Hallelujah! The regular season is upon us again.
It’s time to turn our attention to the subject of trades made during the season. Mid-season trades are, of course, not as common as trades made during the offseason (although that seems to be changing in recent years, as we will explore). There are complicating factors that crop up when exchanging players between two (or occasionally more than two!) teams while a season is underway.
Perhaps it’s the audacity of teams agreeing that, the hell with the complications, let’s do it, that makes mid-season trades somehow more fun than offseason trades. It’s also this: for at least one of the teams involved in any mid-season trade, immediate payoff is anticipated. A mid-season trade is the very essence of a maneuver that demands short-term results, for at least one of the parties involved. Therefore there’s a distinct air of urgency about them, and usually it’s clear within a matter of months, sometimes within a matter of weeks, whether the trade has met its objective, again for at least one of the teams involved.
This is the first of what will be a monthly series examining the most prominent mid-season trades made during each month throughout history. There have been a whole lot of trades made over the years, so we’ll have to limit ourselves to looking only at the very biggest ones: the blockbusters.
How will we define blockbuster? It isn’t terribly precise: a trade involving at least one player who was, if not a full-fledged star, at least a prominent, established regular, either at or reasonably near the peak of his career. So a trade involving a Hall of Famer in his final phase, such as, say, Steve Carlton getting shuttled around at age 42, won’t be included. Nor will one involving a couple of kids, one of whom later blossoms into a big star, such as George Foster getting traded during his rookie year. To be included here, a trade had to be perceived as a blockbuster at the time it was made—these deals were all on the front page of the sports section for the teams involved, and many were front-page news across the country.
This month’s edition will look at blockbusters occurring after Opening Day, but before the end of April. Not surprisingly, this list isn’t nearly as long as those we’ll be scrutinizing in the months ahead: historically, the regular season didn’t start until mid-April (often more like late April), and generally it’s seemed to be the case that teams haven’t been as motivated to pull the trigger on a big deal so early in the young season.
The 1920s had been an era without much mid-season trading activity. But the 1930s were different, as illustrated by these two rather big ones taking place two days apart in early 1932, both involving the White Sox. The Pale Hose had finished in last place in 1931, and were off to another slow start in ’32 (5-8 through games of April 27th, 5-10 through the 29th), and clearly they were adopting a talent buyer’s posture, with 2-for-1 and 3-for-1 deals here.
But the specifics of these are puzzlers. Kress was a very good young shortstop-third baseman, but the White Sox had a 25-year-old Luke Appling already on hand at short, and proceeded to give Kress almost no action at third. And Berry was a decent catcher, but hardly a star, not someone you’d need to give up three guys (including Jolley, who was a fine hitter) to get. The White Sox surrendered a lot of talent in these moves, and it really isn’t clear what they were thinking. For what it’s worth, they finished the ’32 season with a record of 49-102.
This was a textbook circumstance of a contender (the Giants had finished third in 1942) sending a good prospect (that would be Ryan; Poland was just roster filler) to a bottom-feeder (the Braves had finished seventh in ’42) for a veteran star (Lombardi had led the league in batting average in ’42, but was 35 years old). It would take the 23-year-old rookie Ryan a year to settle in, but he turned out to be a solid player. Lombardi did well for the Giants, but with a wartime-draft-depleted roster, they thudded to last place in 1943 anyway.
Cullenbine was 31 years old, a switch-hitter with power and a veritable OBP machine who had given the Indians two outstanding years. Nonetheless, off to a 1-5 start in the early going of ’45, the Tribe decided they would find more value from two journeymen. Cleveland had finished in fifth in 1944, and they came in fifth again in ’45. The Tigers got a great year from Cullenbine and won the 1945 pennant.
April 30, 1951: In a three-club deal, the Philadelphia Athletics sent pitcher Lou Brissie to the Cleveland Indians and outfielder Paul Lehner to the Chicago White Sox; the Indians sent pitcher Sam Zoldak and catcher Ray Murray to the Athletics and outfielder-third baseman Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso to the White Sox; and the White Sox sent outfielders Gus Zernial and Dave Philley to the Athletics.
One of the most fascinating trades ever made.
