Mickey Mantle with the Yankees in 1961.
BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: The Yankees left Mickey Mantle unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft.
Major League Baseball (MLB) has held six expansion drafts in its history (1960, 1961, 1968, 1976, 1992 and 1997) , where incoming expansion teams can draft players from the rosters of the other MLB teams (with each current team being allowed to protect a certain amount of players from being drafted). There have been a number of standout players drafted via these drafts (to name three - a young Lou Piniella was taken in the 1968 draft, a young Vinny Castilla was taken in the 1992 draft and a young Bobby Abreu was taken in the 1997 draft) but the vast majority of the players chosen tend to constitute organizational depth more than anything.
In addition, there have likely been only two Hall of Famers taken in any of the expansion drafts. One, Hoyt Wilhelm, was taken in the 1969 draft by the Kansas City Royals seventeen seasons into his twenty-one season career (they flipped him to the California Angels after picking him). The second, Trevor Hoffman, was taken in the 1992 draft by the Florida Marlins (and Hoffman, who the Marlins later dealt to the San Diego Padres as part of a deal for Gary Sheffield, is certainly not a lock for the Hall of Fame).
Amazingly, that number could have been three. During the 1968 expansion draft the New York Yankees left legendary slugger Mickey Mantle unprotected!
Mantle was clearly coming to the end of an illustrious career in the late 1960s. He had been moved from center field to first base in 1967 because his knees just could no longer manage the outfield. After a disastrous stretch from 1965 to 1967 (where the team finished 6th, 9th and 10th), the Yankees had improved in 1968 to get back over .500 and Mantle, even in his diminished state, was still a major part of the Yankees offense (not to mention the fact that he was far and away their most marketable player). Advanced statistics were not in vogue at the time, so much was made about Mantle's low batting averages in 1967 and 1968 (.245 and .237, respectively). Mantle, himself, was disgusted that his .237 batting average in 1968 actually pulled his career batting average under .300. However, Mantle was still the Yankees' leading home run hitter, he was still in the top five in the American League in on-base percentage (OBP) and was in the top ten in the AL in on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS).
The majors just happened to be in the midst of an era of pitching domination. To wit, only one player in the AL even had a .300 batting average in 1968 (Carl Yastrzemski hit .301)! So Mantle was still a productive player, even if he did not feel or look like one (and he almost certainly would have retired before 1967 had he not wanted to make a few final paychecks for his family).
His old friend Whitey Ford had retired and was named the Yankees first base coach for the 1968 season. He later recalled, "One of the sad things about coaching first base was that I was witnessing, firsthand, the demise of Mickey Mantle as a ballplayer...The worst thing about watching Mickey that year was to see him such pain. I knew his legs were killing him, but he would never complain. Sometimes he wouldn't even want to go out, he was hurting so much."
Still, all signs pointed to Mantle continuing to play in 1969 for the Yankees. The Yankees still wanted him, he still wanted the money and he also wanted to get his career batting average back up over .300. So in the fall of 1968, that was the presumed state of affairs - Mantle was coming back in 1969. However, there was still a little matter of the Oct. 15 expansion draft (one draft of National League players for the two new National League teams, the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos and one draft for AL players for the two new AL teams, the Seattle Pilots and the Kansas City Royals).
United Press International (UPI) columnist Milton Richman asked Yankee president and chairman of the board Mike Burke point blank - were the Yankees going to include Mantle as one of their 15 protected players for the expansion draft? Burke told Richman, "It's unthinkable to us that Mickey will ever be anything but a Yankee. He most definitely will not be on our list of availables."