Bob Horner’s nine seasons with the Atlanta Braves were rocky almost from the beginning.
Horner barely had time to polish his 1978 National League Rookie of the Year trophy before the Braves’ front office tried to cut his salary by more than 20 percent, resulting in a dispute that landed the two sides in arbitration the following spring. Horner eventually signed for $130,000, the largest salary ever for a second-year player at the time.
But the salary disagreement that cut into Horner’s 1979 spring paled in comparison to the acrimony between the slugger and agent Bucky Woy and the Braves during the 1986-87 offseason. Thirty-four years ago this month, Atlanta opened spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla., without its cleanup hitter, who would never again don a Braves uniform.
Horner became one of the faces of arguably the lowest point in baseball’s sordid labor relations history: the collusion scandal of 1986-87. He was among hundreds of players and former players who were eventually awarded millions of dollars in lost salary after courts found that Major League Baseball owners and former commissioner Peter Ueberroth had (among other things) illegally shared information during free-agency negotiations, in hopes of keeping salaries down.
“At the time, I really didn’t know what was going on,” Horner said in a 2004 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But after a few years, you figure it out. It is a shame because it wrecked a lot of careers … and for what? It accomplished nothing. I mean, look at the salaries they pay today. I will just say, God bless the players.”
In addition to his standout rookie year — accomplished without spending a day in the minor leagues — Horner and Dale Murphy formed a power-hitting middle-of-the-order duo for contending Braves teams in the early 1980s. Horner hit 33 home runs in 1979, 35 in 1980 and 32 in 1982, driving in 97 in the latter year as Atlanta won its first National League West crown in 13 years. (Horner also made his lone All-Star team in 1982, flying out as a pinch-hitter in his only plate appearance.)
The Braves appeared on their way to another division title in 1983, with Horner and Murphy — in the midst of a second straight NL MVP award — again enjoying outstanding seasons (Horner was hitting .303/.383/.528 with 20 homers and 68 RBIs through 104 games). Atlanta was 6 ½ games up on the second-place Los Angeles Dodgers in mid-August, when Horner’s season ended due to a broken wrist suffered sliding into second base in a game against the San Diego Padres.
The Braves limped to a second-place finish that year, and weren’t again a serious postseason contender for the remainder of the 1980s. Horner played in just 32 games in 1984 after re-injuring the wrist in May, but bounced back with a solid 1985 season in which he batted .267/.333/.499 with 27 homers, 89 RBIs and a 126 OPS+ in 130 games split between third base and first.
Horner was a full-time first baseman in 1986, again putting up solid numbers — .273/.336/.472 with 27 homers and 87 RBIs (good for a 116 OPS+). He enjoyed the biggest day of his career on July 6 of that year, smashing an MLB-record-tying four home runs in an 11-8 loss to the Montreal Expos.
The Braves finished 72-89 and in last place in the NL West in 1986, with Horner earning $1.8 million in the final year of a four-year $5.1 million contract he’d signed prior to the 1983 season. He turned 29 on Aug. 6, 1986, but Atlanta at least publicly showed no interest in re-signing him.
On Sept. 12, the Atlanta Constitution noted that the Braves “have not made any contact” with Horner or his agent concerning a new contract. Undaunted, AJC columnist Dave Kindred suggested the following day that Atlanta not only keep Horner, but sign Montreal Expos stars Andre Dawson AND Tim Raines, both pending free agents who had expressed a desire to continue to play together (Kindred also somewhat ludicrously recommended the Braves move Raines to second base, where he’d played a handful of games to limited acclaim earlier in his career).
Kindred pipe dreams aside, by season’s end it was evident that another long, cold winter was coming for free agents. As the AJC’s Gerry Fraley wrote in his Sept. 28, 1986, Baseball Notebook, “emboldened by last year’s success, team owners will try to freeze out free agents again.”