Until that day, like the great majority of major league teams, the White Sox were still racially segregated, a whites-only operation. As of April 29, 1951, the only franchises deploying players of color were the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, and Boston Braves in the National League, and the Cleveland Indians in the American: four years following Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough, three-quarters of major league baseball remained segregated, and it was a valid question as to whether the general integration of the sport would ever occur.
Thus the White Sox’s acquisition of Miñoso was a very bold move, from several perspectives: not only were they joining the Indians as just the second integrated team in the AL (the St. Louis Browns had taken the step in mid-1947, only to quickly retreat), and not only were they becoming the first ball club to integrate in the city of Chicago, but they were also doing so with a black player who was Cuban, and thus facing full-scale cultural and linguistic obstacles along with the thorny racial issues. On top of that, with Paul Richards as their manager, the White Sox were the first ball club to integrate under a white Southerner’s direction.
Moreover, Miñoso was anything but an established major league talent. He was (apparently) 28 years old, but since being signed by the Cleveland organization in late 1948, had played in just 17 major league games, having spent nearly all of his time in the Pacific Coast League. Despite all this, at a point at which the White Sox were already off to a surprisingly good 6-4 start, general manger Frank Lane executed this huge deal, surrendering two standout regulars (slugging left fielder Zernial and switch-hitting center fielder Philley) in exchange for Miñoso and 30-year-old journeyman outfielder Lehner. It was, in every regard, an extremely high-risk decision, as there were a multitude of ways in which the acquisition of Miñoso might have been a disaster.
It paid off magnificently. The white Texan Richards managed the integration of the Spanish-speaking black into the White Sox’s clubhouse and lineup without incident. Miñoso responded with a brilliant, electrifying performance in his first opportunity for regular play in the majors. He was immediately a huge fan favorite in Chicago, and the question of racial integration of baseball in the city was emphatically resolved. Later that season, the White Sox deployed two African-American players (Sammy Hairston and Bob Boyd), and no White Sox edition since has failed to include players of color.
April 30, 1955: The Philadelphia Phillies traded catcher Smoky Burgess, outfielder Stan Palys, and pitcher Steve Ridzik to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielders Jim Greengrass and Glen Gorbous and catcher Andy Seminick.
Philadelphia and Cincinnati had been nearly exact equals in the middle of the National League standings in 1954, but they were off to different starts in ’55: the Phillies at 9-6, the Reds at 4-11.
In that ’54 season, Burgess had burst out with a tremendous .368 performance as a 27-year-old platoon catcher. But his platoon partner, 28-year-old Stan Lopata, had also stepped forward with a terrific year. Consider the line of the Phillies catching duo in 1954: .334/.405/.531, 140 OPS+, including 41 doubles, 10 triples, 18 homers, and 75 walks in 604 at-bats. These two guys were hitting up a flipping storm.
So the Phillies reasonably concluded that they had a talent surplus behind the plate, and in early 1955 decided to convert Burgess into Greengrass, a 27-year-old corner outfielder who’d driven in 95 runs in ’54, and 100 in 1953. (Palys and Gorbous were both rookies, and neither would ever be a regular. Seminick had once been a star, in fact for the Phils, but was now a role player, and Ridzik was a nothing-special long reliever-spot starter.)
Burgess would continue to hit wonderfully for the Reds, although it’s questionable why they acquired him, given that they had the young Ed Bailey on hand. Greengrass would struggle and then completely collapse for the Phillies. Thus a deal that looked to be more sensible from the Phils standpoint turned out much better for the Reds.
Speaking of Ed Bailey …
April 27, 1961: The San Francisco Giants traded second baseman Don Blasingame, catcher Bob Schmidt, and a player to be named later to the Cincinnati Reds for catcher Ed Bailey. (On May 13, 1961, the Giants sent pitcher Sherman Jones to the Reds, completing the deal.)
The Giants had given up quite a bit (Daryl Spencer and Leon Wagner) to get Blasingame, but he’d turned out to be a major disappointment. By late April of ’61 he’d lost his second base job to Chuck Hiller, and when you’ve lost your second base job to “Iron Hands” Hiller, you’ve done some losing. This deal came out fine for the Giants, as Bailey did well while both Blasingame and Schmidt bombed for the Reds in ’61—though the Reds won the pennant that year anyway.
