build of the team left room for hope and optimism, before the Mariners established their pattern of perpetually extinguishing that hope. As 1976 came to a close it seemed that the Mariners would swim.

A Moment Of Detente For The Submariners In Atlantic On January 6Th 1944
Submariners swimming...close enough to Mariners swimming.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images