Cooperstown Confidential: The winter meetings of 1971by Bruce Markusen
December 02, 2011
I still follow baseball's winter meetings, like those that will open in Dallas on Monday. It’s the one time during the offseason where baseball has a chance to knock the other sports off the back pages for three or four days. Unfortunately, over the last 20 years or so, those meetings have become more style than substance. A few free agents change teams, but relatively few trades are made; most general managers say they’re still “laying groundwork” for making deals later in the winter. Still, I can always hope that the meetings will generate some real news.
Once upon a time, the winter meetings actually churned out headlines more proficiently than a sensationalist tabloid. This was particularly the case exactly 40 winters ago.
During the latter days of November 1971, baseball’s general managers made the Arizona desert into a veritable flea market. A flood of news conferences and announcements poured through the suites and lobby of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, where the 24 general managers set up shop, talked with each other, and traded and traded and traded.
The first wave of transactions took place on Monday, Nov. 29, with six teams executing a series of three trades, all blockbusters. Chris Jaffe touched on these in THT Live the other day.
In a swap of star pitchers and staff aces, the Giants sent Gaylord Perry and touted young shortstop Frank Duffy to the Indians for Sam McDowell, one of the era’s hardest throwing pitchers. In another major exchange, the A’s acquired two-time no-hit left-hander Ken Holtzman from the Cubs for outfielder Rick Monday, best known for being the first player taken in the first amateur draft of 1965.
Still, as big a ripple as both deals caused, they paled in comparison with the day’s biggest trade: the Reds’ swap of power-hitting first baseman Lee May and infielders Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for second baseman Joe Morgan, infielder Denis Menke, outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister, and right-handed starter Jack Billingham. The grand totals for the day read like something out of a fantasy league. Six teams, three trades, 13 players, a half-dozen household names, and two future Hall of Famers.
Still, there was more news to come, news that would dwarf the activity of Nov. 29. Three days later, on Dec. 2, major league teams engineered eight trades, involving a total of 30 players. The slate of activity included a three-player deal between Kansas City and Houston, in which the Royals acquired promising first baseman John Mayberry from the Astros for two promising young pitchers, Jim York and Lance Clemons. In the biggest deal of the day, the Orioles sent star outfielder Frank Robinson and veteran reliever Pete Richert to the Dodgers for young right-hander Doyle Alexander and three minor leaguers. After acquiring Robinson, the Dodgers sent slugging first baseman Richie Allen—one of the era’s best and most controversial talents—to the White Sox for standout left-hander Tommy John and an obscure utility infielder named Steve Huntz, who would become best known for wearing the wrong helmet on his 1972 Topps card.
By the time the winter meetings ended on Dec. 3, major league teams had combined to make 15 trades, while swapping an unprecedented 53 players. The burst of off-season activity served two purposes. The series of blockbuster deals generated headlines in newspapers and sports weeklies, particularly The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, keeping baseball’s hot stove churning during the NFL’s post-season push. More significantly, the wave of trades created a series of aftershocks that would affect the game’s landscape for years to come.
At the time, the swap of the 33-year-old Gaylord Perry for the 29-year-old Sam McDowell seemed like a smart deal for the Giants and their owner/general manager, Horace Stoneham. After all, they were acquiring the younger pitcher and the harder thrower, not to mention the guy who happened to be left handed. Unfortunately, McDowell had thrown a ton of innings. Just as critically, the Giants probably did not realize the extent of McDowell’s drinking problems, and how they would derail his career, making him an ex-Giant by 1973 and putting him out of the major leagues by 1975.
Meanwhile, Perry went on win a league-best 24 games for the Indians in 1972 and 21 more games in 1974, when he captured the American League’s Cy Young Award. Unfortunately, the Indians didn’t finish any higher than fourth in the AL East, but they couldn’t reasonably blame the future Hall of Famer for their poor place in the standings. Perry would continue to pitch until 1983, seven years after McDowell’s forced retirement.
Another major American League award would be won by one of the other superstars involved in the winter trade-fest of 1971. For much of his career, Allen had sparred with managers, first with Gene Mauch and Bob Skinner in Philadelphia and then with Walter Alston in Los Angeles. Thanks to the handiwork of Sox GM Roland Hemond, Allen would find his ideal manager in the Windy City.
White Sox skipper Chuck Tanner, known as the ultimate player’s manager, told longtime Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman that Allen “ought to help us win at least 20 games with his bat.” An exaggeration to be sure, but not by as much as some skeptics would have thought. Motivated by the always-optimistic Tanner, Allen led all AL batters in slugging percentage, RBIs and walks in 1972, while carrying the Sox to within a five-and-a-half-game finish of a far more talented A’s team. It was Allen’s best season ever—and would earn him the league’s MVP Award in near unanimous fashion.
