Mid-Season Blockbusters:  June (Part One:  1919-1946)

We’ve reviewed the blockbusters that have taken place in the month of April, as well as those of May. This month we’ll look at the biggest trades consummated in June. As we’ll see, it’s been a very busy month at the mid-season trade market, for decades the busiest. This was the case for a very simple reason: both leagues mandated a trading deadline in the middle of June from the 1920s until 1985, and the deadline focused and stimulated trading activity.

In the early decades of professional baseball, there was no trading deadline, essentially because trades were rather infrequent. But by the 1915-20 period, trades in July and August began to become a regular occurrence (as we’ll see), often assuming the profile of the contender picking up key veteran help from the tail-ender in exchange for prospects and cash.

Many observers complained about this dynamic, noting that it violated the spirit of the level-playing-field pennant race, and even raised the specter of an also-ran being able to favor one contender’s chances over another. A particular deal that generated disquiet was the Irish Meusel-to-the-Giants transaction in late July of 1921 (which we’ll examine next month). In the wake of the Black Sox scandal, baseball was eager to quell anything that suggested the contest was less than square, and so in the mid-1920s a trading deadline of June 15 was imposed in both leagues. At least a couple of times in the early 1930s, the deadline appears to have been a few days past the 15th (perhaps because the 15th fell on a Sunday or something), but it was soon re-established as the 15th, and it would remain so for a very long time.

The trading deadline didn’t mean that no deals could be executed for the rest of the season, but it did mean that any player changing teams after the deadline would first need to pass through waivers. This effectively meant that transactions following the deadline would only include secondary players. Also, until the late 1970s, no player could be moved between leagues from any point between Opening Day and the end of the regular season (and until 1959, at any time all year long) without clearing waivers from every team in his league. This effectively ensured that all significant trades were intra-league.

June 27, 1919: The Boston Red Sox traded outfielder Amos Strunk and second baseman Jack Barry to the Philadelphia Athletics for outfielder Braggo Roth and infielder Red Shannon.

There had to be more to this one than meets the eye. Strunk and Barry had both been stars, but at this point both were in their 30s and on the decline. Why in the world would Connie Mack, whose A’s had a record of 13-36, on the way to their fifth straight dead-last finish, give up Roth, who was 26 and a first-rate all-around player, plus Shannon, a 22-year-old regular, to get them?

If cash was going from Boston to Philadelphia as well, that would explain it, but this was the period in which Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was infamously selling rather than buying; you may have heard about a big-name star he would sell the following winter. (And you may have noticed here that I see no reason to assume purity in Frazee’s motives or means.)

Unless Frazee somehow bamboozled Mack—which seems highly unlikely—something strange was going on here, but I just don’t know what it was.

June 8, 1920: The New York Giants traded shortstop Art Fletcher, pitcher Bill Hubbell, and cash to the Philadelphia Phillies for shortstop Dave Bancroft.

The cash clearly explains this one. The Giants exchanged Fletcher, a longtime star but now 35, for Bancroft, a star in his prime. Hubbell (no relation to Carl) was a second-tier prospect.

June 15, 1926: The Philadelphia Athletics traded outfielder Bing Miller to the St. Louis Browns for outfielder Baby Doll Jacobson.

June 15, 1926: The Philadelphia Athletics traded outfielder Baby Doll Jacobson and pitchers Slim Harriss and Fred Heimach to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Howard Ehmke and outfielder Tom Jenkins.

The mid-June trading deadline was now in place, and it stimulated an interesting parlay here.

Miller was a very good right fielder, Harriss was a good pitcher, and Heimach wasn’t a bad one. Jenkins was just a spare part. It all added up to the very high regard Connie Mack had for Ehmke, who’d been an outstanding pitcher for a long time, and who would come through with that amazing start to open the 1929 World Series, in Mack’s return to that arena after a very long fifteen years.

And, at the risk of going all Andy Rooney on you here: don’t you wish ballplayers still had nicknames like these? The A’s dealt a Bing for a Baby Doll, and then packaged him along with a Slim. They just don’t name ‘em like that anymore.

June 12, 1927: The New York Giants traded infielder Doc Farrell and pitchers Hugh McQuillan and Kent Greenfield to the Boston Braves for pitcher Larry Benton, catcher Zack Taylor, and infielder-outfielder Herb Thomas.

