Offseason blockbusters:  December (Part two:  1963-1981)

We’ve completed round one of our December review, so how about another.

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. 5, 1963: The Philadelphia Phillies traded outfielder-infielder Don Demeter and pitcher Jack Hamilton to the Detroit Tigers for pitcher Jim Bunning and catcher Gus Triandos.

This was a terrific deal by Phillies’ GM John Quinn, who had a crowded outfield and needed pitching help. The inclusion of the still-productive Triandos just made it even better.

It’s clear that Detroit GM Jim Campbell was figuring that Bunning’s poor-for-him 1963 season meant that at age 32 his best days were in the past. That was reasonable, but of course Bunning would be rejuvenated in Philadelphia and put together a scintillating four-year-peak run. The Tigers would make nice use of the versatile Demeter in an outfield-first base supersub role in 1964 and ’65, but that was small comfort for the loss of Bunning.

Dec. 4, 1964: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded outfielder Frank Howard, third baseman Ken McMullen, pitchers Pete Richert and Phil Ortega and a player to be named later to the Washington Senators for pitcher Claude Osteen, infielder John Kennedy, and $100,000 cash. (On Dec. 15, 1964, the Dodgers sent first baseman Dick Nen to the Senators, completing the deal.)

We’ve explored before what a daringly non-intuitive course of action this was by Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi in response to his team’s disappointing 1964 performance. From Washington GM George Selkirk’s perspective, this package of talent was just too rich to refuse; both ball clubs would distinctly benefit.

An unusual aspect of this deal was the huge chunk of cash moving from the struggling cellar-dweller to the wealthy contender; rarely in history has that happened.

Dec. 9, 1965: The Baltimore Orioles traded pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Frank Robinson.

Perhaps the most prominent “oops” in trading history, this deal is commonly misrepresented as a one-for-one Robinson-for-Pappas swap. While Pappas was indeed the main element acquired by Cincinnati, to overlook Baldschun and Simpson is to misperceive this famous (or infamous) deal, in several ways.

First, neither Baldschun nor Simpson was a token throw-in. Baldschun had experienced a so-so year in 1965, but for several years previously he’d been among the better relief aces in the game. He was only 29; it was reasonable to expect that he’d provide meaningful stability to the wobbly Cincinnati bullpen. The high-tool Simpson was unproven at the major league level, but at 22 he’d completed a highly impressive minor league apprenticeship, and was widely considered a potential star. The inclusion of both Baldschun and Simpson was critical to Reds owner/GM Bill DeWitt’s pulling the trigger on this deal.

Second, the typical explanation of how the trade was a fiasco for the Reds is Pappas’ failure to deliver as expected in Cincinnati (along with, of course, Robinson’s spectacular triple-crown performance in Baltimore). But in fact Pappas didn’t do all that poorly. The trade truly bombed because Baldschun flopped disastrously, and because Simpson failed to develop (though to be fair to Simpson, the Reds gave him very little opportunity to play).

And third, the inclusion of both Baldschun and Simpson is the key to understanding the skill displayed by Orioles rookie GM Harry Dalton, who’d just been promoted into the role in November. Neither Baldschun nor Simpson had been on the Baltimore roster until Dalton traded for each in early December (surrendering veteran outfielder Jackie Brandt and highly regarded pitching prospect Darold Knowles to the Phillies to get Baldschun, and veteran first baseman Norm Siebern to the Angels to get Simpson); indeed those were the first two trades Dalton ever executed. Yet when making his third deal, Dalton didn’t hesitate to immediately sacrifice both talents he’d just acquired, and he emerged with the great star Robinson. Few GMs in history, let alone those just getting their feet wet in the job, have ever displayed such canny boldness.

Dec. 1, 1966: The Pittsburgh Pirates traded third baseman Bob Bailey and shortstop Gene Michael to the Los Angeles Dodgers for shortstop Maury Wills.

This one was peculiar in that for both teams it was a lot more about getting rid of something than about filling a need.

