(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)
Thirty years ago today, the Yankees drafted a Hall of Famer, two-time champion, multiple-record holder, and iconic cultural figure. Unfortunately, the player they selected never appeared in a single major league game.
With the last pick in the second round of the 1981 June draft, the Yankees selected a 20-year old outfielder from Stanford named John Elway. In his sophomore season, Elway hit .361 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs, but his performance on the diamond paled in comparison to his exploits on the gridiron.
In addition to playing baseball, Elway also happened to be the starting quarterback for the Stanford Cardinal. During his second season leading the team, he racked up 27 touchdowns, 248 completions and 2,889 passing yards, all Pac-10 Conference records. For his efforts, Elway was named the conference player of the year.
The Yankees would be one of the few teams that I would have considered signing with this early in my college career.” – John Elway, quoted by AP, September 21, 1981
Because Elway had emerged as such a strong pro-football prospect, very few people even entertained the thought that he might actually play baseball. In some circles, the Yankees were ridiculed for wasting what was their first selection in the draft. However, when the quarterback/outfielder signed a minor league deal with the team in September (he had previously turned down a contract from the Royals after being drafted out of high school in 1979), the door was left opened to a baseball career.
Just hours after Stanford suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of a San Jose State team coached by his father Jack, the younger Elway inked a deal with the Bronx Bombers that would allow him to continue his college football career. Reported to be worth approximately $140,000, the one-year contract called for Elway to report to the team’s Oneonta franchise in the New York-Penn League the following June. Then, after completing one season of minor league ball, the Yankees would retain the right to either renew the contract or, much more likely, bid against the NFL team that drafted him in 1983.
After his junior season at Stanford, Elway finally embarked on a professional career by joining Oneonta. Over an abbreviated schedule of 42 games, the two-sport standout continued to fuel expectations and create doubt by batting .318/.432/.464 with four home runs and 13 stolen bases. Even if Elway was just paying lip service when he earlier promised to keep his options open, his initial success as a professional baseball player had to change his thinking at least a little.
What I’m doing is weighing the variables. From this summer I’ll get a taste of pro ball and should get a feel for that. I’ll play football my senior year at Stanford and then I’ll see where I go in the draft and who picks me.”– John Elway, quoted at the Yankees’ sprint training complex, March 24, 1982
I’ve been asked a hundred million times which way I’m going to go; everyone thinks they know except me.” – John Elway, speaking during a NCAA/ABC college football promotional event, August 4, 1982
While Elway struggled with his decision, comparisons were being made between his situation and the one previously faced by Danny Ainge, who just one year earlier had abandoned his baseball career to join the Boston Celtics in the NBA. However, despite the two-sport similarity, there were several differences between the two cases. Most significantly, Ainge signed a three-year deal with the Blue Jays before even being drafted by the Celtics in 1981, effectively committing to baseball before his college career was over.
Even though his exploits as a guard at BYU were far more impressive than his paltry batting line in the minors, Ainge continued to profess a preference for baseball. Following fours seasons of futility in both the minor and major leagues, however, a change of heart developed. By the end of the 1981 season, Ainge was through with baseball and, after the Blue Jays and Celtics reached a financial settlement, onto a new, and eventually much more successful, career in the NBA.
Elway was fully aware of the comparisons being made between his upcoming decision and the one fumbled by Ainge, but he emphatically dismissed the concerns. “I won’t make Danny’s mistake because once I make up my mind, I’ll stick to it,” he said. “When the time comes, I’ll have a gut feeling which will tell me what I want to do.”
In January 1983, the Philadelphia Inquirer placed the odds on Elway opting to play football at 3-1. However, when it became apparent that the Baltimore Colts were going to draft him, the equation was changed dramatically. Before the draft, Elway stated that if he was not selected by either a West Coast team or the Dallas Cowboys, he would instead play baseball for the Yankees.
The logic that he will pick the Yankees is impeccable. I would believe that until the day you showed me a picture of John Elway signing an NFL contract.” – Dick Young, April 20, 1983
Seizing on this opening, George Steinbrenner rolled out the red carpet by inviting the Elway family to New York in what columnist Dick Young called “the most furious all-out courtship since the Yankees romanced Reggie Jax”. Over that April weekend, the Elways dined at Gallaghers and the 21 Club, took in a Broadway show, and were showered with gifts, such as the gold “NY” necklace that now hung from mother Janet’s neck. The cherry on top was a press conference in George Steinbrenner’s plush office followed by a Sunday afternoon game against the Blue Jays. Not only were the Yankees practically begging Elway to choose baseball, but they had invited over 50,000 fans to help with the bidding.
Despite his warning, the Colts still decided to select Elway with the number one overall pick in what would become known as the “Quarterback Draft” because of the three Hall of Famers taken at the position. Immediately after the selection, however, it seemed as if that historic class would be absent one player. Upset by the Colts’ decision to ignore his warning, Elway hastily and defiantly reiterated his refusal to play in Baltimore by announcing that he would instead focus his career on baseball.
No one in the Bronx was celebrating after the announcement because it had become increasingly clear that the Yankees and baseball were being used as a bargaining chip by Elway to steer him toward a preferred NFL team. That strategy eventually paid off when the Colts traded the coveted Stanford quarterback to the Denver Broncos, who immediately inked Elway to a five-year deal worth a reported $7 million.
Perhaps jilted by rejection, George Steinbrenner contradicted a report in which Elway’s agent claimed that he and the Yankees had already ready worked out a deal pending the outcome of the NFL draft. “Never did the New York Yankees or myself make a firm offer to John Elway,” the Boss angrily insisted. It didn’t really matter. Elway always seemed destined for stardom in the NFL.
Although it’s unlikely that Elway would have approached the same level of success in baseball as he did in football, it’s still fun to think about what might have been. Well, maybe not so much for the Broncos? Nonetheless, a look back at the Elway saga is particularly relevant in light of the recent draft day selections of two baseball standouts who also having promising football futures: Bubba Starling (drafted by the Royals, but committed to play quarterback at Nebraska) and Archie Bradley (drafted by the Diamondbacks, but committed to play quarterback at Oklahoma).
Even though the talent pools don’t always overlap, the competition between sports for top athletes is something that should be taken very seriously by each respective league. After all, as evidenced by John Elway, among many others, the consequences of losing out on a multi-sport star can be historic.
NFL Players Selected by the Yankees in the MLB Draft