Mid-Season Blockbusters:  May (Part One:  1922-1959)

Last month, we launched a monthly series that will examine all of the biggest mid-season trades made throughout history. As we introduced it in April, here is our guideline for including trades:

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.

Before the 1920s, mid-season trades were quite rare. Even in the offseason, trading activity was less active than it would later become; player transactions between teams were far more often settled simply as cash sales than has since become the norm. The rise of the trade as the more typical mode of transaction is probably best seen as a manifestation of the rise in financial stability of franchises, and with it greater competitive balance. As turnstile revenue, then merchandising and eventually broadcasting cash flow became more predictable for most teams, the ability of richer franchises to simply buy talent, and the willingness of poorer franchises to simply sell it, declined. Thus in the 1900s and 1910s offseason player trades began to become common, and by the 1920s and 1930s the willingness of teams to undertake trades during the season became widespread as well. The latter development created the need for leagues to impose mid-season trading deadlines—which we’ll discuss next month, since no trading deadline has ever been imposed as early as May.

So here we go, with the biggest trades ever made during the month of May. While May hasn’t historically been the busiest month for trades (we’ll get to that next month, and the month following), it has been quite an active time, much more so than April. So this time we’ll limit ourselves to the blockbusters that occurred during the merry, merry month through 1959, and take ourselves from the 1960s to the present day next time.

May 30, 1922: The St. Louis Cardinals traded outfielder Cliff Heathcote to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Max Flack.

The first May trade of any note was essentially a classic “challenge trade:” a swap of regulars at the same position. Moreover, both Heathcote and Flack were very similar in style: small, left-handed-hitting right fielders without much power. The important difference was that Heathcote was 24 years old, and Flack 32. The Cardinals (for whom the 40-year-old Branch Rickey was serving as both field manager and General Manager), who’d finished third in 1921 and were 23-20 at the time of this trade, preferred the veteran Flack for what they hoped would be a pennant drive, while the Cubs were coming off a seventh-place finish, were 20-20, and willing to wait for Heathcote’s further development. Flack did perform a little better than Heathcote over the remainder of the season, though the Cardinals finished in third again.

May 6, 1930: The New York Yankees traded outfielder Cedric Durst and $50,000 cash to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Red Ruffing.

This was effectively a sale more than a trade, of course. Durst was 33 and had never been more than a spare part, while Ruffing was 25 and, even though he’d compiled an appalling 39-96 win-loss record in five-plus seasons with the Red Sox, was obviously one of the better young pitchers in the league. Though there’s no reason to doubt Ruffing did develop into a much better pitcher with the Yankees, his overall career stands as stark testimony to the degree to which every pitcher’s statistics are a reflection of the offense and defense behind him.

May 21, 1930: The New York Giants traded pitcher Larry Benton to the Cincinnati Reds for second baseman Hughie Critz.

Benton had given the Giants a brilliant season (25-9) in 1928, but had fallen to 11-17 in ’29, and when at age 32 he got off to a bad start in 1930, John McGraw pulled the trigger on this deal. The Giants hadn’t been able to come up with a satisfactory answer at second base since trading away Rogers Hornsby, and Critz, 29, was a proven good-field little-hit commodity.

The Giants got the better of the deal. Benton had limited success over the remaining few years of his career, while Critz, though he never hit much, held the Giants’ regular second base job through 1934, including their World Series championship season of 1933.

May 30, 1930: The New York Yankees traded pitcher Waite Hoyt and shortstop Mark Koenig to the Detroit Tigers for outfielder Harry Rice, pitcher Ownie Carroll, and infielder Yats Wuestling.

After winning three straight pennants, in 1929 the Yankees had fallen to a distant second behind Connie Mack’s powerhouse Athletics. Trailing both the A’s and the Senators at the end of May in 1930, GM Ed Barrow shook things up, dispatching his erstwhile ace pitcher and starting shortstop in exchange for a solid center fielder (Rice), a once-promising-but-now-struggling pitcher (Carroll), and a spare part (Wuestling). This deal didn’t wind up achieving much for either the Yankees or the Tigers.

May 17, 1931: The Cleveland Indians traded infielder-outfielder Lew Fonseca to the Chicago White Sox for third baseman Willie Kamm.

