In 1965, as had been the case in the preceding few years, the New York Mets posted the worst record in baseball. Despite the fact that the team was being guided by Casey Stengel, interim-turned-permanent manager Wes Westrum, and player-coaches Warren Spahn and Yogi Berra, the talent simply wasn’t there, and the team went 50-112 for the year. The only silver lining in their dreadful record was that fact that the team would make the first selection in the 1966 Major League Baseball Draft.
Player development is an inexact science. Scouts and evaluators make as best a decision they can on draft day based on the information that they have available, but the process of developing a baseball player from an amateur into a professional is a long one, full of twists and turns, guided by the invisible hand of luck. Based on what their scouts at the time had gathered, the Mets selected a catcher named Steve Chilcott with the first overall pick.
Chilcott was a two-sport star at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, California. Not only did he play baseball, where he started for three years and helped lead the Golden Antelopes to three titles, but he also played football, lead the football team to a championship in his senior year as their star quarterback. While he enjoyed football, it was more of a diversion for him; baseball was where his heart was. Solidly built, with a 5’11”, 185-pound frame, Chilcott was athletic, physical, had a powerful left-handed bat, and a strong arm. Though he played third base in his senior year, he had played catcher in the years prior, and would have more value to a major league club if he could play the position in the future. His profile was one that regularly attracted scouts- and in one case, Casey Stengel personally attended a game to scout Chilcott.
Chilcott signed for a $75,000 bonus- a princely sum at the time- and was sent to the Marion Mets, the teams’ Rookie-level affiliate. He finished out the 1966 season with the Auburn Mets, their Short-A affiliate, and between the two levels combined, hit .176/.261/.245 in his first year as a professional. After spending the winter playing in the Florida Instructional League, he was assigned to the Winter Haven Mets, the teams’ Single-A affiliate. In one way, his season there was a success. As an 18-year-old roughly three years younger than league average, Chilcott hit .290/.365/.467 with six home runs and six stolen bases; for a time, his 20 doubles led the league. On July 23, his season ended prematurely when he injured his shoulder, and the injury would, in effect, end his career.
Having reached first base, the dynamic catcher bore down for second when his teammate put the ball in play. He slid into the bag and was safe. Chilcott did not realize that he had been ruled safe and incorrectly believed that the umpire had signaled that he had been called out. Moments passed before he discovered his error, and now realizing that he had come off the bag, he dove back. “I was about five feet from the bag,” Chilcott recalled. During the play, the fielder fell on top of him, dislocating his shoulder. A quirk of fate, it turns out that Chilcott was prone to chronic shoulder instability. Because of the trauma, his ball of his arm would always be loose in the socket of the shoulder.
Over the next few years, his shoulder would dislocate itself partially fourteen times. He eventually underwent a procedure to fix the problem in 1969, but with sports medicine in its infancy, the prescribed rehab process was not particularly effective. “Rehab then wasn’t what it is now. Weightlifting was frowned upon. Teams didn’t want muscles on their players. I remember one year Nolan Ryan came to camp a little more grown up and they were questioning him on what he was doing.”
The catcher did not quit baseball, but the injury and the lack of a real rehab to his surgery had devastating consequences on his ability to play the game. His throwing strength was completely sapped, and his ability to hit suffered as well. Making matters worse, Chilcott suffered from a variety of other unrelated injuries, ranging from the routine- a broken finger on a foul tip- to what can only be described as early LOLMets- he once broke his kneecap after slipping on a sprinkler head buried partially in the ground. After years of struggling in the Mets’ minor league system, he was traded to the New York Yankees in 1972. After the season, at the age of 23, he retired from baseball.
He invested a portion of his signing bonus in real estate and was able to live off of that while he pursued a college degree at Santa Barbara City College. While in school, he became interested in firefighting and worked part-time as a firefighter in Santa Barbara. Frustrated by his inability to find full-time work at the department, he eventually picked up carpentry in the late-70s. By the time 1980 arrived, he had become a contractor. Chilcott has since retired from the business, and now dabbles in real estate, renting homes and apartments in California and Arizona. He coached little league for a while and follows baseball on TV, but he considers his time in baseball a completely different life.
I would be remiss to not mention the player who was drafted after Chilcott and his career. With the second pick in the 1966 Major League Baseball Draft, the Kansas City Athletics selected an outfielder out of Arizona State University named Reggie Jackson. He would go on to hit .262/.356/.490 with 563 home runs in 2820 games. He would play in five World Series’ and was named World Series MVP twice, was named to fourteen All-Star teams, won the 1973 Most Valuable Player Award, and would be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993 with 93.6% of the vote.
With the massive disparity in their respective career arcs, many have condemned Chilcott’s selection as a historical blunder in baseball history, and while we can say that with the benefit of hindsight, at the time, Chilcott’s selection was perfectly defensible. Scouts and evaluators from multiple organizations considered Jackson and Chilcott the cream of the crop. According to Bing Devine, assistant to GM George Weiss at the time, “We went for Chilcott because we thought that catching was our greatest need.” Having drafted Nolan Ryan and signed free agent Jerry Koosman in 1965 and having won the rights to sign Tom Seaver a few months prior to the 1966 Major League Baseball Draft, Mets executives envisioned a one day dominant stable of pitchers and wanted an equally young and talented catcher to anchor them.
According to Reggie Jackson, the Mets had a very different reason for passing over him. According to Jackson, a coach of his at Arizona State told him that the Mets were passing over him in favor of Chilcott because “You’re dating a Mexican girl, and the Mets think you will be a problem. They think you’ll be a social problem because you are dating out of your race…You’re colored, and they don’t want that.” The coach, Bobby Winkles, would later deny saying this to Jackson, maintaining that he did not have any insight into who the Mets would be selecting and the rationale behind it. Indeed, perhaps Jackson is misremembering, as he did encounter such discrimination, just not involving the Mets. In Dayn Perry’s Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball’s Mr. October, he says that Jackson, a football star during his high school days, had actively been recruited by Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma, but Reggie turned down Oklahoma because the recruiting staff there told him to stop dating white women.
Of course, lending credence to Jackson’s claim was the checkered history with African Americans of Mets GM George Weiss. The Yankees held to the color line longer than all but three teams and Weiss was the primary reason why. While the public line had generally been that the Yankees were holding out for a special Black player befitting the tradition of the pinstripes, Weiss’ opinions behind the scenes presented a very different picture. According to Yogi Berra, he overheard Weiss saying at a cocktail party that “I will never allow a black man to wear a Yankee uniform. Box-holders from Westchester don’t want that sort of crowd. They would be offended to have to sit with N,” the last term being an extremely offensive racial slur. Further highlighting Weiss’ prehistoric attitude was how he passed on signing Willie Mays and Ernie Banks, and traded away Vic Power to the Philadelphia Athletics because “he’s impudent and he goes for white women,” an eerie echo of what Jackson would claim roughly a decade later.
While we will never truly know, none of that is Steve Chilcott’s fault. Nor is the freak injury that effectively ended his career and turned him from once-promising prospect into one of three players to be selected with the first-overall pick in a draft and not make the major leagues.