After 50 years and about 75,000 athletes, Bill Almon has a truly unique place in Ivy League athletics -- as the only player to be taken as the top pick in a draft in one of the four major professional leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL).
Of the hundreds of Ivy League athletes drafted in one of the four "major" sports (baseball, football, hockey, and basketball) only one has been selected in the first round, with the first pick: Bill Almon. Ask him about it, though, and he plays down the accomplishment. "I'm naturally very proud of it," he says, "but it's luck of the draw. That year San Diego was looking for a shortstop, and had picked [collegians] Dave Winfield and Dave Roberts" in previous years. Winfield became a Hall of Famer, and Roberts had a long major league career.
Growing up in Rhode Island, Brown was in Almon's consciousness early. "It was just part of the culture," he explains. But as he approached college after an outstanding high school sports career, Almon had a decision to make. In basketball he was the top scorer in Rhode Island, with several colleges offering him basketball scholarships. In baseball he was a three-time all-state player, and after the Padres drafted him in his high school senior year, he could play professional baseball immediately.
But Almon also was a fine student, graduating near the top of his class at Warwick Veterans High School, and he had the option of attending Brown. For Almon the decision was easy. "It was the influence of my parents," he explains. They taught me "an education is forever, that insurance policy."
Joining his brother Bob Almon '73 at Brown, majoring in sociology and playing basketball and baseball, Almon made his presence known on the baseball field. He earned first team All-Ivy honors in 1973 and 1974, was named an All-American, and was chosen by The Sporting News as College Baseball Player of the Year. At the time one scout said "he could range deep into the hole to his right, set himself, and fire the ball to first as well as any major league shortstop."
So perhaps it wasn't surprising when Almon was chosen first in the 1974 draft, ahead of such future superstars as Dale Murphy, Rick Sutcliffe, and Willie Wilson. He signed with the Padres, receiving a $100,000 bonus. And on September 2, 1974, in a game against the Atlanta Braves, Bill Almon became the first Brown alum to play major league baseball since Irving "Bump" Hadley pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1941.
He had a promising start, batting .316 in 16 games. The next two seasons were spent mostly in the minor leagues, but in 1977 he made the majors to stay, batting a respectable .261 and leading the National League in sacrifice bunts. But he had the misfortune of having future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith behind him in the minor leagues, and by the spring of 1978 Smith had overtaken him to become the Padres' starting shortstop.
This sent Almon towards that most undesirable designation, utility player, a role he would play over most of the remainder of his career. It's a title he's proud of today. "It meant I could play all positions," says Almon. "Father taught us all the positions to understand the game properly." And indeed he would nearly play them all over the course of his career, covering outfield, all infield positions, DH'ing, even catching one game.
For one season, though, Almon held down the shortstop position full time and gave a glimpse of what might have been had he been allowed to play every day.
The New York Mets had released him in December 1980, after batting .170 in 48 games. Almon was home in Rhode Island for the holidays, as was Roland Hemond, general manager of the Chicago White Sox. "Hemond read about my release in the local paper," recalls Almon, "and he gave me a call." Hemond couldn't offer him a spot on the roster, just a minor league contract with an invitation to White Sox spring training, but Almon jumped at the chance. "It was the best offer I had," he says.
Almon made the most of it, "I spent all January and February working out at Brown with my father," he told a New York Times reporter at the time. "They're very good about letting me use the indoor batting cage." Almon impressed Sox management, and when starting shortstop Todd Cruz was injured at the end of spring training he was named as Cruz' replacement. His manager? Tony LaRussa, who would go on to win 12 division titles with three different teams (he's still managing the St. Louis Cardinals), five league titles, and two World Series (including this year's). "LaRussa was easy to play for, remembers Almon, "he related well."
Playing shortstop every day Almon hit .301, tops among American League shortstops and making him the first Ivy Leaguer to bat over .300 since Dartmouth's Red Rolfe hit .329 for the 1939 New York Yankees. Chicago sportswriters voted him team Most Valuable Player. Was it a coincidence that he had such an outstanding year playing for a man who is likely to become a Hall of Fame manager? "Probably not," laughs Almon.
He was soon back in a utility role, however, and finished his career in 1988 with the Philadelphia Phillies, after 15 seasons.
After retiring Almon had a stint as Brown's baseball coach, but found it unexpectedly frustrating. "I really enjoyed the time spent with the players," he says, "but that was limited. I spent a lot of time doing [NCAA] paperwork." He currently is Vice President in charge of facilities and receivables for Claflin Contract Furnishings, a family business. "My brother Ted got the business, he's a real go-getter," says Almon. "We all invested in him, it's been a real family project ever since."
"I was lucky to get an Ivy education," says Almon, "I would not change one bit of my career."
— Stephen Eschenbach