We’ve covered the mightiest swaps of October, as well as those occurring in November. Now it’s time to begin exploring December, which traditionally (thanks to the occurrence of the annual winter meetings) been the busiest month of the year for blockbuster deals.
As a reminder, here are our ground rules:
- We’re talking about trades here, and only trades. No draft picks (expansion, Rule 5 or otherwise), no free agent signings, and no straight-up cash sales. Fascinating as drafts and signings and sales often can be, none offers the talent-for-talent exchange aspect of a trade, and thus neither is quite as interesting in terms of the talent judgment on the part of both (and occasionally three or four) teams making the trade.
- We’re talking about blockbusters here, not just any old trade. We define a blockbuster as 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. To be included here, a trade has to have been perceived as a talent-for-talent whopper 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.
Dec. 8, 1899: The Louisville Colonels traded infielder-outfielder Honus Wagner, outfielder-manager Fred Clarke, infielders Claude Ritchey and Tommy Leach, pitchers Deacon Phillippe, Bert Cunningham, Rube Waddell, and Jack Wadsworth, and catchers Chief Zimmer, Tacks Latimer and Tom Messitt, and first baseman Mike Kelley to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Jack Chesbro, infielders Art Madison, John O’Brien, and Paddy Fox, and $25,000 cash.
In truth this wasn’t a trade in the sense that we’ve come to know it; that is, a bargain struck between independent franchises. More correctly this would be understood as a settlement, perhaps a divorce settlement, between parties within the syndicate that had jointly owned the Colonels and Pirates (the primary party being Barney Dreyfuss), as the Louisville club was contracted out of the National League and into minor league status.
But it’s sure fun to marvel at, isn’t it. There are no fewer than four future Hall of Famers embroiled in here (Wagner, Clarke, Waddell, and Chesbro), plus a few others who were, or would become, high-profile stars (Leach, Phillippe, and Zimmer). Clearly the Pirates were getting much the better of it, including the core of talent that would lead them to dominate the NL in the early years of the 1900s.
Suppose Johan Santana signs a long-term contract with the Twins, but subsequently gets into a protracted argument with the management there. After prolonged frustration, the Twins finally trade Santana to the Rangers, in exchange for a highly regarded pitching prospect the Twins had signed and begun to develop, but had lost to the Rangers through the Rule 5 draft.
The Twins are widely hooted for not only trading one of the great aces in baseball for pennies on the dollar, but trading him for a guy they’d already had, and only let get away due to their own bungling roster management.
This deal wasn’t that exactly, of course, but it gives you an idea of what this situation was. And to continue our analogy, the way it would play out is that Santana with the Rangers would instantly flame out and be washed up at the age of 30, while the pitching prospect re-united with the Twins would go on to a long and spectacular career, becoming an inner-circle Hall of Famer.
This exchange had tremendous impact on the differing success trajectories of the Reds and Giants franchises across the early decades of the 20th century.
In addition to being the first prominent Italian-American in the major leagues, Abbaticchio was a pretty fine ballplayer, as evidenced here by the hefty price the Pirates expended for him.
He was an interesting guy all-around: coming from an independently wealthy family, he played professional baseball not for the money, but for the sheer sport. (And he played professional football as well). Abbaticchio had sat out the entire 1906 season, not in a contract dispute, but simply because that year he chose to manage a hotel he owned instead of playing baseball.
After this trade, he would deliver two solid seasons as the Pirates’ regular second baseman. But Abbaticchio wouldn’t be nearly worth the package received by Boston, where Beaumont, Ritchey, and Flaherty would all thrive.
Dec. 11, 1917: The Chicago Cubs traded pitcher Mike Prendergast, catcher Pickles Dillhoefer, and $55,000 cash to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander and catcher Bill Killefer.
The explanation generally given for their willingness to accept this offer of roster filler and lotsa cash in exchange for not just Alexander, but also the first-string catcher Killefer, was that the Phillies were fearful that Alexander would soon be drafted into the Army and sent to the World War I battlefield. Indeed he soon was, and perhaps it was just as simple as that.
But I’m skeptical; I’m inclined to heed the advice of the great H.L. Mencken, who once suggested, “Whenever someone tells you, ‘it isn’t about the money,’ it’s about the money.”
