While it often feels as if the amateur draft has been around as long as baseball — and for most of us under the age of fifty that’s true — the draft as we know it actually began in 1965. That first year, some notable names were in the mix, including the likes of Johnny Bench, Tom Seaver, and Nolan Ryan.
For the Detroit Tigers, who selected 13th in the first draft, it was a young catcher named Gene Lamont who was the first to be chosen. Lamont would ultimately prove himself to be a lifetime Tigers player, but largely because he only played five years professionally, and was a pretty decent catcher in that time, averaging 39% caught stealing over his five active years. His overall average with the Tigers was .233/.278/.371, and he appeared in only 87 games for the team over that period, as he was playing in the shadow of the mighty Bill Freehan.
Of course Lamont continued on with the Tigers in another fashion, as both a first base coach and bench coach under Jim Leyland and Brad Ausmus (he was also a successful team manager, winning AL Manager of the year with the White Sox and doing great things with a young Pirates team in the 1990s.)
So it’s pretty clear that the Tigers first-ever draft pick didn’t have much impact on their journey to the 1968 championship — he didn’t make his major league debut until 1970 — but were any of the other selections they made that year standouts?
Andy Messersmith, drafted 53rd overall would go on to be a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner, just not for the Tigers. He ultimately waited until the 1966 draft to sign, and did so with the California Angels, this time in the first round.
Bob Reed, drafted 71st overall, started a total of five games for the Tigers, and played in only 24 total in his two-year career, finishing with a 4.13 ERA.
Gary Taylor, drafted 191st overall, appeared in only seven games total in his one-year career in the majors.
Later round selections Steve Arlin and Bill Butler never played a single game for the Tigers. So the first round of draftees didn’t do much to set their franchise on the path for success. But what of the early draft selections in 1966 and 1967?
In 1966, Rick Konik was the Tigers first round selection, and he did not sign and never played baseball professionally. Scott Fields, selected in the second round, never played ball either. Rob Gilhooley signed but never advanced beyond Triple-A. Les Cain, selected 74th overall actually DID play in the 1968 season and did well, with an ERA of 3.00 in eight games, but he did not appear in the postseason and only played for four seasons total in his career.
In 1967 the Tigers’ first pick was a pitcher named Jim Foor, who played two seasons in Detroit and one in Pittsburgh, and did very badly indeed with a 12.00 career ERA. Pitcher Robert Ware was in the Tigers system until 1972, but never advanced beyond Triple-A. James Tanner, a third baseman selected 55th overall is the same story. Leslie Tanona spent two seasons between Single-A and Double-A. Paul Jata, a utility player selected 95th, actually spent part of a season with the big league club in 1972, hitting .230/.296/.257. And pitcher Dennis Saunders appeared in the 1970 season and had a 3.21 ERA in eight games.
Ultimately, the players taken in the early years of the amateur draft had no lasting impact on the team whatsoever, with the exception of Gene Lamont’s later appearances in coaching roles.
It wouldn’t be until 1974 when a young infielder named Lance Parrish was selected, that a first round draft pick would make a big splash for the team — or have a drafted player appear on a World Series winning team.
None of this is to say that getting the first round picks like Casey Mize or Spencer Torkelson won’t have an impact on the Tigers future success, but just to serve as a reminder that making it in baseball is exceptionally challenging, and only a few prospects ever truly become stars.
That said, it would certainly be nice to see Mize, Manning, Greene, and Torkelson as heroic names we remember as members of the 2024 World Series Tigers team.