April 21, 1966: The Philadelphia Phillies traded pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, outfielder Adolfo Phillips, and first baseman-outfielder John Herrnstein to the Chicago Cubs for pitchers Larry Jackson and Bob Buhl.
The logic of a contending team sending a package of prospects to a rebuilding team for in exchange for established veterans is obvious from both perspectives. And at least in Jackson, the Phillies got exactly what they were looking for here: a rock-solid workhorse. But the risk of giving up prospects is that you never know for sure if one of them will rapidly bloom into a major star and go on to the Hall of Fame. Oops.
April 19, 1969: The Cleveland Indians traded pitchers Sonny Siebert and Vicente Romo and catcher Joe Azcue to the Boston Red Sox for first baseman-oufielder Ken Harrelson and pitchers Dick Ellsworth and Juan Pizarro.
Young fans may be familiar with “Hawk” Harrelson only as a free-spirited broadcaster, but trust me on this, he was a free-spirited ballplayer too. At the time of this trade, he was 27, wore longish “mod” hair and frequently sported a Nehru jacket, and had already been fired by Charlie Finley for having too much attitude—no small feat. He’d also led the major leagues in RBIs in 1968, but with the 1969 return of Tony Conigliaro from his terrible injury, the Red Sox accepted this Indians’ offer of a substantial pitching upgrade.
Harrelson, for his part, immediately announced he would retire from baseball instead of reporting to Cleveland. He was persuaded to change his mind after a few days; the Indians’ sudden offer of a two-year contract that nearly doubled his salary was probably helpful in that regard.
April 26, 1974: The New York Yankees traded pitchers Fritz Peterson, Steve Kline, Fred Beene, and Tom Buskey to the Cleveland Indians for first baseman Chris Chambliss and pitchers Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw.
The Yankees would never have become quite the juggernaut they were in the late 1950s and early 1960s without the kind assistance of the Kansas City Athletics, tossing them regular trade lollipops. Similarly, George Steinbrenner’s first great Yankee team owed a debt of gratitude to the incompetence of Cleveland Indians’ management, both in this deal and the Graig Nettles laugher.
Rather than lose Torrez to his impending free agency, Charlie Finley decided he’d be better off with this package. If Ellis had performed at anything close to his established level—in eight full seasons coming into ‘77, he’d been extremely consistent, with ERAs between 2.70 and 3.79—it would have paid off.
Buuuut, no. Here’s how Dock Ellis did in 1977:
- With the Yankees, in three starts and 20 innings, a 1.83 ERA
- With the A’s, in seven starts and 26 innings, a 9.69 ERA
In mid-June, an exasperated Finley sold Ellis to Texas, and for the rest of the year:
- With the Rangers, in 22 starts and 167 innings, a 2.90 ERA
The Dockster! You had to love him.
This one was a stunner. After having faced off in a seven-game World Series the previous October, both the Twins and Cardinals got off to bad starts in ’88, and then decided to swap veteran regulars.
Brunansky and Herr were complete opposite types, but actually quite similar in bottom-line ability. In ’88, Herr had some injuries with the Twins, and didn’t have a good year, while Brunansky had his usual solid season for the Cards—but the Twins rebounded from their slow start to come in second, while the Cardinals finished at 76-86, in fifth place.
Okay, none of the following deals meet the qualification as mid-season transactions; all occurred prior to Opening Day. But all were just before Opening Day, and well into the month of April, and they were just such stupendous blockbusters that we ought to talk about them anyway. So here we go.
The enormousness of this deal is difficult to overstate. Jones and Thomas were just prospects (though Jones would later emerge as a star). But $55,000 was a gargantuan sum in the baseball business of 1916. And Tris Speaker was 28 years old, and the close rival of Ty Cobb as the very best player in the game.
