There have now been 77 drafts in which high school players were eligible to be drafted for the first time, which includes 56 June drafts from 1965-2020 and 21 January drafts from 1966-1986. The Cardinals’ selection of 3B Jordan Walker at #21 overall marked just the 20th time that the club selected a high school position-player in the true first round.
In this article, I will take you on a trip down memory lane and revisit the first four of the Cardinals’ prior high school position-player first round selections. I will discuss the remainder of the selections in subsequent pieces. The positions listed were the positions that were listed in the published media reports at the time of the draft.
1966: IF/OF Leron Lee: 2.2 Career WARP, -0.6 Cardinal WARP
The Cardinals drafted the lefty-swinging Lee #7 overall. After a short stint in the Florida Instructional League in 1966, Lee slashed .297/.365/.522 with 22 HRs as a 19-year old outfielder for the 1967 Modesto Reds, and won the MVP and Rookie of the Year in the Class A California League. He was only the second player in league history to win both honors. The Cardinals added him to the 40-man roster in October 1967 after just that one season. At that particular time, any minor-league player was eligible to be taken in the Rule 5 draft unless he had just been drafted in the regular draft the previous June or had been signed as an undrafted free agent after the previous April 30th. He was a September call-up in 1969. The 22-year old Lee won the starting right field job for 1970 after coming on strong at the end of spring training and leading the club in batting average and RBIs. He started the first 21 games of the regular season, playing every inning without rest. Through May 4th, he was slashing .272/.322/.407 with 7 extra base hits, including 2 home runs. Manager Red Schoendienst decided to shake up the lineup, as the Cardinals struggled offensively and he could never find the right defensive combination he wanted. While Lee ended up starting more games than anyone else in RF for the Cards in 1970, he would only start 37 games the rest of the season, as he lost playing time to Joe Hague and Carl Taylor. Lee ended the season with a lackluster slash line of .227/.290/.352 over 121 games and 294 PA.
When the Cardinals traded for Matty Alou to play CF for the 1971 Cardinals and moved Jose Cardenal from CF to RF, Lee languished on the bench as Cardenal played every inning of every game through the month of May. With youngsters Jose Cruz and Luis Melendez also on the roster, Lee was deemed expendable and on June 11th was traded to the Padres with pitcher Fred Norman for pitcher Al Santorini. Lee had slashed just .179/.281/.321 over 32 PA, with just 1 start each in LF and RF. Interestingly, Santorini was drafted #11 overall in the same draft in which the Cards drafted Lee. Lee’s best season was his 3.1 WARP season with the 1972 Padres, and that was the only season in the majors in which he amassed even 1 WARP. Released by the Dodgers after the 1976 season, Lee would go on to a long and successful career in Japan.
1967: C/OF Ted Simmons: 52.1 Career WARP, 45.6 Cardinal WARP
Simmons needs no introduction to Cardinal fans, and is the best player on this list by far. After being drafted #10 overall, Simmons was initially sent to the Sarasota club in the rookie level Gulf Coast League for 6 games, then slashed .269/.342/.427 over 47 games as a 17-year old for the Cedar Rapids Cardinals of the Class A Midwest League. Simmons followed Lee as the Rookie of the Year and MVP for the California League in 1968, when he slashed .331/.415/.570 as an 18-year old for Modesto, leading the league in batting average and RBIs, while adding 28 HRs. The Cardinals purchased his contract on September 5th, 1968, and he would be with the club on weekends only for the rest of the season, keeping up with his classes at the University of Michigan to keep his student deferment from the military draft. He would only bat in two games with 1 start behind the plate. Simmons bypassed the Texas League and was optioned to the AAA Tulsa Oilers in the American Association for 1969, where he slashed .317/.365/.495 with 16 HRs as a 19-year old. He was a September call-up in 1969, getting into only 5 games with 3 starts behind the plate.
