Not since 1957, when the Dodgers and the Giants vacated Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, had baseball in New York City suffered an emotional blow equivalent to the impact on June 15, 1977, when the New York Mets committed an unpardonable sin in the eyes of the Flushing faithful by trading Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds.
The Midnight Massacre.
Seaver in another team’s uniform did not compute. It was an incongruous thought. Blasphemous, even. Imagine Mickey Mantle playing for the Indians, Sandy Koufax playing for the Phillies, or Al Kaline playing for the White Sox. Nicknamed “The Franchise” for his importance to the team, Seaver was synonymous with the Mets. Beginning in 1967, the Mets flourished in Seaver’s glorious achievements in the National League, including Rookie of the Year Award in 1967, three Cy Young Awards, and five seasons leading the league in strikeouts. Indeed, Seaver was a cornerstone of the 1969 World Series championship team and the 1973 National League championship team that pushed the World Series against the dynastic Oakland A’s to seven games.
But the relationship between Seaver and the Mets frayed by June of 1977. A media item severed it. During Seaver’s 1977 contract negotiations, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote, “Nolan Ryan is getting more now than Seaver, and that galls Tom because Nancy Seaver and Ruth Ryan are very friendly and Tom Seaver long has treated Nolan Ryan like a little brother.”
Young doubled down by attacking Seaver’s integrity. “It comes down to this: Tom Seaver is jealous of those who had the guts to play out their option or used the threat of playing it out as leverage for a big raise—while he was snug behind a three-year contract of his choosing. He talks of being treated like a man. A man lives up to his contract,” Young added.
Thirty years after the trade that sent Seaver to the Reds in exchange for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, and Dan Norman, Daily News sportswriter Bill Madden penned a retrospective of the events leading to the trade. Quoting Seaver, Madden wrote, “That Young column was the straw that broke the back. Bringing your family into it with no truth whatsoever to what he wrote. I could not abide that. I had to go.”
It was the boiling over point in a tumultuous relationship with Mets Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant, for whom Young advocated. In the Madden piece, Seaver said, “There are two things Grant said to me that I’ll never forget, but illustrate the kind of person he was and the total ‘plantation’ mentality he had. During the labor negotiations, he came up to me in the clubhouse once and said: ‘What are you, some sort of Communist.’ Another time, and I’ve never told anyone this, he said to me: ‘Who do you think you are, joining the Greenwich Country Club?’ It was incomprehensible to him if you didn’t understand his feelings about your station in life.”
The Seaver trade devastated Mets fandom. In the June 17, 1977 edition of The New York Times, Murray Schumach wrote, “The anger of New Yorkers was no secret at Shea Stadium, where the switchboard was flooded with telephone calls, mostly of protest, many of them very abusive in what was admittedly the strongest display of anger ever recorded in one day at the switchboard.”
Seaver returned to the Mets for the 1983 season, inspiring Dick Young to revive the volcano that triggered Seaver’s demand for a trade. In the Dec. 22, 1982 edition of the New York Post, Young opined, “It took me half a column to get to this, didn’t it. This is the tacky part when Tom Seaver asked the Mets to renegotiate his contract, which had two years to run. Don Grant said no. Tom Seaver had every right to ask for a new contract, and Don Grant had every right to say no. Tom Seaver couldn’t accept that.
“That’s how I saw it, that’s how I wrote it. You signed the contract, live with it. Play the two years left at $225,000, then hit the free agent market and make your millions. It’s there, waiting.”
Young’s analysis ignored Seaver’s honor, symbolized by acceptance of a 20 percent pay cut for the 1975 season after a lackluster 11–11 performance in 1974. It was part of a “gentleman’s agreement” designed in September 1974 between Seaver and the Mets front office. In the Jan. 22, 1975 edition of The New York Times, Joseph Durso quoted Seaver in detailing the circumstances surrounding the salary drop. “Don Grant and I were talking one day and he brought it up,” Seaver said. “No, I wasn’t disturbed that I got a cut after one bad year. The ball club’s been very good and honest with me, and I with them. They paid me a good amount of money last year and I didn’t pitch up to that amount.”
In 1975, Tom Seaver went 22–9, won the National League Cy Young Award, and racked up 243 strikeouts to lead the National League.