Horner told the AJC on Oct. 1 that “the ball’s in their court,” meaning he was waiting for a contract offer from the Braves. Manager Chuck Tanner said in the same story “we all want him back,” but that decision would be up to owner Ted Turner and Bobby Cox, who was then entering his first winter as Atlanta’s general manager.
“The bottom line is, I haven’t heard one word from the Braves,” Horner told the AJC on Oct. 2, the day of Atlanta’s final home game of the season. “I don’t know what they want to do. I don’t know what their plans are.”
Teams had exclusive rights to negotiate with their free agents until five days after the end of the World Series, and in late October the Braves offered Horner a two-year deal, plus an option year. He immediately indicated he would reject it, and made plans to test free agency.
During the collective bargaining rules in place at the time, teams had until Jan. 8 to re-sign their own free agents or give up rights to negotiate with them until May 1. That little proviso would end up biting Horner, among others.
The free agency period officially began on Nov. 12, with Horner, Raines, Dawson, pitchers Ron Guidry and Jack Morris, catchers Rich Gedman, Bob Boone and Lance Parrish and third baseman Ray Knight among the big names available to the highest bidder. But as had been the case the year before, there was no bidding war for their services as had been the case in the early days of free agency in the late 1970s.
On Nov. 13, Horner formally rejected the Braves’ offer, which was revealed to be two guaranteed years at $1.5 million each year, plus a third that triggered if he met certain performance incentives. He’d made $1.8 million in 1986.
(Horner’s previous contract, signed prior to the 1983 season, included a “weight clause,” which paid him a $7,692.31 bonus if he weighed less than 215 pounds on any one of 13 selected Fridays during the season. The Braves reportedly wanted another such clause in his next contract, but Horner didn’t want it included this time.)
By Thanksgiving, Woy said he had solicited talks with both the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox, but had been told there was no interest in Horner’s services. The Major League Baseball Players Association filed a formal grievance alleging collusion by owners, with an arbitrator’s ruling due in December.
In another relic of CBAs past, the Braves in early December offered Horner arbitration, which he could accept and sign a one-year deal at a salary set by an arbitrator (while still retaining the right to negotiate a long-term extension) or reject and have until Jan. 8 to sign with his old club. Horner wanted a 5-year deal at $2 million per season, which would have made him one of the 10 highest-paid players in the game.
Meanwhile, the freeze out continued. As of Dec. 11, only one of 79 free agents — journeyman middle infielder Chris Speier — had signed with a different team than the one for which he played in 1986.
Days later, the Braves pulled their three-year, $4.5 million offer to Horner, with Cox indicating the next offer would be closer to $1 million per year. Horner rejected arbitration on Dec. 20, meaning he was done with the Braves until May 1 if he didn’t sign a long-term extension by Jan. 8.
As the Jan. 8 deadline approached, Cox put the Braves’ chances of re-signing Horner at “50-50.” Woy and Horner, however, were not going to re-up for what Atlanta was offering, holding out hope that another team would eventually offer something more commensurate.
(Alexander was also a free agent at the time, and was offered a two-year contract for a total of $1.6 million by the Braves. Like Horner, he wasn’t interested in accepting what he deemed a lowball deal.)
Cox and Turner held the line, however, with Turner indicating he hoped to bring down the Braves’ league-high payroll. Just two years earlier, Atlanta had broken the bank for free-agent closer Bruce Sutter, who had been ineffective in 1985 and injured for much of 1986.
“We’ve been crazy too long,” Cox said. “We’ve got to come out of the spin and land on our feet.”
At midnight on Jan. 8, 1987, Bob Horner’s career as an Atlanta Brave officially ended. He rejected a last-minute proposal of three years and $3.9 million, though the third year was a team option.
“They made a big show of saying they wanted to sign me, but deep down inside I don’t think they ever wanted to sign me,” Horner told the AJC. “Judging from what happened, the Braves never made an honest effort to sign me.”