After a disappointing 1969 Cardinal season, general manager Bing Devine decided to shake up the club, trading regular catcher Tim McCarver to the Philadelphia Phillies along with Curt Flood and others in a famous multi-player deal that featured slugger Dick Allen. Manager Red Schoendienst wanted Simmons to start at catcher for 1970, have Torre play first base (his preferred position), Dick Allen play left field (despite the fact that he had mangled his throwing hand three years earlier by pushing it through a car headlight) and move Lou Brock from left field to right field. As it turned out, however, regular third baseman Mike Shannon was diagnosed with a life-threatening kidney ailment during spring training and was going to be unavailable to start the season. Schoendienst would have solved the problem by installing Joe Torre at third base with Allen at first base. But Simmons learned that he had to serve a 6-month military obligation in the Army Reserves, and would be unavailable until sometime in May. The Cards ended up opening the 1970 season with Torre catching, Allen at 3B and Joe Hague at 1B. Simmons was activated from the military list in early May and after being optioned to AAA Tulsa for a 15-game tune-up, joined the Cards on May 30th. He would go on to start 74 games behind the plate in 1970, although he struggled to hit major league pitching and slashed only .243/.333/.317 in 82 games. He also struggled defensively, with his 15 passed balls being the second most in the league.
The switch-hitting Simmons became the regular Cardinal catcher in 1971 and held the job through 1980. During that stretch, among catchers, only Johnny Bench was arguably better offensively and only Bench earned more WAR. Over that stretch, Simmons even had a higher AVG, OBP, and OPS+ than Bench and more hits and doubles. Opening up the comparison to all qualified MLB players over that 10-year period, Simmons was 4th in RBIs, 5th in hits, 3rd in doubles, 10th in AVG, 7th in fWAR and tied for 15th in OPS+. According to Fangraphs, Simmons had a 129 wRC+ over that stretch, which would have been tied for 35th overall with enshrined catchers Bench and Carlton Fisk.
By the end of the 1980 season, Whitey Herzog was both the field manager and general manager of the Cardinals. During the winter meetings, Herzog decided to sign free agent catcher Darrell Porter to a five-year, $3.5 million deal. Porter caught for Herzog from 1977-1979, the last three years of Herzog’s managerial stint with the Kansas City Royals. Herzog much preferred Porter’s defense and throwing arm, and concluded that Simmons could not play catcher for the team he wanted to build. Herzog’s initial plan was to play Simmons at first base and move perennial Gold Glove first baseman Keith Hernandez to left field. Simmons at first agreed to the potential switch, but soon changed his mind, fearing that he would be unfairly compared to Hernandez, and feeling that he had the right not to go through that aggravation as a veteran of parts of 13 seasons in the big leagues. Herzog responded by trading him to the Milwaukee Brewers along with Pete Vuckovich and Rollie Fingers (who had only been a Cardinal for two days) for Sixto Lezcano, Lary Sorenson, Dave LaPoint, and David Green.
Simmons would go on to play five years for the Brewers, and three more unforgettable years with the Atlanta Braves, retiring from baseball after the 1988 season. At the time he retired, he had the major league record for hits and doubles by a catcher and was 8th all time in number of games caught. He still now is second all-time among catchers in both hits and RBIs. Simmons, however, had a poor defensive reputation. Whether he was poor defensively has been debated by analysts, see here (concluding that the attitude surrounding Simmons’s poor defense was overblown, and here (finding that Simmons was indeed below average defensively). Due possibly to the combination of that poor defensive reputation and the overall comparison to perennial Gold Glove winner Johnny Bench, Simmons only got 3.7% of the Hall of Fame vote in his first try on the 1994 ballot. This was six votes shy of 5%, and having not received 5% of the vote, the rules barred Simmons from appearing on any BBWAA Hall of Fame ballots in the future. Simmons was considered by the various “Era Committees” in 2011, 2014 and 2018 (where he fell one vote short) and was finally elected into the Hall on the 2020 ballot by the Modern Baseball Era Committee, receiving 13 out of 16 votes.
1968: OF James (Butch) Hairston
The Cardinals drafted the lefty-swinging Hairston because of what scouts called his “quick bat, good bat control and excellent speed.” Before being paid what the Cardinal brass called a “substantial bonus,” Hairston told his hometown paper in Dayton, Ohio that he still wanted to attend college while playing, and he hoped to work out a setup where he only played baseball from June through August. Splitting the year between the Sarasota club in the rookie Gulf Coast League and the Cedar Rapids Cardinals in the Class A Midwest League, Hairston had his best season as a 17-year old in 1968, slashing .323/.386/.429 in 212 PA over 49 games. Looking at Hairston’s Sporting News player card, he must have been serious about his desire to continue his education while playing, as he was placed on either the restricted list or the temporary inactive list for 4-5 weeks every season after that, except for 1971. He would typically join what were full season clubs in late May or early June. His time in the Air Force reserves may have also taken him away from baseball.