One of Branch Rickey’s famous maxims was, “It’s better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late.” Never was he more quick on the trigger than in this case. His tremendous young ace Dean had developed arm trouble in 1937 (the familiar explanation being that Dean attempted to come back too soon from the broken toe he suffered in that year’s All-Star Game, but I’ve often wondered if the sore arm would have come along anyway). In the spring of ’38, with Dean still hurting, Rickey wasn’t inclined to be patient, instead accepting this lavish offer from the Cubs.
The Mahatma had read the situation perfectly. Dean was able to use his impeccable control to give the Cubs effective results in very limited work in 1938, but after that he was basically done. Meanwhile, Davis and Shoun both had several good years for the Cardinals, and, oh yes, that small fortune in cash was nice too.
Frantic Frankie Lane was the general manager in Cleveland at this point, and was guilty on more than one occasion of making a trade for a trade’s sake. Later in 1960, for instance, he swapped managers with Detroit. But this particular deal, swung on the eve of Opening Day, was no doubt his silliest.
Kuenn was a very fine ballplayer, of course, and had been forging an outstanding career with the Tigers. But not only was he three years older than Colavito, in 1957, 1958, and 1959 Colavito had been a better ballplayer. Here are their Win Shares entering 1960:
Year Kuenn Colavito 1952 2 x 1953 19 x 1954 19 x 1955 22 1 1956 26 16 1957 15 18 1958 21 32 1959 25 29 Total 149 96
So not only could the 26-year-old Colavito have been expected to have a better future ahead of him than Kuenn, he was already enjoying a better present.
Nevertheless, Colavito had an off-year in his first season for Detroit, and for 1960, the Indians won this deal. However, Colavito rebounded strongly in ’61, and for the remainder of both of their careers, he was far and away superior to Kuenn. One a pure value-for-value basis, the trade wasn’t close.
Year Kuenn Colavito 1960 18 13 1961 10 33 1962 18 26 1963 14 21 1964 8 22 1965 3 28 1966 3 18 1967 x 10 1968 x 6 Total 74 177
But, wait a minute, I hear you saying. It isn’t this simple. Not only did Kuenn not spend the remainder of his career with Cleveland—indeed he was traded away in December of 1960—but Colavito himself came back to Cleveland, rejoining the Indians beginning in 1965. So instead of just comparing Kuenn and Colavito, it might make more sense to compile the comparative Win Shares of the entire chain of Indians players who were linked following the initial swap.
Kuenn was traded for Willie Kirkland and Johnny Antonelli, so we’ll count the Win Shares they accumulated for the Indians in the “Received” column below, while beginning in ’61, Kuenn’s Win Shares now go in the “Traded” category along with Colavito’s. Following 1963, Kirkland was swapped for Al Smith, so Smith’s Cleveland Win Shares get counted in 1964—er, they would have, if Smith had accumulated more than zero for Cleveland in ’64. He was at the end of the line that year (as Antonelli had been in 1961), and so by the end of 1964, the Kuenn-Kirkland-Antonelli-Smith line had petered out for the Indians.
But Colavito was still going strong. And the good news was that the Indians now got him back in a trade, along with backup catcher Camilo Carreon. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: in order to get Colavito and Carreon, Cleveland surrendered Johnny Romano, Tommie Agee, and—hoo boy—Tommy John. So all their post-1964 Win Shares get counted in the “Traded” column.
Carreon was essentially done following ’65. Colavito remained with the Indians through mid-1967, at which point he was traded for Jim King, who gave Cleveland zero Win Shares and then was done himself. Agee at that point had his best seasons yet to come, and John … well, let’s just say he had a whole long way yet to go.
Year Received Traded 1960 18 13 1961 18 43 1962 7 44 1963 11 35 1964 0 35 1965 30 42 1966 18 64 1967 5 36 1968 x 20 1969 x 45 1970 x 40 1971 x 29 1972 x 22 1973 x 20 1974 x 11 1975 x x 1976 x 13 1977 x 19 1978 x 12 1979 x 23 1980 x 19 1981 x 10 1982 x 12 1983 x 10 1984 x 7 1985 x 1 1986 x 6 1987 x 13 1988 x 7 1989 x 0 Total 107 651
It ain’t a pretty picture. Sorry, Indians’ fans.
Next month: the May blockbusters.