Writing nearly a decade later in Lords of the Realm, the definitive account of baseball’s labor history, author John Helyar quoted Horner and Woy as saying Cox told him, “The days of the $2 million contract are over. You’re going to burn at the stake if you don’t take this.” Cox disputed that account at least in part, Helyar wrote.
New Braves president Stan Kasten — who had helped build the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks into contenders — could hardly hide his glee in cutting Horner and Alexander loose. Using Kindred as his conduit, he declared that the club and the sport were entering a new era of fiscal responsibility.
“You are seeing the beginning of a statement,” Kasten said in a Kindred column published on Jan. 10, 1987. “The agents are no longer in control around the Atlanta Braves. The inmates are no longer running the asylum. … This is a momentous and positive day for the club. I couldn’t be more excited. … Truth is, when they said no, it was like ‘Whew,’ because we were never comfortable with our offer. It was too high.”
So just how did the Braves plan to replace Horner?
The Braves flirted with the idea of signing Knight, who had been World Series MVP with the New York Mets in 1986 and had experience playing at both infield corners. Knight, a Georgia native, openly desired to play in Atlanta, but the Braves appeared intent on turning first base over to Gerald Perry.
The 26-year-old Perry had been a part-time player for the Braves in both 1984 and 1985, but spent most of 1986 at Triple-A Richmond. He was no longer considered a top prospect, but had posted a .326/.416/.508 line with 10 homers and 30 doubles with the R-Braves. (Knight ended up signing a two-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles, and was traded to Detroit after a subpar 1987 season.)
But the silence around Horner continued to prove deafening. The AJC’s Fraley contacted the other 25 MLB clubs, and only two — Seattle and Texas — expressed even mild interest in signing him. Teams cited not only his salary demands, but also his history of injuries and his defensive limitations.
“I was amazed when Atlanta even offered Horner $1.5 million,” Oakland A’s president of baseball operations Sandy Alderson said in Fraley’s report. “And I was shocked when Horner turned it down.”
Horner finally got a firm offer from another club in late January, with the San Diego Padres dangling one year and $750,000. Horner quickly rejected the deal, with Padres president Ballard Smith dismissing hints of collusion.
“This thing about a conspiracy is so overrated,” he told the AJC.
Texas, meanwhile, also bowed out of the Horner sweepstakes. “I heard he was embarrassed by Atlanta’s $4.5-million offer,” Rangers GM Tom Grieve said wryly. “I don’t want to add to his embarrassment.”
By that time, the Braves had their eyes on Raines, who was just entering his prime at 27 years old and coming off a season in which he’d led the NL in batting average (.334) and on-base percentage (.413) and stolen 70 bases. Raines had turned down a 3-year, $4.8-million offer from Montreal, and was hoping to sign for $2 million per year.
In early February, the Braves gave away Horner’s old uniform number. Second baseman Damaso Garcia, acquired by Cox from his old Toronto club, was given No. 5.
Many in the Braves’ camp didn’t blame Horner, but Woy, who had long had a contentious relationship with the club. Franchise icon Hank Aaron, then the Braves director of player development, declared flatly “nobody’s worth $2 million” in an interview conducted as Atlanta began spring training.
“I’m sure if Bob had to do it all over again, he would have taken what we were offering,” Aaron told the AJC. “We finished in last place with Horner last year; we can finish in last place without him. Same with all these other high-priced free agents.”
One person who remained in Horner’s corner was former teammate Ted Simmons, who had been active in the MLBPA since his days with the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1970s. Simmons, by 1987 playing out the string as a reserve catcher with the Braves, called the actions of Horner and other free agent holdouts “something courageous.”
Horner continued to insist that it was collusion among team executives that was keeping him and other top-notch free agents from landing jobs. Appearing at an Atlanta area sporting goods store to sign autographs on Feb. 7, Horner told the AJC “it’s obvious there’s something going on.”
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out,” Horner said. “When players like Tim Raines, Jack Morris and Lance Parrish aren’t getting any calls, you know there’s something going on. It’s hard to believe players like that have no value, but that’s what we’re being told.”