Always playing in the corner outfield spots, Hairston played in the most games and had the most plate appearances of his career at Class A Modesto in 1969, slashing .272/.370/.357, with his OBP helped by an 11.2% BB percentage, and being hit by 7 pitches. He also struck out 24% of the time with very little power to show for it. Hairston’s numbers only took a turn for the worse from there. He was initially sent to repeat Modesto in 1970, but only slashed .154/.228/.231 over 18 games, while striking out 31.5% of the time. Hairston was then sent down to Class A St. Petersburg. In those days, the Cards had three full-season Class A clubs. Cedar Rapids was considered the low-level club, St. Petersburg the mid-level squad and Modesto the advanced team. It didn’t get much better in Florida, as Hairston only managed a .279/.325/.321 line, and ended up the 1970 season with only 1 total home run and each “slash stat” starting with the number two. Hairston was not placed on any inactive list for 1971, but was sent back down to Cedar Rapids, where he had played as a 17-year old. Although he got into 74 games and logged a career-high 10 doubles, he still slashed only .242/.297/.338. Assigned again to St. Petersburg for 1972, he didn’t join the squad until June and was placed back on the temporary inactive list at the beginning of August. After only 37 PA over 19 games and a .147/.189/.147 line, the Cardinals released Hairston in April of 1973.
It is unclear if baseball was Hairston’s number one priority or if the Cardinals were frustrated by his frequent absences. No source that I can find talks about Hairston’s minor-league career other than daily summaries of game action. Nonetheless, Hairston did get his bachelor’s degree and eventually two master’s degrees and passed away in May of 2013 at 62 years of age.
1971: 1B/OF/P Ed Kurpiel
This is an early example of the Cardinals moving too fast with a prospect. The Cardinals drafted the 17-year old from Hollis, New York #8 overall, paid him what was believed to be a record bonus of over $80,000 and signed him to a major league contract, immediately placing him on the club’s 40-man roster. The Cards thought that the 6’3”, 210-pound, lefty swinger was their power prospect of the future. He was an all-New York City ballplayer for two years and broke Hank Greenberg’s New York City high school home run record of 10. While he had pitched a few no-hitters in high school, it was expected that he would play first base. Signed on June 30th, 1971, he bypassed the Gulf Coast League, and was immediately optioned to the full-season Class A Cedar Rapids Cardinals of the Midwest League to play first base. Despite only getting into 56 out of the club’s 120 games, Kurpiel finished second on the club in home runs with 8 and slashed .257/.389/.445 with 42 walks and an 18.7% BB percentage. This was considered to be impressive, not only because Kurpiel was only 18 years old, but the home park of Cedar Rapids was a large park like Busch Stadium.
Optioned to the Class A Modesto Reds in the Class A California League for 1972, the 18-year old Kurpiel got into 130 of the club’s 139 games and slashed .256/.381/.454, while tying 19-year old Hector Cruz for the club lead in home runs with 22 and leading the club with 90 walks. Legend has it that on May 31st, 1972 at the stadium of the Reno Silver Sox—then the affiliate of the Cleveland Indians—Kurpiel launched a home run that was approximated in an amateur fashion to travel anywhere from 678 to 738 feet. Moana Stadium in Reno, Nevada was situated more than 4,500 feet above sea level and there were constant powerful winds that blew out from third base to right-center field. Estimated at nearly 500 feet at the time, a writer from the Reno Gazette-Journal who witnessed the homer in person conducted some sort of “measurement” in 1985 to come up with the apocryphal distance.
It is instructive at this point to compare Kurpiel’s career with Keith Hernandez. Only three months older than Kurpiel, the then 5’11”, 175-pound Hernandez fell all the way to the 42nd round of the 1971 draft because he and his father got into a dispute with his high school baseball coach during the preseason of his senior year, and Hernandez quit the team. According to Hernandez’s autobiography I’m Keith, “it wasn’t until after the draft and [he] kicked butt in summer ball” that the Cardinals decided they had to sign him and paid him a $30,000 bonus, an amount that was very rarely paid to a player drafted that low. Hernandez was recruited to play both football and baseball for several colleges. I am unsure whether he was planned as a draft-and-follow or whether he just signed too late, but he didn’t play at all in 1971. After an impressive 1972 spring training with where he was called the “most outstanding hitter in the minor league camp,” Hernandez was assigned for his first season in 1972 to the Class A St. Petersburg Cardinals in the Class A Florida State League, which was considered the middle tier of the Cardinals’ three Class A clubs. Just as the season was about to begin, Hernandez broke his arm in practice when a base runner ran into his arm while he was trying to field a bunt play. Hernandez would miss 48 games, make his first appearance in organized baseball on June 1st, and over 84 games slash .256/.344/.388 with 5 home runs. He also walked 42 times to only 39 strikeouts.