Fonseca and Kamm were both from the San Francisco Bay Area, were both in their early 30s, and were both popular stars. But they had very different skillsets. Fonseca was a high-average hitter (and a former batting champion, in an era when that was considered a huge deal), and he could play several positions. However it’s apparent that he played all of them rather poorly, and he was injury-prone. Kamm, meanwhile, was a stellar defensive third baseman (if they’d awarded Gold Gloves in those days, he’d have won a bushel), consistent and durable, but a so-so hitter. Both would go into decline soon after this trade.

May 7, 1933: The St. Louis Cardinals traded pitchers Paul Derringer and Allyn Stout and infielder Sparky Adams to the Cincinnati Reds for shortstop Leo Durocher and pitchers Dutch Henry and Jack Ogden.

Since he gained such fame as a manager (and as a self-promoting rake), modern fans may not realize how prominent Leo Durocher had been as a player. He was the Mark Belanger of his day: a great-field, lousy-hit shortstop. The Cardinals, a perennial contender who had slumped badly in 1932, felt Durocher’s glove was a key to their recovery. But they gave up an awful lot to get him: Derringer was one of the better young pitchers in baseball, and though he would suffer through a bizarre 7-27, 103 ERA+ season in 1933 (the Reds were a weak-hitting team, but not that weak), he would go on to be a major star for Cincinnati for a long time. The Cardinals would win a pennant in 1934 with Durocher at shortstop, but overall this deal went strongly in the favor of the Reds.

May 9, 1933: The Boston Red Sox traded catcher Merv Shea and cash to the St. Louis Browns for catcher Rick Ferrell and pitcher Lloyd Brown.

May 25, 1934: The Boston Red Sox traded pitcher Bob Weiland, outfielder Bob Seeds, and $25,000 cash to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Wes Ferrell and outfielder Dick Porter.

It’s difficult for us middle-class schlubs to comprehend just how wealthy the young Tom Yawkey was in the early 1930s, a multi-millionaire in a buying mode in a catastrophically depressed-price economy. Both of these deals were more purchases than trades, as in a year’s time Yawkey’s Red Sox (with GM Eddie Collins freely spending Yawkey’s dough) united the dynamic Ferrell brothers battery. These deals were just a couple among many that resurrected the Red Sox franchise from complete ruin, and made them competitive. However, it wouldn’t be until the farm system that Yawkey funded began to produce that they would emerge as a strong contender.

May 21, 1936: The Chicago Cubs traded outfielder Chuck Klein and pitcher Fabian Kowalik to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Curt Davis and outfielder Ethan Allen.

Klein had been acquired by the Cubs from the Phillies in a massive deal following the 1933 season. It’s a measure of how great a player he was that (a) despite chronic serious leg injuries in 1934 and ’35, he’d still managed to hit .290-to-.300 with 20-or-so homers while playing about 80% of the time, and (b) that performance was an immense disappointment to the Cubs. Klein was finally reasonably healthy again in early 1936, but it was clear that at age 31 he wasn’t going to be able to recover the amazing form of his youth, and so the frustrated Cubs sent him back to Philadelphia. They got a good price for him: Davis was an excellent pitcher, and Allen a good outfielder. Klein would complete one final star turn for the Phillies in ’36, and then rapidly fall apart, completing one of the more intriguing “what might have been” careers of all time.

May 13, 1939: The Detroit Tigers traded pitchers Vern Kennedy, Roxie Lawson, George Gill, and Bob Harris, outfielder Chet Laabs, and infielder Mark Christman to the St. Louis Browns for pitchers Bobo Newsom and Jim Walkup, outfielder Beau Bell, and infielder Red Kress.

May 29, 1939: The Chicago Cubs traded pitchers Kirby Higbe and Ray Harrell and outfielder Joe Marty to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Claude Passeau.

By the late 1930s, the Phillies’ franchise was in dire straits. Both they and the St. Louis Browns were moribund: the Phillies had been last in the National League in attendance in 12 of the past 14 seasons, while the Browns were working on their 14th of an 18-for-18 streak in the AL. Both were now beyond any hope of developing a competitive ball club, and were instead in sheer desperate survival mode. This required hocking whatever talented players they happened to have for whatever they would yield in the trade/sale marketplace.

