Seahawks QB Russell Wilson traded to the Yankees.  Say what?

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Russell Wilson

One of the stories that got buried in the post-Super Bowl media coverage last week was Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson being traded to the New York Yankees.

Wait, isn’t that the wrong sport?  Actually not, since the Texas Rangers had previously drafted Wilson and technically had the baseball rights to him.  Sure, the trade to the Yankees was a publicity event for the Yankees and Wilson, but there have indeed been legitimate two-sport stars in pro football and baseball over the years.

Wilson was a high school baseball star in Virginia and was initially drafted out of high school by the Baltimore Orioles in the 41st round of the 2007 MLB Draft.  However, he went on to play baseball and football for three seasons with North Carolina State University and played two seasons in the Colorado Rockies minor league system during his college years.  The Rockies had drafted Wilson in the fourth round of the 2010 draft.

He transferred to the University of Wisconsin for his 2011 senior year to play football and ultimately decided on football as his career sport, signing with the Seattle Seahawks after a third-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft.  He has become one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL, winning the Super Bowl in 2013 and being selected for four Pro Bowls.

Wilson won’t likely try his hand at pro baseball again, but the latest former NFL player to pick up a bat and ball was Tim Tebow during the 2017 season.  He signed with the New York Mets organization to play in the Arizona Fall League in 2016, although he had not played baseball since high school.  The 29-year-old Tebow, who had been out of pro football since 2012, then appeared as an outfielder in the low minors with the Mets last season, demonstrating only marginal success (.226 BA, 8 HR, 58 RBI).

Two of the more noteworthy two-sport stars involving football and baseball are Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders.  They got to the major leagues via different paths, after starring in both sports during college.

Even though Jackson was a second-round pick of the New York Yankees in the 1982 MLB Draft, he attended Auburn University from 1982 to 1985, culminating his fabulous college football career as the Heisman Trophy winner.  He also played baseball for three seasons with Auburn, including a junior season with a slash line of .401/.500/.864, 17 HR, and 43 RBI.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made him the first overall draft pick in the 1986 NFL Draft, while MLB’s Kansas City Royals drafted in the fourth round that year.

While still at Auburn, Jackson believed that Tampa Bay had intentionally taken him on a visit to its football facilities that was not approved by the NCAA, in order to sway his decision to play football.  As a result, he was subsequently forced to quit Auburn’s baseball team during his senior season.  Consequently, he forewarned Tampa Bay he wouldn’t sign with them if they took him the draft, but they did anyway.  Jackson instead signed with the Royals and made his major-league debut in a September call-up later that season.  Jackson went on to play seven more seasons in the big leagues, including an All-Star Game appearance in 1989 when he homered in his first at-bat for the American League.

Jackson signed with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1987 after they drafted him in the seventh round.  He proceeded to play four seasons with them while still playing baseball.  However, he suffered a football career-ending hip injury during the playoffs with the Raiders in January 1991.  He attempted a comeback in the major leagues after hip replacement surgery that caused him to miss the entire 1992 baseball season.  A modern-day “Bionic Man,” he wound up playing parts of two seasons in 1993 and 1994 with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring.

After being drafted out of high school by the Kansas City Royals in the fifth round of the 1985 MLB Draft, Deion Sanders decided to play football and baseball at Florida State University.  During his junior year, the New York Yankees drafted him in in the 30th round, and he wound up signing with them to play in the minors during 1988.  He returned to Florida State to play his senior season in football, when he won the Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in college football.  The Atlanta Falcons picked the All-American defensive back/kick returner in the first round (5th overall) in the 1989 NFL Draft, and he became an All-Pro selection by 1992.

Sanders’ pro football and baseball careers overlapped from 1989 to 1995 and in 1997.  After two years with the Yankees, he played with the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, and San Francisco Giants in baseball.  Following five seasons with the Falcons, he played for the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, and Baltimore Ravens.  A six-time All-Pro selection, Sanders was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.  He was a career .263 hitter in the majors and batted .533 for the Braves in the 1992 World Series against Toronto.