Then something interesting happened. Mike Fiore, a backup outfielder and first baseman for the 1972 AAA Tulsa Oilers team, injured his hand and was going to be out for the final 12 games of the 1972 AAA season. Who did the Cards call to get that assignment? Keith Hernandez, fresh off of just basically two-thirds of a season at Class A St. Petersburg. Not Ed Kurpiel, who had one full additional season under his belt and had hit better at a higher level. Hernandez got into 11 of the Tulsa games. Then he led the 1972 Florida Winter Instructional League (a pre-cursor to the Arizona Fall League where top prospects were invited) over a 56-game slate with a .352 batting average. Both Hernandez and Kurpiel were assigned to the Arkansas Travelers in the Class AA Texas League for the 1973 season, with Kurpiel on his third option to the minor leagues. Hernandez beat out Kurpiel for the first base job, with Kurpiel and his strong arm moving to right field. The very presence and emergence of Keith Hernandez ended up dooming Kurpiel’s chances to crack the majors with the Cardinals.
Hernandez did not have the best of years offensively with AA Arkansas in 1973, slashing only .260/.340/.345 with a good batting eye. But rather than send him down a level, player personnel director Bob Kennedy decided in a stunning move to promote Hernandez to AAA Tulsa instead. In Hernandez’s autobiography, he quoted Kennedy as saying that Hernandez might have been finished if he bombed out the rest of the year in Arkansas, and that his confidence might have been irretrievably shot. Kennedy took a chance on Hernandez because he knew he had the talent. Kennedy was a big promoter of Hernandez’s abilities, telling the press after his first season in 1972 that Hernandez was the only player he saw as a kid who he felt could make the Hall of Fame if his head stayed on straight, and that he was ready after that season from a defensive standpoint to play in the majors. Hernandez responded well to the promotion, slashing .333/.394/.525 with 5 home runs over 31 games and 132 PA, where he had only hit 3 home runs over 445 PA in AA. Meanwhile, Kurpiel slashed .248/.329/.410 with 17 home runs.
1974 would turn out to be the pivotal season for both players, who were by then still only 20 years old. Kurpiel was, by my research, the first player that the Cards optioned for a fourth time to the minor leagues, as that was only his fourth season in pro ball and he was placed on the 40-man roster upon his signing. Both players were sent to AAA Tulsa for the season and both players would share the club lead with 14 home runs, along with catcher Marc Hill. The difference is that Hernandez busted out, slashing .351/.425/.555, winning the American Association batting title. Kurpiel didn’t have a bad eye with 52 walks to 73 strikeouts, but just didn’t have the kind of year Hernandez did, slashing only .249/.338/.425. Kurpiel had only one more extra base hit and four more walks than Hernandez did and Kurpiel had 42 more trips to the plate. Hernandez also missed several weeks at the beginning of the season after tearing cartilage in his right knee during spring training and having minor surgery.
When regular Cardinal first baseman Joe Torre sprained the middle finger of his left hand sliding into second base in a game at San Diego on August 28th, 1974, the Cards decided to designate 32-year old backup catcher/first baseman and pinch hitter Tim McCarver for assignment and purchase Hernandez’s contract from AAA Tulsa. Hernandez would join the club on August 30th and start the next 3 games at first base. Torre returned to the lineup on September 3rd. Hernandez would only start 5 more games the rest of the year, but would get into 14 games total, with 7 walks in 41 PA. Meanwhile, Kurpiel was actually called up on September 10th, which was the day that Lou Brock broke Maury Wills’s single season stolen base record. But the Cards were in a very tight pennant race with the Pittsburgh Pirates at the time, and Red Schoendienst never put Kurpiel in a game. In addition to Hernandez, the Cards had Jim Dwyer and Jose Cruz pinch hitting from the left side and the switch-hitting Jerry Mumphrey. September 11, 1974 was a 25-inning game against the Mets at Shea Stadium, which the Cardinals finally won after Bake McBride scored all the way from first base on a wild pickoff throw from Mets pitcher Hank Webb. The Cardinals used 26 players in that game, only 7 of whom were pitchers, and Kurpiel still did not get in the game. If Schoendienst wasn’t going to use Kurpiel in that game, he never would unless it was a dire emergency. According to a database kept by SABR, Kurpiel became just the 12th Cardinal player in history to be a phantom player. That means that he was on the club’s active roster, was present in the dugout and available to play, but ended up never getting into a major league game. He was the first such Cardinal player since 1941, and the Cards have not had a phantom player since Kurpiel.
