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When Deion Sanders Played Major League Baseball (and NFL Football)

When Deion Sanders Played Major League Baseball (and NFL Football)

He had his best season with the Atlanta Braves, while playing on Sundays too.

Deion Sanders is in the news again, as the new head coach for the NCAA Colorado Buffaloes, more than 20 years after he played his last Major League Baseball game in 2001. Anyone under 30 likely knows him only as a football guy.

In the 1990s, however, Deion Sanders made headlines as a two-sport player at the highest level, in both the National Football League and Major League Baseball, but he’s known more for his football career, which lasted longer than his baseball career and had more highlights.

In May 2023, John Smoltz (who was on the Braves during Sanders’ years there) reflected on Sanders’ talent and the potential to be one of baseball’s great players. “There’s no question. I still maintain that if Deion Sanders would’ve played baseball his entire career, he would’ve been one of the greatest leadoff hitters to ever play the game because he was raw. He’s the best athlete I’ve ever seen.”

Sanders is the only player ever to appear in a Super Bowl (twice a champion) and a World Series. To refresh your memory, here’s a look at the life of Deion Sanders in Major League Baseball.

1989: Sanders makes his MLB debut with the Yankees.

Deion Sanders made his MLB debut at the end of May 1989 with the Yankees. He played in only 14 games his first season and batted just over .230. His first game was also a few months before he made his NFL debut as a cornerback with the Atlanta Falcons—of course, that meant his baseball season ended when football training camp started.

Sanders recorded a milestone that year—he became the first man ever to hit a home run in the Majors and score a touchdown in the NFL in the same week. While sportswriters and fans may have seen his dual-sport talents as something special, the NFL and MLB didn’t quite see it the same way. Each League likely saw it as a distraction from their own sport.

1990: New York, New York. He doesn’t make it there.

Although he made the Yankees’ Opening Day roster in 1990, Sanders had a disappointing season (he hit under .160). Midseason, he expressed doubt about staying on the team because training camp was starting, and he also picked that time to ask for a bigger salary for the next year.

Instead of granting that request, the Yankees ended negotiations and put him on waivers. The Yankees’ General Manager said that Sanders should concentrate on baseball instead of football, to develop into a better baseball player.

Photo by Erik Drost

The Atlanta Braves: the best years of his baseball life.

Sanders was picked up by the Braves, which made sense since the Falcons were in the same city. In 1991, Sanders played in 54 games that season, leaving at the end of July for nearly the rest of the regular season, once again, to join the Atlanta Falcons. He did rejoin the team for games in late September and three games to end the season.

He had a decent season, hitting .270 and helping the Braves capture the NL West title. However, he was not happy with having to leave baseball halfway through the season. He wanted to change that.

Photo by Chase Peeler

The 1992 NLHS

Ahead of the 1992 MLB season, Sanders was able to rework his arrangement with the NFL to play more baseball. He reported to training camp but was given permission to join the Braves if they reached the postseason. He played the entire month of August and had more at-bats than the year before. He was even in the dugout for a few games in September.

As the Braves’ season wound down and the team had a postseason berth in hand, Sanders joined the Braves for midweek regular-season games in October to tune up for the MLB playoffs.

  • He played on October 1stand 2nd (Thursday and Friday), two games the Braves won
  • But two days later, on October 4th (a football Sunday), he was with the Falcons where he had good kick-return yardage in a win over the Green Bay Packers

1992: his best season in baseball.

  • He was on the Falcons’ sideline for their game against Miami during the day, and then flew to Pittsburgh that evening for the game between the Braves and the Pirates
  • Though he wasn’t in the lineup for the Braves that night, he was the first man ever to play in two professional leagues on the same day

Although Sanders had little action in the NCLS and modest stats, the Braves took the Series and moved on to the World Series against Toronto. Sanders was ready.

  • He started four games in left field
  • He hit for a .533 average, scored four runs and had eight hits, including two doubles
  • He had five stolen bases
  • His on-base percentage was almost .600

He was still only 24 years old.

More baseball and football to play.

In 1993, the Braves had a good team and Sanders had a decent season, playing in over 90 games and batting a decent .275. The Braves won their division again, but lost to the Phillies in the NLCS. Sanders was used little during that Series.

In 1994, a season shortened by the baseball strike, Sanders was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. Sanders would play for the Cincinnati Reds (twice) and the San Francisco Giants through 2001, skipping three full seasons to focus on football only.

He was able to play both in the NFL and MLB over the span of eight years. “Football is my wife and baseball is my mistress,” he was quoted as saying.