Here, the Browns turned the exceptionally good Bobo Newsom and a few scraps of shiny tinfoil into the back half of the Tigers’ pitching staff, plus a quarter of their bench; Laabs would prove to be pretty good. Meanwhile the Phillies converted the terrific Claude Passeau into three young players, one of whom (Higbe) would blossom into a peach—and then of course be quickly ransomed off himself. There’s a certain dark art to operating a ball club in this manner; while few teams in history have been operated under less favorable circumstances, many teams have been operated with less talent-management adroitness than these sad franchises in this period.

The Phillies would eventually go bankrupt in 1942, to be run by the rest of the league until a new owner was found in 1943. The Browns somehow held on by their fingertips through 1953.

May 6, 1941: The Brooklyn Dodgers traded infielder Johnny Hudson, outfielder Charlie Gilbert, and $65,000 cash to the Chicago Cubs for second baseman Billy Herman.

Essentially a purchase, as Larry MacPhail added one of the final elements to the excellent team he was building in Brooklyn. Herman was 31 and no longer the exceptional player he’d been a few years earlier, but he was still good, and became a key supporting ingredient in the Dodgers’ exciting 1941 championship.

May 23, 1945: The Boston Braves traded pitcher Red Barrett and $60,000 cash to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Mort Cooper.

This one as well had more “sale” than “trade” about it, but Barrett was a pretty good pitcher himself. That a player of his status would be packaged along with the enormous stack of bills indicates just how highly regarded Cooper was. It was wartime and all, but he could really pitch.

What’s interesting about this deal is that apparently the Cards sensed that Cooper’s arm was deadening up or something, because they dealt him at just the right moment, and Barrett stepped in and essentially impersonated him for the remainder of 1945. But despite that, the Cardinals finished a close second that year, breaking a string of three straight pennants.

May 18, 1946: The Philadelphia Athletics traded third baseman George Kell to the Detroit Tigers for outfielder Barney McCosky.

In his final few years of running the Athletics, Connie Mack still had a pretty sharp eye for talent. For example, his belief in, and patience with, Eddie Joost was particularly sagacious. But more often in that period, Mack was a confused octogenarian. This deal, for instance, was rather ridiculous. McCosky was a pretty good ballplayer: no power, but a great on-base guy, capable of handling center field, though his arm was more suitable for left. But he was 29, coming back after three full seasons in military service, and off to a very slow start (.198 in 25 games). For this, you give up Kell, a slick-fielding 23-year-old third baseman you’ve been nurturing for a couple of years, and who’s off to a .299 start?

Kell would be a 10-time All-Star, and though his Hall of Fame selection was kind of crazy, he was a terrific player. McCosky would last as a regular only through 1948.

May 3, 1947: The St. Louis Cardinals traded outfielder Harry Walker and pitcher Freddy Schmidt to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Ron Northey.

The greatest mid-season trade/fluke year combination of all time. Walker was 30 years old, a decent ballplayer, but a fourth-outfielder type, not a star. Packaging him with a second-line pitcher in exchange for the 27-year-old, robust-hitting round-bodied Northey looked like a steal for the Cardinals. Who knew Walker would suddenly hit .371 with 16 triples (154 OPS+) the rest of ’47? He never had another season remotely like it, but for that one summer Walker was the second coming of Wee Willie Keeler.

May 3, 1947: The Pittsburgh Pirates traded outfielder Al Gionfriddo and $100,000 cash to the Brooklyn Dodgers for pitchers Kirby Higbe, Hank Behrman, and Cal McLish, catcher Dixie Howell, and infielder Gene Mauch.

Basically this was an enormous garage sale, as Branch Rickey’s Dodgers pruned their overloaded roster and the free-spending Bing Crosby-owned Pirates accomodated them. Other than Higbe, these were basically just a bunch of warm bodies, but Higbe still had something left in the tank. McLish would emerge as a first-rate pitcher, but not until a decade and several organizations later.