Indeed, it wasn’t just about Horner. According to a Feb. 19 report in the AJC, the Braves remained interested in Raines, but only if he agreed to the same contract — two guaranteed years at $1.3 million, plus an option year — they’d offered Horner.
“We’re not going to get into a bidding war,” Cox said. By late March, the Braves had moved away from the idea of signing Raines as well.
The Braves opened spring training camp without Horner, let alone Raines. Perry and free-agent import Gary Roenicke were sharing first base, with Murphy — who also moved from center field to right that spring — taking over in the cleanup spot and assuming Horner’s former role as team captain.
MLB owners met in Dallas at the end of February, and Ueberroth continued to insist there was no collusion at work keeping Horner, Raines, Guidry, Dawson and other top free agents from being signed. The Rangers’ Eddie Chiles spoke for many owners when he called the allegations “a bunch of garbage.”
As the April 7 Opening Day approached, Horner was still finding “no takers” for his services. He told the AJC on March 23 he hadn’t so much as received a phone call in more than two months, let alone a contract offer.
Woy and Horner approached the Rangers, proposing a one-year deal for $800,000, plus the potential of $500,000 more in incentives. But Horner’s hometown team rejected him again.
The Braves couldn’t sign Horner until May 1, and even then weren’t willing to go above one year and $800,000. “We might not even go that high,” Kasten told the AJC.
Meanwhile, Perry was enjoying an excellent spring as Horner’s replacement. He hit .338 during spring training and led the Braves with 17 RBIs, leading the always overly optimistic Tanner to compare him to Al Oliver, a former All-Star Tanner had managed in Pittsburgh.
Perry was the Braves’ regular first baseman in 1987 and 1988, combining for a .739 OPS and an OPS+ that was exactly league-average. He was an All-Star in the latter year, when he batted an even .300 with 74 RBIs for an Atlanta team that lost 106 games.
Desperate to play somewhere in 1987 and with literally nowhere else to go in the United States, Horner began to negotiate with the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League. The Swallows were offering a one-year deal for more than $1 million.
(Actually, it wasn’t entirely accurate that Horner had no other opportunities with American teams. The Double-A Charlotte Knights offered him a contract for $3,001 per month to serve as the team’s designated hitter, provided he also gain 20 pounds and participate in a local professional wrestling circuit operated by the club’s owner. The Baltimore Orioles, the Knights’ parent club, quickly put the kibosh on that idea, not that Horner was seriously considering it.)
The Braves’ opening day payroll in 1987 fell by 24 percent from 1986, with the average player salary down more than $159,000 from the previous year. Only Murphy ($1.9 million) and the still-injured Sutter ($1.5 million) were set to earn seven figures that season.
On April 10, Horner agreed to a contract with Yakult. He would earn $1.3 million, plus travel and living expenses for his family.
“I could see the handwriting on the wall with the Braves,” Horner told the AJC upon signing with the Swallows. “On May 1, it was going to be ‘play for this or don’t play at all.’ I would have been at their mercy and would have had to do what they dictated. That’s a situation I would have been uncomfortable with.”
Kindred lamented Horner’s departure in an April 19 column, calling it “a sorry pass, this Horner thing.”
“And it’s not only a matter of cutting payrolls, as the lords of baseball say,” he wrote. “The Braves saved $1.8 million by letting Horner go. They might have used half that to sign Tim Raines, the best offensive player in the National League. But no.
“Baseball wants more than simply lower payrolls. It wants to teach the hired hands a lesson. The owners seem to have agreed to freeze out high-salaried free agents.”
(Horner was apparently right about what might have happened come May 1. Raines, Alexander, Boone, Guidry and Gedman all re-signed with their old clubs.)
Horner got off to a smashing start in Japan, homering six times in his first four games and earning the nickname “Red Devil” from opponents. He played in 97 games for the Swallows that season, batting .327/.423/.683 with 31 homers and 73 RBIs.
