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05/06/08 9:50 AM ET

The greatest Draft in baseball history

Forty years ago, Dodgers strike gold with their picks

In the fickle world of Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft, 1968 was a very good year.

The haul varies annually in a process proverbially likened to trying to catch fish barehanded, but that summer fetched a mother lode of future Major Leaguers.

Selections in that Draft included Bill Buckner, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Bobby Valentine, Geoff Zahn, Joe Ferguson and Tom Paciorek.

Quite impressive, considering the decorated careers each of them went on to have.

But there's more, of course: All of those players were plucked by one team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in what is still recalled 40 years later as the greatest single Draft in the sport's history.

These aren't simply names out of a murky past, not merely men who would appear in diverse box scores for the next two decades.

They became the heart of the dominant Dodgers teams of the 1970s, guys who matured together in the Minors, then together formed the nucleus of four pennant winners and a World Series champion.

On June 6, 1968 -- the 24th anniversary of the original D-Day, the Allied Forces' invasion of Normandy -- the Dodgers mounted their own D-Day, drafting (in order) Valentine, Buckner, Ferguson, Paciorek, Garvey and Cey.

The six joined two already taken five months earlier in the now-extinct January phase of the Draft, Lopes and Zahn.

By September of the following year, when Valentine, Buckner and Garvey all made their quick big league debuts, the Great Catch began to surface in Dodger Stadium. By September 1972 -- four years and change since their selections -- all were in Dodger Blue.

The Draft of '68 left its first footprint in Dodger Stadium's red-brick infield dirt on Sept. 2, 1969, when a 19-year-old Valentine pinch-ran for Jim Lefebvre in the ninth inning of a loss to the Mets.

Its last step came on Oct. 3, 1982, when Cey grounded out in the ninth inning of a loss in San Francisco.

In between, the Dodgers had one losing season (barely, going 79-83 in 1979) and soared 268 games above .500.

Quite a legacy.

Bill Schweppe, the Dodgers' assistant farm director in 1968, still proudly rated that Draft a few years before his death in 2000 "as a nine-plus, reserving a 10 for somebody who might come along and do a better job. But that won't be easy."

It wasn't easy for the Dodgers, who considered themselves at a great disadvantage when the Draft was instituted in 1965. Renowned for their extensive and shrewd scouting, the Dodgers' hustle and deep pockets served them well in the era of frontier player development; you found them, you signed them.

The Draft leveled that playing field and tied the Dodgers' hands.

"The Draft was in its infancy, and we didn't have much experience," Schweppe had recalled.

So Al Campanis, Los Angeles' director of scouting under general manager Buzzie Bavasi, decided to pick the brains of those who did have experience in drafting, and projecting, talent.

While collaborating with the author on a planned autobiography a few years before his death, in June 1998, Campanis recalled preparing for that 1968 Draft by consulting some respected NFL brains: Dan Reeves, then the owner of the Los Angeles Rams; Sid Gillman, coach of the San Diego Padres; and Al LoCasale, later a Raiders executive but then in charge of the draft for the Chargers.

In the days prior to the baseball Draft, Campanis digested the Dodgers' stats sheet -- they had been the National League's worst hitting team (.236) in 1967 and were even more inept in 1968, held to one run or blanked in 20 of 49 games through May -- and took a meeting with club owner Peter O'Malley.

"In our meeting before the Draft," Campanis had recalled, "I remember telling Peter that we were going for bats. We couldn't buy a hit. So every time we had a tough choice to make, we went for the better hitter."

And they kept going, and going. In the two phases combined, the Dodgers made 101 selections (the modern Draft consists of 50 rounds). Of the 14 who eventually reached the Majors, only four were pitchers (Zahn, who reached the Dodgers in 1973 but would have greater success with the Twins and the Angels, as well as Doyle Alexander, Sandy Vance and Mike Pazik).

"The thought was that you didn't know how well you would do signing these players," Schweppe had remembered, "so you better draft as many as you can."

And no one ever drafted better.

"That might have been the best Draft in the history of baseball, because everyone played a long time in the big leagues," Paciorek reflected a few years ago while serving as an analyst on Washington Nationals telecasts. "Some had better careers than others, but they were all tremendous players with good baseball minds. And they were all great people."

The core of the nucleus, of course, was an immortal infield.

Around the horn, Cey, Bill Russell (a ninth-round pick in the 1966 Draft), Lopes and Garvey formed the Dodgers' own Fab Four from June 23, 1973, until Oct. 18, 1981 -- Game 6 of their World Series triumph over the Yankees.

Their eight and a half seasons together broke the existing longevity mark held by the Cubs' fabled turn-of-the-century infield of Tinkers, Evers and Chance.

"It's so unique. It's a record that can't be broken," Garvey said a couple of years ago during a Dodger Stadium reunion that kicked off the club's 25th anniversary celebration of the 1981 World Series. "The business has changed. You can't keep one guy for eight years, never mind four.

"And as a whole, I always thought we were greater than the individual parts."

The year 1968 was an electric, turbulent and formative time for the nation. Young people turned on, tuned in, dropped out and didn't trust anyone over 30. College campuses were hothouses of independent thinking. Generations bonded on both sides of a line drawn by a faraway war.

For many, "1968" and "draft dodgers" still evoke memories of young men hiding out in Canada.

But baseball fans still recall it in capital letters -- the Draft Dodgers who shaped the game's history.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.