Gionfriddo was nothing more than a pinch-runner/defensive replacement type, of whom one imagines Rickey already had several in his organization. Nonetheless he went to the Dodgers along with all that moolah, and of course he earned everlasting fame by making a tremendous game-saving catch off Joe DiMaggio in the sixth game of the amazingly entertaining ’47 World Series, immediately after having been inserted as a defensive replacement. It was the final major league game, indeed the final major league putout, of Gionfriddo’s career.

May 8, 1949: The Boston Red Sox traded outfielder Stan Spence and cash to the St. Louis Browns for outfielder Al Zarilla.

Zarilla was a journeyman who’d suddenly come up with a big year at age 29 in 1948. Spence was a longtime star who was clearly in decline at age 34; the “cash” portion of this deal was the key, as the Browns were ever-desperate to raise revenue. Zarilla would be so-so for the Red Sox in ’49, but excellent in 1950, and would remain a major leaguer through 1953. Spence was gone after 1949.

May 31, 1950: The Chicago White Sox traded second baseman Cass Michaels, pitcher Bob Kuzava, and outfielder-third baseman Johnny Ostrowski to the Washington Senators for first baseman Eddie Robinson, pitcher Ray Scarborough, and second baseman Al Kozar.

A huge and completely fascinating mid-season deal. The White Sox were a bad team off to a bad start (13-23), but in the 24-year-old Michaels they had one of the best young infielders in the game, who was hitting .312 (with an OPS+ of 122) after a .308, 125 OPS+ full season in 1949. Then Chicago GM Frank Lane packaged Michaels along with a talented 27-year-old southpaw in Kuzava (and a spare part in Ostrowski) to the 19-17 Senators in exchange for Robinson, a big, strong, struggling first baseman who at the age of 29 had delivered more promise than performance, Scarborough, a 32-year-old mid-tier performer, and Kozar, a journeyman.

The deal didn’t seem to make sense for the White Sox, but for some reason Michaels immediately regressed and never became the star he looked to be. Robinson, meanwhile, became a late-blooming beauty of a slugger. Against all odds, this one worked out in the White Sox’s favor, especially since the 22-year-old Nellie Fox was on hand to beat out Kozar as Michaels’ replacement at second base.

May 3, 1952: The Washington Senators traded outfielder Sam Mele to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Jim Busby and infielder Mel Hoderlein.

May 3, 1952: The Washington Senators traded outfielder Irv Noren and infielder Tom Upton to the New York Yankees for outfielders Jackie Jensen and Archie Wilson, pitcher Spec Shea, and infielder Jerry Snyder.

As we examined here, the American League in 1952 exhibited the most in-season trading activity of any league in history. The Griffith family’s Senators got fully into the act, dealing their right fielder and center fielder on the same day. The Senators got younger in both of these moves, and they got better too, as Busby was superior to Mele, and Jensen was superior to Noren. Thus the extra stuff they got was just gravy, and one morsel in the gravy, Shea, gave them good years in ’52 and ’53.

White Sox’s manager Paul Richards was reportedly miffed with his GM, Lane, for the Busby-for-Mele swap. With his extreme defense-first orientation, Richards valued the great center field glove Busby provided (and perhaps also, as fellow Texans, Richards and Busby just got along very well), and Busby would be re-acquired by Richards as a player in Baltimore, as a player-coach in Houston, as a coach in Atlanta, and again as a coach in Richards’s final fling as White Sox’s field manager in 1976.

May 23, 1954: The Chicago White Sox traded infielder Grady Hatton and $100,000 cash to the Boston Red Sox for third baseman George Kell.

In his early 30s, Kell could still hit, but had become injury-prone. Lane’s White Sox paid dearly for him here, and though Kell did pretty well in Chicago, he wouldn’t justify this price tag. That was a ton of money, and Hatton was a useful infielder.

May 11, 1956: The St. Louis Cardinals traded pitchers Harvey Haddix, Stu Miller, and Ben Flowers to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitchers Murry Dickson and Herm Wehmeier.

May 17, 1956: The St. Louis Cardinals traded outfielder Bill Virdon to the Pittsburgh Pirates for outfielder Bobby Del Greco and pitcher Dick Littlefield.

In 1956, Frank Lane moved on to St. Louis. What adjective best describes this pair of deals he executed there? “Weird” springs immediately to mind.