The Cards traded Joe Torre to the Mets after the 1974 season to open up the first base job for Hernandez. Although Kurpiel had shown some power it wasn’t overwhelming, and most problematically, he was now out of minor league options, despite not turning 21 until January of 1975. Kurpiel had no real shot to play the outfield for the Cards. The club was set with Lou Brock in left, Bake McBride in center and Reggie Smith in right. Although Kurpiekl had the arm for right field, he did not have the speed to patrol the wide open spaces in Busch Stadium, and there were already 10 other outfielders on the club’s 40-man roster that was filed in October of 1974, including relatively young players like Mumphrey, Dwyer, Hector Cruz and Luis Melendez. The Cards ended out outrighting Kurpiel to AAA Tulsa in November of 1974, then flipping him along with infielder Rudy Kinard to the Montreal Expos in December for 36-year old first baseman Ron Fairly, who was designed to serve as insurance at first base for Hernandez.
After hitting just .175 for the AAA Memphis Blues to start the 1975 season, the Expos flipped Kurpiel to the Detroit Tigers’ AAA Evansville club on May 31st as the player to be named in an August 1974 trade that had sent OF Jim Northrup to Montreal. Although Kurpiel turned it around for Evansville and helped that club win the Junior World Series, there was still no place for him on the Tigers’ 40-man roster, and the California Angels took him in the major league portion of the December 1975 Rule 5 draft, one of only 5 players selected that year. Still only 22 years old, Kurpiel didn’t stick on the roster in spring training, and the Angels sent him to AAA after the Tigers refused to buy him back for half of the $25,000 Rule 5 draft price.
Interestingly enough, the Cardinals organization actually got Kurpiel back. The Angels sent Kurpiel back to the Cardinals’ AAA Tulsa affiliate on July 30th, 1976 as the player to be named later in an earlier May trade that had sent catcher Ed Jordan to the Cardinals for infielder Mario Guerrero. He had still shown decent plate discipline with the Angels’ AAA affiliate, slashing .262/.380/.426 with 49 walks to only 53 strikeouts. He would only get into 29 games for Tulsa with a .280/.410/.427 line in 100 trips to the plate. He only had 8 home runs all season. Kurpiel caddied for Mets president M. Donald Grant at a Long Island, NY country club that offseason and told him he wanted to play for the club. On December 9th, 1976, the Cards traded Kurpiel to the Mets in a minor league deal for 1B Brock Pemberton and OF Leon Brown. He lasted in spring training as a non-roster invitee until the very end, but ended up in AAA again. Kurpiel lasted two seasons with AAA Tidewater, but his second was his worst minor league season by far at age 24, as he only slashed .222/.322/.326. He ended up with the Mexico City Reds in the Mexican League for 1979, but despite posting a .296 AVG in 138 games, was released before the 1980 season in an economy move. Having just turned 26 years of age, he was out of the game for good and ended up working as a driver for UPS for 30 years.
Kurpiel is just one of four players by my research that have signed major league contracts immediately upon being drafted and added to the Cardinals’ 40-man roster right away. The Cardinals did it the next year in 1972 with high school pitcher Dan Larson. The club then did it twice in 1998 with first-round pick J.D. Drew and second round pick, pitcher Chad Hutchinson. The last time was in 2010 with first round pick Zack Cox. The latter three were all college players. Although it worked out for Drew, he was a special player. Larson eventually made the majors with other clubs, but had a journeyman type major league career that lasted seven years and was over by the time he was 27. Hutchinson burned four minor league options and lasted just 3 games in the Cardinals’ 2001 bullpen before quitting baseball after the 2001 season to give the NFL a crack. The Cardinals ended up trading Cox to the Marlins for Edward Mujica at the trade deadline in 2012, and Cox never did break into the majors, retiring after the 2017 season. Since 2012, it has been illegal to sign a draft pick to a major league contract.