By the winter of 1971, the Royals had played three full seasons as an American League expansion team. Although they were hardly ready for contention in the AL West, the addition of the 22-year-old Mayberry gave their offense a foundation from which to build. By the time the Royals became a full-fledged playoff team in 1976, Mayberry had developed into a legitimate cleanup hitter. With Mayberry, George Brett, Hal McRae and Amos Otis forming the nucleus of the Royals’ offense, Kansas City won back-to-back division titles in ’76 and ’77.
Other trades played even larger roles in affecting outcomes across the major leagues. Few would benefit as much as the game’s budding dynasty, the one taking root in Oakland. Acting as his own general manager, Charlie Finley managed to swindle Cubs counterpart John Holland. The addition of Holtzman, a Jewish southpaw who had clashed with a bigoted Leo Durocher in Chicago, gave the A’s a third top-flight starter after Catfish Hunterand Vida Blue. Given the chronically injured status of right-handers Chuck Dobson and Blue Moon Odom, the A’s needed another reliable starter even more badly.
With Holtzman in tow and their pitching staff a notch deeper, the A’s became a more formidable foe, particularly in the postseason. From 1972 to 1974, Holtzman won four of five World Series decisions while posting an ERA of 2.55. During that same span, the crossfiring left hander pitched even more effectively in the American League Championship Series, forging a miniscule ERA of 1.55, with two wins in three decisions. Without Holtzman’s clutch postseason pitching, not to mention his nearly 20 wins and 250 innings per season from 1972 to 1974, the A’s might not have won three consecutive World Championships.
In contrast, other than Houston’s disastrous loss of Morgan, no trade had more of a negative impact than the Orioles’ decision to trade Frank Robinson, their best all-round player and most forceful presence in the clubhouse, where he ruled Baltimore’s famed “Kangaroo Court.” Although an aging player at 36, Robinson’s departure accelerated the Orioles’ fall from grace. The Orioles thought they could replace Robby with Merv Rettenmund—a .318 hitter as a kind of super-utility outfielder in 1971—but he flopped as an everyday player, while fellow outfielders Paul Blair and Don Buford slipped badly, causing the defending American League champions to fall to third place in 1972.
The Orioles bounced back to win the AL East the next two seasons, but lost both of their Championship Series match-ups to the eventual World Champion A’s. Although Robinson’s presence certainly wouldn’t have guaranteed a victory over the A’s, the Orioles would have liked him in the lineup over Rettenmund and a slew of journeymen. Rettenmund’s struggles prompted his trade to the Reds in the winter of ‘73.
Although the Orioles clearly missed Robinson’s presence, he actually proved a disappointment in Los Angeles. Much like Allen before him, F. Robby did not bond well with longtime manager Alston. He lasted one injury-plagued season at Chavez Ravine before being dispatched to the Angels, where he revived in 1973. Two years later, Robby would make history with the Indians, as the major leagues’ first African-American manager. With regard to the ‘72 Dodgers, they did finish a respectable third in the National League West, but that still left them 10.5 games off the pace of the rejuvenated Reds.
No team enjoyed a greater benefit from the ripples of activity at the 1971 winter meetings than the developing “Big Red Machine,” which renovated its infield at three of four positions in one fell swoop. In dispatching with May as part of the trade with the Astros, Reds GM Bob Howsam cleared out first base for Tony Perez, who had been playing out of position at third base. Menke, a much better fielder with more range than Perez, would strengthen the left side of the infield. The quality of the right side of the Reds’ infield would take a step upward with the addition of Morgan, who was a very good player during his days in Houston but had not yet become a star. Morgan, an all-round Hall of Fame talent, replaced the limited Helms, a good defender who couldn’t hit for either average or power. Most importantly, the theft of Morgan provided The Machine with the missing link to its offense, which had lacked Morgan’s speed and his prolific ability to reach base.
The Reds certainly understood what Morgan could provide them. When a reporter asked Sparky Anderson about Morgan’s .256 batting average, the Cincinnati manager dismissed the statistic and revealed himself as someone who was ahead of his time when it came to sabermetric thought. “Here’s a guy who gets on base an awful lot of times,” Anderson told Cincinnati sportswriter Earl Lawson. “His on-base ratio is unbelievable, like last year—149 hits and 88 walks.” Those numbers helped Morgan compile a respectable .351 on-base percentage.
Morgan would get better—much better. Enjoying a career breakthrough in 1972, Morgan led the National League with 115 walks and a .419 on-base percentage, helping the Reds win the pennant and come within one game of the World Championship. Three years later, the man known as “Little Joe” spearheaded the Reds to their first World Series victory of the Anderson era, batting a career-high .327 and leading the league with a .471 on-base percentage on the way to winning the NL’s MVP Award. Morgan repeated as league MVP the following season, compiling a league-best .576 slugging percentage, as the Reds easily defended their title. How good was Morgan in 1975 and ‘76? He was the best player in the game, that’s how good.