In his stint with the White Sox in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Lane pulled off a series of trades that ranks with any ever pulled off for sheer brilliance: he netted Billy Pierce, Chico Carrasquel, Nellie Fox, Minnie Miñoso (in an amazing deal we examined last month), and Sherm Lollar, at a fraction of their worth, just as all were about to blossom. But perhaps it was a case of Lane coming to believe too strongly in himself, because for the rest of his long career he simply dealt players wholesale, earning himself the nicknames “Trader Lane” and “Frantic Frankie,” and rarely resulting in anything but chaos.

Witness his actions of this particular week. On May 11, 1956, the Cardinals were off to a 13-6 start (in second place by percentage points), so Lane decided that was the perfect moment to trade his best pitcher (Haddix, 30 years old) along with a couple of projects (one of whom, Miller, would later emerge as a star) to the Phillies in exchange for one good-but-39-year-old pitcher (Dickson) and one 29-year-old mediocrity (Wehmeier). Six days later, the team was still doing well (16-9, still in second by percentage points), so now it was time for Lane to swap the 25-year-old Virdon, a brilliant defensive center fielder coming off a Rookie of the Year season, in exchange for a 23-year-old prospect center fielder (Del Greco) and a 30-year-old mediocrity (Littlefield). Huh?

For what it’s worth, the Cardinals went 60-69 the rest of the way, winding up a distant fourth. Haddix, Miller, and Virdon would all be highly productive major leaguers through the mid-1960s. Del Greco would never be a major league regular. Dickson’s last major league game would be in 1959, Wehmeier’s and Littlefield’s in 1958.

May 21, 1956: The Chicago White Sox traded third baseman George Kell, outfielder Bob Nieman, and pitchers Connie Johnson and Mike Fornieles to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Jim Wilson and outfielder Dave Philley.

The remarkable Paul Richards was famed as a successful manager, and especially as a developer of pitchers. But from late 1954 through 1958, he was also serving as the Orioles’ GM, and The Wizard of Waxahachie made quite a few excellent trades. This one was just too brilliant: Wilson was a 34-year-old pitcher whose career he’d revived (something Richards seemed to do the way the rest of us might make a pot of coffee), and Philley was a 36-year-old outfielder he’d claimed on waivers. Here he turned those two into four, count ‘em, four good players.

One wonders at just exactly what the trade negotiation discussions on this one might have been. What were the White Sox thinking, anyway? They had no one carrying the GM title at this point; it appears as though the man in charge was Johnny Rigney, a 1930s/40s White Sox pitcher who’d married into the Comiskey family as a young man and was now Vice President, though field manager Marty Marion probably had a lot of input on roster management. Whatever, it seems that The Wizard employed some sort of Jedi mind trick.

May 1, 1957: The Chicago Cubs traded first baseman Dee Fondy and infielder Gene Baker to the Pittsburgh Pirates for first baseman Dale Long and outfielder Lee Walls.

Pittsburgh GM Joe Brown (the son of the comedian) made some good moves in putting together the pennant winner and World Series champ of 1960. But this wasn’t one of them. Long was better than Fondy, and Walls was better than Baker (who was superfluous anyway on a roster that already had Bill Mazeroski to play second and Gene Freese and Frank Thomas to play third).

May 26, 1959: The New York Yankees traded pitchers Johnny Kucks and Tom Sturdivant and infielder Jerry Lumpe to the Kansas City Athletics for infielder-outfielder Hector Lopez and pitcher Ralph Terry.

The interesting thing about the long sequence of scandalous trades between the Yankees and A’s in the 1955-60 period (which we touched on here) is that they weren’t complete giveaways; the A’s generally got a decent player or two in each deal. The problem was that they gave up just a bit more, nearly every time, so while no single deal smelled all that fishy, the cumulative effect reeked like last week’s mackerel. This one is a good example: Lumpe was a fine young infielder, who would do very well in Kansas City. But Kucks and Sturdivant had both seen better days. Meanwhile Lopez was an excellent, multi-talented player, and Terry was one of the better young pitchers in baseball, just about to enter his prime—and most jarringly, had been traded by the Yankees to the A’s a couple of years earlier, when it was apparent he could use some seasoning.

Next Time

Mid-Season Blockbusters: May (Part Two: 1960-2003)

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