Because, military draft issues or not, Alexander had for several years been the best pitcher in baseball by a country mile, and even though he would be 31 in 1918, he wasn’t showing the faintest hint of decline. With Alexander anchoring their staff, the Phils had won the pennant in 1915, and finished second in both 1916 and ’17. With him gone, the team would swiftly collapse, and indeed wouldn’t again field a ball club remotely as competitive as the 1917 edition until their “Whiz Kids” pennant-winning season of 1950.
Alexander’s military service would prove to be brief (he would miss most but not all of the 1918 season). Though he suffered shell shock and partial hearing loss from combat, and though his struggles with alcoholism would only grow steadily more severe, “Old Pete” would remain a consistently excellent and occasionally great pitcher for another full decade.
Dec. 18, 1918: The New York Yankees traded pitchers Ray Caldwell and Slim Love, outfielder Frank Gilhooley, catcher Roxy Walters, and $15,000 cash to the Boston Red Sox for outfielder Duffy Lewis and pitchers Dutch Leonard and Ernie Shore.
Dec. 15, 1920: The New York Yankees traded second baseman Del Pratt, catcher Muddy Ruel, pitcher Hank Thormahlen, and outfielder Sammy Vick to the Boston Red Sox for catcher Wally Schang, pitchers Waite Hoyt and Harry Harper, and infielder Mike McNally.
Dec. 20, 1921: The New York Yankees traded shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh and pitchers Jack Quinn, Rip Collins, and Bill Piercy to the Boston Red Sox for pitchers Sam Jones and Joe Bush and shortstop Everett Scott.
The Yankees’ enormously lavish purchase of Babe Ruth from Boston in 1919 is well understood as the key to their ascendancy into dynasty status in the 1920s. But less frequently recognized is the degree to which the Ruth deal, while paramount, was just a single element within a very extensive pattern of high-profile acquisitions the Yankees conducted in this period. And while obviously having a compliant-to-the-point-of-patsy trading partner in the person of Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was extremely helpful, the final deal in the list above demonstrates that the Yankees were quite capable of wheeling and dealing with other ball clubs too.
Of all Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert’s acquisitions, second only to Ruth in significance was Ruppert’s hiring of GM Ed Barrow away from Frazee in the 1920-21 offseason. I’m not sure if the 1920 deal above was Barrow’s work or not, but the latter two certainly were, and overall Barrow’s skills as a judge of talent, and as a persuasive trader, were exceptional. Yankee Stadium may be The House that Ruth Built, but the phenomenal Yankee dyanasty of the 1920s and 1930s was largely The Team that Barrow Built.
As we’ve explored before, extremely few trades in history approach this one in terms of peak-of-career talent exchange. The closest one can describe it in terms of modern-day talent/stature equivalence would be if somehow Derek Jeter were traded for Alex Rodriguez. This was no mere blockbuster, it was an earthquake.
This one’s a real head-scratcher. Why the Tigers were willing to surrender Manush, a terrific young star, and Blue, a solid established performer, for the pretty-good Rice and Vangilder and the utility man Galloway is entirely mysterious.
Manush and Blue would propel the Browns from seventh place in 1927 to third in ’28, while the Tigers were falling from fourth to sixth. The Browns would soon earn an enduring image as hapless losers, but in the decade of the 1920s they were generally quite competitive (on the field, anyway; in terms of attendance they were already in serious trouble).
Dec. 15, 1928: The Washington Senators traded pitchers Milt Gaston and Hod Lisenbee, infielders Bobby Reeves and Grant Gillis, and outfielder Elliot Bigelow to the Boston Red Sox for infielder Buddy Myer.
Eighteen months earlier the Senators had let Myer get away in a baffling trade, but now they were determined to get the outstanding young infielder back. The package they presented to Boston didn’t contain much quality, but it was undeniably rich in quantity, and the desperate Red Sox swallowed the bait.
Unless you’re a peak-over-career fancier in the extreme, Wilson’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame is highly questionable. But it is the case that in the five seasons of 1926 through 1930 Wilson was a tremendous performer; a reasonable modern comp would be Ken Griffey, Jr.
But when Wilson’s drinking finally got the better of him, it did so in a big way. He fell so far and fast that just a year after having driven in nearly 200 runs the Cubs were not only trading him, but willing to accept only Grimes in return, who was still good but was 38 years old (and moreover it was the Cubs having to include the throw-in). A month later the Cardinals would turn around and sell Wilson to Brooklyn.