While the 15 officially completed trades at the 1971 winter meetings created a stir, there were other blockbuster deals that were rumored, but did not take place. In some ways, the rumored trades were just as fascinating as the deals that came to pass.
Braves president and general manager Paul Richards offered future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda to numerous teams as part of an effort to improve his suspect pitching staff. Richards tried to pry Holtzman from the Cubs, John from the White Sox, and McDowell from the Indians, but watched all of those teams make deals with other clubs. While at the winter meetings in Phoenix, the Braves also discussed a deal that would have sent 1970 National League batting champion Rico Carty to the Phillies as part of a deal for right-hander Rick Wise and side-arming lefty reliever Joe Hoerner. (If that trade had occurred, the Phillies might never have acquired Steve Carlton, who would join Philadelphia in a steal-of-a-deal for Wise in February of 1972.) By the time the winter meetings ended, Richards and the Braves managed only one minor trade: a swap of backup catchers, with lefty-swinging Hal King going to the new Texas Rangers for the defensive-minded Paul Casanova.
Like the Braves, the Cardinals tried to swing a deal with the Cubs for Holtzman, but refused to part with any of the three high-grade outfielders that Chicago requested: veterans Matty Alou or Lou Brock, or a young speedster named Jose Cruz. A trade for Brock would have been particularly interesting given that the Cubs had originally owned the Hall of Fame left fielder, only to swap him to St. Louis as part of the infamous Ernie Broglio trade. As for Alou, the Cards would trade him to the A’s the following summer for veteran right-hander Diego Segui, a forkball specialist who allegedly augmented his repertoire with a spitball.
While the Dodgers made news with the Robinson deal, another Southern California team, the Angels, considered parting with right-hander Andy Messersmith, one of two men who would challenge baseball’s reserve clause in 1975. One particularly hot rumor had the Angels sending Messersmith to the rival Dodgers for a package of three players: slick-fielding first baseman Wes Parker, young outfielder Bill Buckner and veteran left-hander Claude Osteen. But Angels GM Harry Dalton decided to keep Messersmith (only to trade him to the Dodgers after the 1972 season for a package of Robinson, infielder Billy Grabarkewitz, pitchers Bill Singer and Mike Strahler and a young outfielder named Bobby Valentine.)
Another rumored Robinson deal at the winter meetings had the Yankees sending left-hander Fritz Peterson to Baltimore—the Yankees would have loved nothing better than to put Robinson in right field, next to Bobby Murcer and Roy White—but the O’s might have been leery of trading within their division. If that trade had occurred, the more memorable (and more infamous) wife swap between Peterson and fellow Yankees left-hander Mike Kekich might not have happened. Kekich and Peterson would exchange wives, children and family dogs during the spring of 1973.
Prior to trading McDowell to the Giants, the Indians considered a three-man package offered by the Tigers. The proposed deal would have netted second baseman Dick McAuliffe, center fielder Mickey Stanley and journeyman left-hander Mike Kilkenny for the Indians. Concerned about McAuliffe’s age, Cleveland turned down the offer. The Indians would eventually get their hands on Kilkenny, a marginal pitcher who would become best known for playing for four teams in 1972.
Before agreeing on the deal with the Astros involving the developing Mayberry, Kansas City considered making deals for three aging first basemen. The Royals talked trade with the Braves (for Cepeda), the Phillies (Deron Johnson), and the Rangers (Frank Howard). All of those negotiations fell through, a fortunate occurrence for the Royals given that the major league careers of Cepeda, Johnson and Howard would all end completely by 1975.
Finally, the Mets talked to the Cubs about the availability of Ron Santo as part of their never-ending search for a third baseman. The Cubs inquired about catching and bullpen help, but the Mets’ lack of depth at both positions prevented them from making a more serious run at Santo.
Will we ever see a winter meeting like we did in 1971? It’s not likely. What happened in 1971 cannot happen in 2011, not with the complications of free agency, expensive contracts, no-trade clauses, 10-and-5 five rules, and more cautious general managers. Thanks to a swap meet that saw more than 50 players change uniforms, baseball throughout the 1970s underwent a drastic and undeniable facelift. Within a span of five winter days in 1971, major league general managers made a series of decisions that would affect one Cy Young and three Most Valuable Player awards, the beginnings of a Royals foundation, the derailing of Baltimore’s American League championship run, the pitching puzzle of Oakland’s “Swingin’ A’s,” and the clockwork of the Big Red Machine.
Now, that was a set of winter meetings to remember.
References and Resources
The Sporting News
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.