Farrell was just 25 years old and was hitting a lusty .387 as a sophomore, but the Giants, with Rogers Hornsby at second base, Travis Jackson at short, and Fred Lindstrom at third, could afford to expend him in order to obtain Benton, a solid pitcher who would do well for them in ’27 and be tremendous in ’28. The Giants were 26-23 and in fourth place at the time of this deal, and would come on strong to finish at 92-62, in third but just 2 games out.

For the ever-luckless Braves, Farrell would do okay for the remainder of 1927, but then completely flop in ’28, and never become the outstanding player it appeared he would.

June 13, 1930: The St. Louis Browns traded outfielder Heinie Manush and pitcher Alvin “General” Crowder to the Washington Senators for outfielder Goose Goslin.

Blockbusters don’t get much bigger than this whopper. Manush and Goslin were both major stars in their primes, two of the best left fielders of the era, and Crowder had won 21 and 17 games the preceding two seasons. At the time of this deal, the Senators were just a half a game out of first place. This one was seismic.

Goslin was better than Manush, but not so much better as to justify adding Crowder to the price. The Senators got the better of the trade, and would end up reacquiring Goslin for the 1933 season, when, pairing Goslin and Manush in the outfield, and with Crowder winning 24 games, Washington would achieve its (alas) most recent championship.

June 16, 1930: The St. Louis Cardinals traded pitchers Bill Sherdel and Fred Frankhouse to the Boston Braves for pitcher Burleigh Grimes.

In mid-June, the Cardinals were reeling. They’d lost 15 of 18, dropping from first place to fourth, and were prompted to make this deal to bring in the veteran spitballer Grimes. “Ol’ Stubblebeard” went 13-6 the rest of the way, and was one of the keys to a stunning 31-6 stretch-run drive that lifted the Cards from fourth place in late August, 10 games out, to the pennant.

June 12, 1932: The Detroit Tigers traded outfielder Roy Johnson and first baseman Dale Alexander to the Boston Red Sox for outfielder Earl Webb.

I strongly doubt most fans today can tell you who holds the major league record for doubles in a season. But when the 33-year-old journeyman Webb came out of nowhere to hit 67 two-baggers in 1931, it made quite a splash. Such a splash that the following June, despite the fact that Webb was back to performing unmemorably, the Tigers surrendered two good 29-year-old ballplayers to get him.

Johnson (whose younger brother was Indian Bob) would give the Red Sox several fine years. And Alexander, a big, strong fellow (nicknamed “Moose”) who was notorious for poor fielding — sort of the Dick Stuart of his day — hit a thunderous .372 the rest of the way in ’32, and finished eleventh in the league’s MVP vote.

June 16, 1933: The Brooklyn Dodgers traded outfielder Lefty O’Doul and pitcher Watty Clark to the New York Giants for first baseman Sam Leslie.

Leslie was a fine hitter who had the misfortune of coming to the majors with the Giants when Bill Terry was in his prime. So Leslie was deployed exclusively as a pinch-hitting specialist in 1931-32. But in early ’33, Terry broke his wrist, and Leslie filled in for him at first base and did quite well.

By mid-June, Terry’s injury had healed, and so the Giants leveraged the surplus at first base into the superb-hitting veteran O’Doul, who would be platooned in the outfield, and some pitching depth. The Giants played consistently well all season and won their first of three 1930s pennants.

June 17, 1933: The Boston Braves traded outfielder Wes Schulmerich, infielder Fritz Knothe, and cash to the Philadelphia Phillies for third baseman Pinky Whitney and outfielder Hal Lee.

Schulmerich was a pretty good hitter, but this deal was mostly a sale, and the key talent was Whitney, a top-notch defensive third baseman with a decent bat. The Braves were 25-31, in sixth place at the time of the trade, and would finish at 83-71, in fourth, just nine games behind the Giants, their best showing since 1916.

June 11, 1934: The Chicago Cubs traded first baseman Dolf Camilli to the Philadelphia Phillies for first baseman Don Hurst.

A heist of epic proportion.

Hurst had been a star, but as we noted here, was in the midst of a sudden decline. Camilli was a 27-year-old rookie, unproven at the major league level. In Chicago, Hurst fully bombed, while Camilli, as we discovered here, developed in Philadelphia into one of the elite run producers in all of baseball. Though Hurst was just one year older than Camilli, following this straight-up-trade he would produce 1, yes 1 (that’s singular) major league Win Share, while Camilli would produce 220.

June 14, 1936: The New York Yankees traded outfielder Ben Chapman to the Washington Senators for outfielder Jake Powell.