Dec. 14, 1932: The Washington Senators traded outfielders Sammy West and Carl Reynolds, pitcher Lloyd Brown, and $20,000 cash to the St. Louis Browns for outfielder Goose Goslin and Fred Schulte and pitcher Lefty Stewart.
Like the Browns, the Senators would soon become a punchline (“first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”), but in the 1920s and ’30s they were quite good. In the ten seasons from 1924 through 1933 they won between 92 and 99 games six times; this deal would be instrumental in delivering Washington’s third pennant in that span.
Dec. 12, 1933: The Philadelphia Athletics traded pitchers Lefty Grove and Rube Walberg and second baseman Max Bishop to the Boston Red Sox for infielder Rabbit Warstler, pitcher Bob Kline, and $125,000 cash.
Dec. 10, 1935: The Philadelphia Athletics traded first baseman Jimmie Foxx and pitcher Johnny Marcum to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Gordon Rhodes, minor league catcher George Savino, and $150,000 cash.
Last month we saw the 1933 commencement of the auctioning off of talent assets by the Philadelphia Phillies. Here we see their neighbors doing the same, only even more dramatically. Connie Mack’s A’s had much more talent to sell than the Phils, and Mack, in the same manner he’d done a generation before, was startlingly decisive in his commitment to liquidate and start over from scratch.
Even with Foxx still on board, the Athletics had fallen into last place in 1935, and once he was gone, Mack’s second period of wandering in the desert began in earnest. In the eleven seasons from 1936 through 1946, the A’s would lose fewer than 97 games just twice.
Dec. 12, 1941: The Brooklyn Dodgers traded infielder Pete Coscarart, pitcher Luke Hamlin, outfielder-first baseman Jimmy Wasdell, and catcher Babe Phelps to the Pittsburgh Pirates for shortstop Arky Vaughan.
Horace Stoneham had inherited the Giants in 1936, and the young owner-operator was greeted with quick success, winning pennants in both ’36 and ’37. But in the following seasons his team had fallen out of contention, and worse yet, the Giants’ cross-town rival Dodgers, long the overlooked National League team in New York, had surpassed them not only on the field but at the turnstile as well.
Finally Stoneham took bold action, acquiring the great slugger Mize from the Cardinals. But then the very next day Dodgers’ GM Larry MacPhail essentially matched his impact, sending the big package to Pittsburgh for Vaughan. Aside from the topsy-turvy wartime standings of 1944, Stoneham’s Giants wouldn’t be able to catch the Dodgers until the memorable early autumn of 1951.
The genesis of this deal was Walker’s discomfort at playing alongside Jackie Robinson, and Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey granting his wish to be traded. But there was more to it than that. Though Walker had long been the Dodgers’ star right fielder and huge fan favorite, he was 37 years old at this point, and Rickey had some extraordinary young outfield talent coming along, in particular Carl Furillo and Duke Snider. So the trade made plenty of strategic sense for the Dodgers regardless of the racial issue.
Indeed, it would turn out to be a tremendous Brooklyn success. The slick-fielding Cox and, especially, the rejuvenated control-artist southpaw Roe would be key ingredients in the terrific “Boys of Summer” Dodger teams well into the 1950s (in addition to being the roommate combo with the shortest last names in history), while Walker, Lombardi, and Gregg would all quickly fade.
The Indians had just won the pennant and World Series, and thus it was a surprise to see owner/GM Bill Veeck engaging in, not just a big deal, but one that carried substantial risk: though Vernon and Wynn had each starred in the past, both had performed terribly in 1948.
But it would turn out just fine. Though Robinson would develop into one of the better power hitters in the league, both Vernon and Wynn would rebound in Cleveland. Indeed within a few years Wynn would emerge as an elite ace.
Dec. 14, 1949: The New York Giants traded outfielder-third baseman Sid Gordon, outfielder Willard Marshall, shortstop Buddy Kerr, and pitcher Red Webb to the Boston Braves for shortstop Alvin Dark and second baseman Eddie Stanky.
Though Horace Stoneham’s nephew Chub Feeney held the Giants’ GM title, in fact Stoneham himself largely executed the responsibility, especially regarding such issues as major trades. But this deal was clearly understood to be driven by the urging of field manager Leo Durocher. Since joining the Giants in mid-1948, Leo the Lip had been frustrated by the team’s lack of a first-rate middle infield, and was quite willing to sacrifice the power hitting of Gordon and Marshall to get one.
