Yankees History: The Billy Cannon, Jr. Saga

On the anniversary of the day they drafted him, let’s take a look back at Billy Cannon, Jr, his brief tenure as a Yankee, and the ultimate sports dad that helped make and break it all.

In June of 1980, the Yankees made Billy Cannon, Jr., a high school outfielder from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, their third round pick in the amateur draft. That, however, isn’t really where this story begins.

The story actually begins with Cannon’s father, Billy Cannon, Sr., who, during the months leading up to the draft, cemented his status as a Hall of Fame (or shame, depending on your outlook) sports dad.

Cannon, Sr. was an absolute legend in the Louisiana sports scene. He was a two-time All-American at LSU, and even won the Heisman Trophy in 1959. He then went on to a ten-year professional career with the AFL’s Houston Oilers, Oakland Raiders and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. He’s a member of the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and a former member of the College Football Hall of Fame before that honor rescinded because of a counterfeiting scam he masterminded in the 1980s.

Speaking of counterfeiting… Let’s get back to the aforementioned Billy Cannon, Jr., and the 1980 draft. You see, Papa Cannon and his boy wanted to be a part of the Yankees organization. Unfortunately, the draft is in place to protect the league from having all of the good players sign with the richest teams, so the two couldn’t guarantee the Yankees would draft the junior Cannon. Or could they?

Papa Cannon thought he could, and he took his best stab at it. How, you ask? Well, no team wants to draft a kid they know for sure won’t sign with them, do they? Well, that’s what Papa Cannon was banking on. The Elder Cannon began sending telegrams to all of the other Major League Baseball teams stating that, in no uncertain terms, his boy would be attending college on a football scholarship, and not signing a professional baseball contract with anyone, and drafting his boy would be a waste of a pick (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist).

Enter shady, pre-suspension George M. Steinbrenner. It seems that, all the while that Papa Cannon was sending telegrams to other teams insisting his son was college-bound, he had already agreed to a behind-the-scenes deal with “The Boss.” Assured that no other team would draft Cannon now that the telegram writing campaign was in full swing, Steinbrenner agreed to pay Junior $300,000 to make him the next great New York Yankee.

Draft day came, and the Yankees took Cannon. I’m sure the other MLB owners were in disbelief at the Yankees cockiness, thinking they could sign the un-signable Cannon. They probably laughed as, just like Icarus had flown too close to the sun and melted his winged sandals, the Yankees were too high on their own supply and in for a rude awakening when Cannon would go off to the college gridiron a few months down the road. Actually, they probably smelled the distinct smell of b.s. immediately, because pre-suspension George Steinbrenner was involved.

As it turns out, it was the Commissioner of Major League Baseball who smelled that pungent smell. On June 26th, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided to step in. Marty Appel, a spokesman for the Commisioner’s office, delivered the message:

“The Commissioner has decided the New York Yankees selection of Billy Cannon Jr. in the June Free Agent draft should be set aside. The Commissioner is satisfied, after hearing two days of testimony, that the clubs were misled by a telegram sent by Cannon’s father saying that Cannon would not play professional baseball and would go to college instead.” (The Bulletin – June 27, 1980)

Yep. Just as his Yankees career was set to begin, both Billy Cannons’ Bronx dreams came to an abrupt end. Bowie voided the pick, and instead put Cannon into a special draft that was won by the Cleveland Indians. Rather than play for the tribe, Cannon, Jr. accepted a scholarship to play football at Texas A&M, effectively ending his baseball career. After all, this was pre-Lebron James Cleveland, where all he had to look forward to was hanging out with Joe Charboneau and Ron Hassey.

The Yankees, of course, denied any wrongdoing (a staple of the shady pre-suspension Steinbrenner era). No one from the front office, not even George himself, had a statement on the issue, but a Yankees Attorney named William A. Shea did. Shea said:

“Commissioner Kuhn’s decision is contrary to any evidence presented at the entire hearing charging that the Yankees had any discussion, directly or indirectly, relative to the prospective contract terms with Mr. Cannon prior to the draft.” (The Bulletin – June 27, 1980)

That’s right, they basically used the… “Who? I don’t know no Cannons” defense… nice work, gentlemen.

Anyway, Cannon played some baseball at A&M, but his main focus there was definitely football. In fact, he was eventually drafted in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys, although his career was tragically cut short just eight games into his rookie season by a bad hit and an existing congenital spinal condition. He retired at age 23, never to play again.

Had the Yankees gotten their way, perhaps the junior Cannon would have gone on to become a Yankees legend, and a Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer in his own right, but unfortunately, it just didn’t work out that way. At least he had a Hall of Fame sports dad to brag about!