By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
This is the week Geno Smith’s and Tavon Austin’s lives changed.
They became NFL players, millionaires.
It wasn’t always this way, stepping off a college campus and being handed a lifetime’s worth of earnings, and we’re going to tell you today about what it was like once upon a time for an amateur athlete turning professional.
It’s a story of how times change, not only in terms of dollars and cents but in terms of dollars and sense.
Sometimes, even people were different.
There was a time, you see, when people actually were different.
Let’s go back almost 60 years, to 1955, and use a baseball player, not a football player, coming out of college with as much potential as both Geno Smith and Tavon Austin, maybe even more, as an example.
We use baseball because at that time it, not the NFL, was the true American game, and we use this athlete because he was one who would claim greatness.
His name was Sandy Koufax.
This is the story of his signing with the then Brooklyn Dodgers, the story as it was told publicly for the first time in the May 15, 1967, edition of Sports Illustrated in a first-person article by the great general manager, Buzzie Bavasi, who signed Koufax.
It is a tale that is hard to believe today.
Al Campanis, who would grow to have his own problems in the waning days of his career, discovered Koufax when he was pitching at the University of Cincinnati and asked him to come to the Brooklyn front office with his father to talk about signing.
The New York Giants, Boston Braves and, yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates had also scouted him and liked him, but he still had no offer on the table from anyone. This was in the pre-draft days, when clubs bid against each other to sign prospects.
This was how Bavasi wrote about it in an article ghosted by Jack Olsen:
“We met in my office: Sandy, a big, handsome kid right off the campus of the University of Cincinnati; his father, Irving, a lawyer and a straight shooter; Campanis and me. There was no horsing around. I asked Mr. Koufax how much money they wanted. He said $14,000 plus the usual minimum salary of $6,000.”
Shall we stop there for a moment?
Koufax wanted a $14,000 bonus and $6,000 a year.
That’s pocket change today for Tavon Austin.
Last year, Andrew Luck received $22 million for four years from the Indianapolis Colts as the NFL’s first-round draft pick and Robert Griffin III was given $21,119,098 for four years with the Washington Redskins.
Neither had any more experience behind them than Koufax.
Anyway, Bavasi magnanimously agreed to those terms.
“I said fine, and we all made a handshake deal,” Bavasi wrote. “And that’s about all there was to it, except that I told them that I had no room on the roster and asked them to wait for a contract until I could unload somebody to make room.”
Irving and Sandy Koufax agreed to that.
What no one knew was that as they were walking down the stairs in the Dodgers’ front office they would run into Pirates scout Ed McCarrick, a former Dodger employee who often stopped by to “shoot the breeze,” as Bavasi put it.
“Ed sees the father and son going down our stairs and he panics,” Bavasi wrote. “He figures that Sandy Koufax is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a scout, and after some fast action on the long-distance phone, Ed gets in touch with the Koufax family and tells them that Branch Rickey of the Pirates has authorized him to offer $5,000 more than Brooklyn’s top bid, whatever it is.”
Bavasi figures he’s lost Sandy Koufax.
“Well, I don’t have to tell you what most people would have done, especially since Sandy would have preferred pitching for Rickey and the Pirates because he had a much better chance of breaking into their rotation,” Bavasi wrote.
But it didn’t happen.
“Mr. Koufax and his son never hesitated for a second; they told Ed that they had a deal with the Dodgers. I found out later that John Quinn, who was then general manager of the Braves, had offered Sandy $30,000 to sign, and the Koufaxes turned down that one, too.”
The Koufaxes turned down more than double the money because they had agreed to a handshake deal.
Of course, Koufax went on to become a Hall of Fame pitcher, but more importantly by then had proven himself a Hall of Fame person.
Geno Smith and Tavon Austin will get far better offers than Koufax and they won’t be put in the moral dilemma he was, but as life goes on you expect such situations will face both, be it when Nike and Reebok come their way or in any other business opportunities with which they are presented.
You hope they will be able to handle them as well as Koufax.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.