It would work out wonderfully. The Giants would have plenty of emerging talent in the outfield to replace Gordon and Marshall (fundamentally it would be Negro League imports Monte Irvin and Willie Mays), while Dark and Stanky would provide a superlative double play combo. The Giants had been a fifth-place ball club in 1949; in 1950 they’d be in third, and the next season would enact the Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff.
Joe Cronin had been a terrific player, of course, but in his long post-playing career as a manager and executive he was rather ineffectual, a back-slapping crony with little imagination. The most prominent feature of Cronin’s 1948-58 tenure as Boston GM was his failure to racially integrate while the team gradually faded from contention.
But it would be inaccurate to consider Cronin lacking in talent-appraisal acumen. Under his leadership the Red Sox farm system delivered abundantly to the big league roster (despite being white-only until 1959). And while Cronin wasn’t an especially astute trader, he pulled off a few gems, none brighter than this one.
The onetime college football star Jensen was widely recognized as one of the stud athletes in all of baseball, but neither in the minors nor the majors had he yet been able to translate his gifts into consistent star performance with the bat. Nevertheless Cronin was willing to risk McDermott, a prodigious talent himself whom the Red Sox had patiently nurtured into stardom, plus Umphlett, a first-rate defensive center fielder who’d enjoyed an excellent rookie year in ’53, to find out what Jensen could do in Fenway Park.
It would become one of the most lopsided trades of all time. Jensen would immediately blossom as a home run slugger and superb all-around star for Boston, while both McDermott and Umphlett would flop for Washington.
Dec. 16, 1953: The New York Yankees traded infielder-outfielder Vic Power, first baseman Don Bollweg, outfielder Bill Renna, infielder Jim Finigan, pitcher Johnny Gray, and catcher Jim Robertson to the Philadelphia Athletics for first basemen Eddie Robinson and Tom Hamilton, pitcher Harry Byrd, infielder Loren Babe, and outfielder Carmen Mauro.
While obviously the Yankees in the 1950s got tremendous results doing things just as they did, it’s certainly possible to see a few things they might have done better. Case in point: Their refusal to promote Vic Power to the majors, despite his hitting .331 and .349 in AAA in 1952 and 1953, leading the American Association in hits, doubles, triples, and batting average, and despite his brilliant defensive versatility presenting an ideal asset for Casey Stengel to deploy in his inventive multi-position platoon arrangements.
There is, of course, no acceptable explanation. It was blatant racism. The ebullient, outspoken Power just “wasn’t Yankee material” or some such drivel—this franchise, you see, was reserved for angelic choirboys, such as Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, and Babe Ruth. It wouldn’t be until 1955, with the quiet, shy (and robustly talented) Elston Howard that the Bronx Bombers would finally include a player of color.
Dec. 26, 1953: The Milwaukee Braves traded outfielders Sid Gordon and Sam Jethroe, pitchers Max Surkont, Curt Raydon, and Fred Waters, minor league pitcher Larry Lasalle, and $100,000 cash to the Pittsburgh Pirates for infielder Danny O’Connell.
O’Connell was a fine young infielder, but the Braves’ eagerness to exchange a package of this size for him seems mostly a function of the persuasive salesmanship of Pirates’ GM Branch Rickey, still golden-tongued in his seventies. Milwaukee GM John Quinn thought he’d have a star second baseman for years to come, but O’Connell’s hitting would badly deteriorate while Rickey was still counting the money.
Frantic Frankie Lane arrived in Cleveland in the fall of 1957, with that long-excellent ball club having fallen to sixth place. Applying his one-and-only approach to the situation—a steady stream of trades, big and small—Lane had the Indians in fourth place in 1958 and in second in ’59.
Dec. 6, 1959: The Cleveland Indians traded outfielder Minnie Miñoso, catcher Dick Brown, and pitchers Don Ferrarese and Jake Striker to the Chicago White Sox for catcher Johnny Romano, outfielder-third baseman Bubba Phillips, and first baseman-outfielder Norm Cash.
But knowing when enough was enough was never an awareness Lane mastered. In December of 1959 he pretty much tore apart his rising Cleveland team. (He would complete the task in the spring, with his infamous Rocky Colavito-for-Harvey Kuenn trade, as well as dumping off the excellent prospect Cash for next-to-nothing.) The purposeless churn only sent the Indians on a backward slide. That second-place finish in 1959 would be the Cleveland high-water mark until 1994.
