It’s unusual for a story to begin by referencing the photograph that accompanies it, but seeing Tom Seaver in a Cincinnati Reds’ uniform still evokes agita, pain and sadness to many Mets fans. Today is the 41st anniversary of what would come to be known as the Midnight Massacre—the day Tom Seaver, #41, was traded away.
The cast of characters responsible for the trade are many, but the principals were Seaver, M. Donald Grant, the chairman of the board of the Mets, and NY Daily News columnist Dick Young. The roots of all of the deal can be traced back to July 12, 1976, when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was reached which, among other items, ushered in free agency for the first time. At the time, Seaver signed a three-year deal worth $675,000 making him the highest paid pitcher in baseball, a distinction that would turn out to be very temporary. His deal was reached just a few months before the new CBA was adopted and was said to be a contentious negotiation between Grant and Seaver’s agent.
In the winter between the ‘76 and ‘77 seasons, owners of other teams raced to sign their players and acquire new ones with free agency in place, but the Mets were strangely quiet. This perturbed Seaver as the Mets, who finished 3rd in 1976, fifteen games out of first place, were sorely lacking in offensive production. Outfielder Gary Matthews was available and many felt he would have been a perfect fit, but Grant and general manager Joe McDonald made no effort to sign him, and Matthews instead signed a five-year deal with the Braves. Seaver later told reporters, “How can you not even try?” The rift between management and Seaver was widening.
As spring training began, Seaver, who was the Mets’ player representative in labor negotiations, was happy that so many players had received marked raises and long term contracts. Across baseball, 11 pitchers signed multi-year deals worth $1 million or more. Seaver’s good friend Nolan Ryan, who the Mets traded to the Angels in 1971, was not eligible for free agency but received an increase in salary to $300,000. Seaver wanted to renegotiate his contract to bring his salary in line with other top pitchers. Grant refused and even became nasty, calling Seaver a “communist” in the clubhouse for wanting more money and later berating him for joining a swanky country club.
The situation was made even more tense by Daily News columnist Dick Young who was one of the few columnist in town who sided with Grant. calling Seaver’s demands “greedy.” Negative piece after negative piece appeared in the News, drawing ire from both fans and fellow writers.
Seaver was advised to go over the head of management and talk directly with owner Lorinda deRoulet. She, Seaver, and McDonald worked out, in principle, a three-year contract extension as the trade deadline approached. However, before it was signed, Young wrote a suspicious column that intimated that Seaver was being goaded by his wife to ask for more money, supposedly because she was jealous that Nolan Ryan was making more money than Seaver. The mention of his wife enraged Seaver, and while in a coffee shop in Atlanta, phoned Met management to inform them the deal was off and to “get me out of here.” McDonald complied and 41 years ago today, Seaver was traded to the Reds for pitcher Pat Zachary, minor leaguers Steve Henderson and Dan Norman, and infielder Doug Flynn. That night, the Mets also traded Dave Kingman to the Padres for Paul Siebert and Bobby Valentine, and Mike Phillips to the Cardinals for Joel Youngblood. The trio of trades would be dubbed the Midnight Massacre.
Seaver’s departure led to widespread negative fan reaction, ranging from fans openly weeping to physical threats to Mets’ management on signs displayed around the city. With Seaver gone, Mets fortunes quickly sank as they finished in last place the next three seasons, and would not have a winning record again until 1984. Attendance also suffered with 1979 being the nadir, as the Mets averaged less than 10,000 fans per game.
The Midnight Massacre occurred a generation ago. The Mets going forward would win divisions, National League pennants and even a World Series in 1986. But the ugly stain left by this team on a June night 41 years ago will never fully be removed. That was the night our number 41 was taken away from us. It was a night that forever changed the franchise, because The Franchise was gone.