Two of the most disgusting characters of their day got swapped. In Bill James’s New Historical Baseball Abstract, he gives the “Cap Anson Award” to the most blatantly racist figure in baseball; Powell wins it for the 1930s, Chapman for the 1940s.

Both Chapman and Powell were 27 years old at the time of this deal. Chapman had been a very fine player for several years, and would continue to be so for several more. Powell was in just his second full year in the majors, but looked as though he’d be a good one too, but he quickly petered out after 1936.

June 11, 1937: The Boston Red Sox traded pitcher Wes Ferrell, catcher Rick Ferrell, and outfielder Mel Almada to the Washington Senators for outfielder Ben Chapman and pitcher Bobo Newsom.

There was a whole bunch of talent changing hands here, but unfortunately for the Senators, the most abundantly talented of all these good players – Wes Ferrell – would prove to be pretty close to finished, even though he was only 29. Almada would never develop into the star it appeared he might, and overall here the Red Sox ate the Senators’ lunch.

June 15, 1937: The New York Giants traded pitcher Frank Gabler and $35,000 cash to the Boston Bees for outfielder Wally Berger.

Berger had spent his career putting up semi-gaudy power numbers despite playing half his games in Braves Field, a terrible home run park. Thus being rescued by the Giants and brought to the Polo Grounds might have been the event that triggered the superstar recognition Berger had long deserved. But it was too late: though he was just 31, Berger was beginning to break down. He helped the Giants win the 1937 pennant, but his days as a full-season regular would prove to be behind him.

June 13, 1938: The Cincinnati Reds traded pitcher Al Hollingsworth, catcher Spud Davis, and $50,000 cash to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Bucky Walters.

Another in the sad series of transactions in which the Phillies ransomed off their best players in order to sustain their cash flow; the baseball equivalent of burning the furniture to heat the house. The National League pennant winners of 1939, 1940, and 1941 all included huge stars they’d purchased from the Phillies: Walters with the Reds, and Dolf Camilli and Kirby Higbe with the Dodgers.

June 15, 1938: The Washington Senators traded outfielder Mel Almada to the St. Louis Browns for outfielder Sammy West.

Almada was Mexican, one of the very few Latin American players in the majors in that era. He was just 25, tall and slim, a fleet-footed center fielder; if he’d been able to hit consistently, he might have had a long big league career. But his hitting was up and down, and the Senators gave up on him after just twelve months. In West, they got one of the most solid center fielders in the game, but they also got West at age 33, and he would soon decline.

June 12, 1940: The Brooklyn Dodgers traded outfielder Ernie Koy, pitchers Sam Nahem and Carl Doyle, infielder-outfielder Bert Haas, and $125,000 cash to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Joe Medwick and pitcher Curt Davis.

Quite unlike the Phillies, Branch Rickey’s Cardinals were in no kind of financial distress. But though they were a perennial contender, the Cards’ attendance in that era was never better than middle-of-the-pack, as they shared the not-very-large St. Louis market with the Browns. And among his many other attributes, Rickey was always open to means to improve the balance sheet.

So with his Cardinals stumbling off to a disastrous 15-29 start in 1940, Rickey was happy to accept this very lucrative offer from the up-and-coming Dodgers. Medwick was just 28, and had been a superduperstar, but his hitting had dipped from its soaring 1935-37 heights. Whether Rickey anticipated it or not, Medwick would never again be the tremendous player he was in his mid-20s. Still, he and Davis would be keys to the Dodgers’ 1941 pennant, while the 125 G’s would go a long way toward funding the Cardinals’ vast farm system.

June 15, 1946: The St. Louis Browns traded outfielder Joe Grace and pitcher Al LaMacchia to the Washington Senators for outfielder Jeff Heath.

In terms of sheer run-producing talent, Heath could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with just about anybody; at his best, he was a Hall of Fame-caliber hitter. But: he was kind of ragged on defense, he was inconsistent, and he was prone to injury; you might call him the Rico Carty of the 1940s. Moreover—and this doesn’t really apply to Carty—Heath had a reputation of being a very difficult guy to get along with.

It’s a set of attributes that’s often associated with a guy who gets traded around a lot, and that applies to Heath, who became the property of four organizations in a two-year period from 1945 to 1947. Here the Senators, who’d traded one of their stars (George Case) to get Heath the previous winter, were doing pretty well for a Senators team (28-25, fourth place), and Heath was hitting just fine, but nevertheless Washington decided they’d be better off with a journeyman and a B-grade prospect instead.

Next Week

June Blockbusters, Part Two (1949-1969), in many ways The Golden Era of June-deadline trading activity.

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