(The Cleveland-Cincinnati deal was the first interleague trade in history that didn’t require waivers, as the American and National Leagues cooperated for the first time in establishing an interleague trading period. Such trades would now be allowed during baseball’s winter meetings, generally conducted in late November through mid-December.)
As we’ll examine next month, the Reds had surrendered a boatload of talent to acquire Thomas in early 1959, but he’d been a huge disappointment, getting hurt and having a dreadful season. Nonetheless his reputation remained such that Cubs’ GM John Holland was not only ready to take Thomas on board, but for the privilege was willing to give up Henry, who’d been a sensational reliever for the Cubs in 1959, as well as Walls, who’d been inconsistent but had shown flashes of stardom.
It wouldn’t work out well for Chicago, as Thomas’s slump would continue. In Cincinnati, Walls wouldn’t pan out, but Henry, though he’d never be as dominant as he was in ’59, would be a key asset in the Reds’ bullpen for five years.
Dec. 11, 1959: The New York Yankees traded outfielders Norm Siebern and Hank Bauer, first baseman Marv Throneberry, and pitcher Don Larsen to the Kansas City Athletics for outfielder Roger Maris, shortstop Joe DeMaestri, and first baseman Kent Hadley.
It was bad enough for the A’s to send Maris, already widely recognized as one of the most exciting young left-handed power hitters in the game, along to the Yankees and their short right field porch. But it was far worse that they did it for no defensible reason.
Yes, Siebern was a fine young left-handed-hitting outfielder. But so was Maris; exchanging one for the other accomplished nothing for the A’s, and moreover Maris was younger than Siebern, more powerful, quicker on the bases, and a far better fielder. And yes, Throneberry was an impressive young long-balling first baseman, but so was Hadley; Throneberry as well provided nothing the Athletics didn’t already have.
And Bauer and Larsen had of course once been standouts, but at this point Bauer was obviously over the hill and the tender-armed Larsen had struggled in 1959. Acquiring them wasn’t close to worth surrendering DeMaestri, Kansas City’s light-hitting but slick-fielding first-string shortstop.
The deal worked out spectacularly for the Yankees, of course, as Maris immediately blossomed into a back-to-back MVP-winning superstar. But the discomfiting aspect of the trade was the manner in which it was so transparently designed to serve the Yankees’ purposes, and their purposes only: they achieved an upgrade from Siebern to Maris while costing themselves nothing (indeed, while converting the unneeded Bauer and Larsen into a useful backup shortstop in DeMaestri). Meanwhile the Athletics improved nowhere.
Given the cozy business relationship between the Yankees’ and Athletics’ ownerships (K.C. owner Arnold Johnson held the deed to Yankee Stadium, and was thus the Yankees’ landlord), and the long string of similarly questionable trades between the franchises that had been occurring since Johnson’s acquisition of the A’s in 1954, there’s little conclusion to draw other than that this one stunk to high heaven.
Dec. 7, 1960: The Milwaukee Braves traded outfielder Bill Bruton, second baseman Chuck Cottier, catcher Dick Brown, and pitcher Terry Fox to the Detroit Tigers for second baseman Frank Bolling and outfielder Neil Chrisley.
With the decline of both second baseman Red Schoendienst and shortstop Johnny Logan, and the Braves’ frustrating second-place finishes in both 1959 and ’60, Milwaukee GM John McHale decided it was time to stop fooling around and get himself a new first-class double play combination. That he did: Bolling and McMillan were both terrific with the glove, and Bolling wasn’t a bad hitter.
But McHale sure expended a lot of talent to get them, and it would turn out to be one of those cases of solving one problem while creating others. In Bruton’s absence, center field would become a chronic hole, and as well the Braves would struggle with pitching depth while Jay and Pizarro (whom the Braves had been patiently nurturing) would suddenly blossom as stars, and Fox would emerge as a useful reliever.
For his part, newly-arrived Cincinnati GM Bill DeWitt immediately flipped the hard-throwing Pizarro for the power-hitting Freese.
DeWitt’s 1960-61 makeover of the Reds’ roster was interestingly analyzed by Bill James in his original Historical Baseball Abstract (“The Miracle on Western Avenue,” pp. 243-248). An abbreviated version appears in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (“Miracles,” pp. 270-275), in which James compares the 1960-61 Reds with the 1966-67 Red Sox and the 1968-69 Mets.
We enter the intensely-active Decembers of the 1960s and ’70s, and encounter several of the most lopsided trades in history.