Rick Reichardt: The Most Important Baseball Player You've Never Heard of

Joe HalversonCorrespondent IMay 24, 2012

Every once in awhile, a player comes along who, for better or for worse, completely changes the way that MLB conducts business.

Some of these players need no introduction; even the most casual sports fans know that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Babe Ruth popularized the home run, Joe Jackson and the Black Sox were banned for gambling and Jose Canseco blew the lid off the game’s steroid issue. 

Other revolutionaries aren’t quite as well-known, but still familiar to most baseball fans. Cap Anson refusing to play against African Americans, Pud Galvin pioneering PED usage, Curt Flood’s challenging of the reserve clause, Catfish Hunter introducing free agency and Hideo Nomo introducing Japanese players to the States are all fit this category.

And then there’s Rick Reichardt, a player whose name is about as far from the mainstream as can be, despite having more impact on Major League Baseball than any player of the last half of the 20th century.

On the field, Reichardt’s career can best be described as nondescript: 11 seasons, four teams, 116 home runs, .740 OPS, and injury issues wherever he played. He was never an All-Star and only received MVP votes once, and the only statistical category he ever led the league in was times hit-by-pitch.

Reichardt’s legacy, however, was solidified well before he ever set foot in a major league stadium.

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In 1964, Reichardt was regarded as the top all-around athlete in college sports. During his time at the University of Wisconsin, Reichardt twice led the Big Ten in batting while also starring at fullback for the Badgers football team that lost to USC in the 1963 Rose Bowl. Many regard that game as the starting point for national desire to match up the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the postseason. 

There was no question over what sport was Reichardt’s preference, and high ratings by scouts throughout the game triggered a massive bidding war that resulted in the Los Angeles Angels signing him for a jaw-dropping $205,000—higher than the salary of any MLB player at the time.

Reichardt’s contract wound up being the straw that broke the camel’s back on MLB’s longstanding “Bonus Baby” system, where amateur players would sign high-dollar contracts and be forced to take a spot on the big league roster for a full season before he could be sent to the minor leagues. 

While Reichardt was hardly the first player to generate a bidding war, his contract is regarded as the first that made an amateur the highest-paid player in baseball—an idea so absurd that it resulted in MLB immediately blowing up the system for acquiring amateur talent. 

The very next year, MLB held its first amateur draft. Rick Monday, who was the first overall selection, wound up signing for $100,000—less than half of what Reichardt got on the open market. 

Reichardt’s contract would not be topped in real dollars by a draft prospect until Todd Demeter in 1979; when adjusted for inflation, it would not be topped for another decade after that, and this was during a time when MLB salaries far outstripped those for amateurs. Imagine if Stephen Strasburg had signed a contract with a $30 million bonus back in 2009. Reichardt’s deal was the 1964 equivalent.

But Reichardt’s impact does not stop with the MLB draft. 

For decades, MLB had justified its controversial Reserve Clause—which bound players to a team for as long as the team wanted—by claiming that every player had the right to choose their team at the beginning of their careers. The MLB draft, however, eliminated that right, suddenly making the Reserve Clause much more vulnerable in court.

That’s right: Reichardt’s contract not only resulted in the draft, but also inadvertently put MLB on the path to free agency.

Nobody would ever suggest that Reichardt is worthy of a place in the Hall of Fame, as he barely reached qualification for a spot on the ballot. But Reichardt does deserve a place in the history books, as you would be hard-pressed to find another player whose career began in the last half of the 20th century who had a greater impact on the business of Major League Baseball.

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