Jackson wasn’t the only Heisman Trophy winner to have a career in pro baseball.

Vic Janowicz was a triple-threat player for Ohio State, winning the Heisman in 1950.  He initially passed up pro football offers to play baseball.  He reached the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953, followed by another season in 1954.  Altogether he appeared in 83 games as a reserve player, hitting .214.  He returned to football with the Washington Redskins in 1954, and after his 1955 season as a starter at running back, he suffered a serious brain injury in an automobile accident that left him partially paralyzed and ended his athletic career.

Howard “Hopalong” Cassady was another Ohio State running back who won the Heisman in 1955.  He also played baseball in college, leading the team in home runs in 1955 and stolen bases in 1956.  Cassady signed with the Detroit Lions in 1956 and was a member of the NFL Championship team in 1957.  He played seven seasons with the Lions and later played for the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles.  After his pro football career, Cassady eventually got back into baseball as a scout and minor-league coach in the New York Yankees organization.

Ricky Williams is best known as the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Texas and later an All-Pro running back in the NFL.  However, he also played professional baseball while in college.  He had been drafted out of high school in 1995 by the Philadelphia Phillies in the eighth round and wound up playing four seasons in their organization as an outfielder.  He was a career .211 hitter in 170 games.

Chris Weinke began his pro career in baseball as a 1990 second-round pick out of high school by the Toronto Blue Jays.  He rapidly progressed through their farm system as a first baseman, reaching the Triple-A level in 1995 as a 22-year-old.  However, after one more season, he quit baseball to pursue a football career.  He enrolled at Florida State University in 1997 to play football for head coach Bobby Bowden, who had previously recruited him in high school.  As the starting quarterback, he led the Seminoles to a national championship in 1999.  In 2000 he won the Heisman Trophy at age 28.  After playing his NFL rookie season in 2001 with the Carolina Panthers as the starting quarterback, he served four more seasons as a backup.

Current Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston was the youngest player to win the Heisman Trophy in 2013 while playing for Florida State.  He was drafted by the Texas Rangers out of high school in 2012, but decided to attend college instead.  He was an outfielder and pitcher on the Seminoles’ baseball team, but never pursued a professional baseball career.  He was the first overall pick by Tampa Bay in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway was a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Denver Broncos.  But before he began his pro football career, he played one season in the New York Yankees organization in 1982.  He was selected by the Baltimore Colts as the first overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft.  However, his father advised that Elway not play for Colts head coach Frank Kush, who had a reputation as a hard coach to play for.  Elway threatened the Colts that he would not sign, but would play pro baseball instead.  Ultimately the Colts traded him to the Broncos for offensive lineman Chris Hinton (the fourth overall pick in the draft) and a future first-round pick.  Elway would go on to play 16 seasons with the Broncos and is now the head of football operations for the team.

Before the days of the NFL becoming a lucrative sport for players, it wasn’t uncommon for gridiron players to cross over to baseball.  NFL-MLB combo players from that era included Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Thorpe, George Halas, Ernie Nevers, Greasy Neale, Cal Hubbard, and Ace Parker.

More recently, Carroll Hardy and Brian Jordan played both major sports.  Jake Gibbs was an All-American quarterback at Ole Miss and was drafted by both AFL and NFL teams in 1960, but opted for a major-league career with the New York Yankees.  Jay Schroeder played four seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization before becoming a Pro Bowl quarterback for the Washington Redskins.

Russell Wilson will probably get a chance to work out with the Bronx Bombers during spring training in Florida.  He’ll get to hang out with Yankees sluggers Aaron Judge and newly acquired Giancarlo Stanton, two of the largest players in the majors at 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-6, respectively.  Wilson would relish the thought of having those two studs blocking for him on the Seahawks’ offensive line.

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Richard Cuicchi

New Orleans baseball historian

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Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.

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