Horner was a sensation in Japan, but quickly tired of all the attention. He rejected a three-year, $10-million offer to stay with the Swallows, instead returning to America on a one-year deal with the St. Louis Cardinals that could pay him up to $1.45 million with incentives.
The Cardinals were coming off their third NL pennant in six seasons in 1988, and had lost slugging first baseman Jack Clark to free agency. But there was no career renaissance for Horner in St. Louis.
Troubled by a left shoulder injury that dated back to his college days at Arizona State, Horner played in just 60 games and hit only three homers with a .354 slugging percentage before undergoing season-ending surgery. The Cardinals acquired former Dodgers slugger Pedro Guerrero to play first base that August, ending any hopes of Horner returning to the club in 1989.
Horner signed on with the Orioles that spring, but batted just once in spring training before announcing his retirement on March 9, 1989. His MLB career was over after 10 seasons and 215 home runs.
The collusion scandal had broken wide open in 1988, when documents produced by club officials during MLB meetings and contract negotiations became public. The documents clearly showed that teams were sharing information on negotiations with free agents and acting in concert to keep salaries down, a clear violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
An arbitrator ruled that September that owners had engaged in a “patent pattern” of rigging contract offers, and that “there was no vestige of a free market” between the 1986 and 1987 seasons. Owners were found to have acted in similar fashion during the 1985-86 and 1987-88 offseasons, affecting the salaries of more than 650 players.
The case dragged on until 2004, when $434 million in lost salary and benefits began to be distributed to former players. Horner received the largest amount, more than $7 million.
Nearly 30 years after the fact, Horner appeared to feel a sense of vindication in a 2016 interview with the AJC’s Carroll Rogers Walton.
“The way I look at it is if you don’t fight the fight, the fight never gets fought,” Horner said. “Did I want to? Hell, no. I don’t want to be the guy out there with the banner. But sometimes you have to.”
Horner’s contract dispute opens up a couple of potentially interesting “what ifs?” regarding the Braves of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Had Horner agreed to the Braves’ original offer — two years, plus an option — it’s unlikely he’d have pushed Atlanta closer to a pennant. The Braves averaged 98 losses per year and finished an average of 29 games out of first place from 1987-89, so even a fully healthy Horner playing at the top of his game wouldn’t have done much to lift Atlanta out of the NL West cellar.
But what if the Braves had agreed to his 5-year, $10-million proposal? Horner would have been 34 years old and in the final season of his contract in 1991, when Atlanta went from “worst to first” and came within one win of a World Series championship.
Again, it’s no guarantee Horner would have still been an effective, difference-making player at that point (in reality, he was done as a major-leaguer by 1989, after all). It’s also possible, if not likely, the Braves would have traded him away before his contract expired, as they did with veterans such as Claudell Washington in 1986, Alexander and Rafael Ramirez in 1987 and Murphy in 1990.
But maybe Horner would have landed the Braves a future star like John Smoltz, who came over in the Alexander trade. Atlanta got far less in return for Washington, Ramirez and Murphy, so that’s unlikely (though not impossible).
And if Horner had played out a five-year contract extension with the Braves, Atlanta probably wouldn’t have signed first baseman Nick Esasky for three years and $5.6 million prior to the 1990 season. The Braves got just nine games out of Esasky before he was forced to retire due to chronic vertigo (and they might not have signed Sid Bream the following year, which creates numerous additional sliding doors scenarios).
It’s at least debatable if Horner was worth what he was asking for from the Braves following the 1986 season, or even if he was worth what Atlanta offered him. What’s evident some three decades later, however, is that the negotiations were not conducted in good faith, and that his tenure in Atlanta ended earlier than it had to and on terms that remain an embarrassment to the organization and to the sport at large.
Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. No, that’s not his real name.
References: AJC.com; Newspapers.com; Sports Illustrated Vault; Sporting News archives (via Paper of Record); SABR.org; John Helyar, Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball (Ballantine Books, 1994)