Wills had long been a key star for the Dodgers, but in 1966, at 33, he’d shown signs of decline. When he jumped the team during its postseason tour of Japan (apparently to be with his extra-marital lover Doris Day—now there’s an odd coupling for ya), the Dodgers, especially with Sandy Koufax having announced his retirement that fall, were ready to turn the page and bid sayonara to Wills.

The Pirates had signed Bailey to a huge bonus out of high school, and installed him as their first-string third baseman at the age of 20. He hadn’t been bad, but had never developed into the star they’d expected, and in particular was making no progress with the glove. By 1966 he’d lost his full-time regular status.

So they were swapped, despite the fact that:

- The Dodgers had no replacement for Wills at shortstop (Michael was the meekest of stopgaps), and little room for Bailey at third (with Jim Lefebvre there, and Ron Hunt at second)

and

- The Pirates had no room for Wills at short (with Gene Alley there), and thus deployed him as a highly anachronistic third baseman.

Dec. 2, 1966: The Minnesota Twins traded outfielder Jimmie Hall, first baseman Don Mincher and pitcher Pete Cimino to the California Angels for pitcher Dean Chance and a player to be named later. (On April 10, 1967, the Angels sent infielder Jackie Hernandez to the Twins, completing the deal.)

Few pitchers of his (or any other) era were as talented as Chance, but alas, few took as much delight in the pleasures of wine, women and song. Aside from 1964—when he was phenomenal—Chance’s pitching rarely matched up to his potential, and finally the Angels lost patience.

In Hall and Mincher they got two bona fide power bats, but both sluggers were injury-prone. The deal would work out better for Minnesota, where Chance would be tremendous in both 1967 and ’68 before being struck with arm trouble. For the Angels this deal marked the end of their building-with-youth phase, and the start of a sequence of win-now trades that would mostly yield frustration, culminating in their Tony Conigliaro misfortune.

Dec. 15, 1967: The Pittsburgh Pirates traded shortstop Don Money, pitchers Woodie Fryman and Bill Laxton and minor league pitcher Harold Clem to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Jim Bunning.

Ever since falling short in such agonizing fashion in 1964, the Phillies had been aggressively trading prospects for veterans in a pedal-to-the-metal effort to bag that elusive championship. But by the end of 1967 it was evident that it just wasn’t going to happen.

With this transaction, John Quinn dramatically shifted into rebuilding mode, and Quinn demonstrated extraordinary confidence in the potential of the prospect Money, who was only 20 and hadn’t yet played as high as Triple-A.

For the Pirates, it was a reasonable gamble that came up snake-eyes, as Bunning at age 36 would suddenly hit the wall.

Dec. 15, 1967: The New York Mets traded outfielder Tommy Davis, pitchers Jack Fisher and Billy Wynne and catcher Buddy Booker to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Tommie Agee and infielder Al Weis.

As we saw last month, the Mets had made a highly questionable trade to acquire Davis, but he’d delivered a fine season for them in 1967. Mets management (it isn’t clear whether this deal was the work of outgoing GM Bing Devine or incoming Johnny Murphy) was quick to leverage that and put him back on the market.

The robustly talented Agee had enjoyed a tremendous Rookie of the Year season with the White Sox in 1966, but when his batting average dipped in ’67, GM Ed Short was persuaded to exchange him for Davis. Though Agee would endure a dreadful slump in 1968, the Mets (unlike the White Sox) would be patient with him, and he’d bounce back big time.

Dec. 3, 1969: The New York Mets traded outfielder Amos Otis and pitcher Bob Johnson to the Kansas City Royals for third baseman Joe Foy.

Dec. 10, 1971: The New York Mets traded pitchers Nolan Ryan and Don Rose, outfielder Leroy Stanton and catcher Francisco Estrada to the California Angels for shortstop Jim Fregosi.

Ah, but it wasn’t always that the Mets demonstrated such wisdom in this period.

The 1969 deal was executed by Murphy, and the ’71 trade by Bob Scheffing, but they were similar in concept, and of course disastrously similar in outcome. The Mets were fixated on resolving what they perceived to be a major third base problem, although if they’d just shown some patience with Wayne Garrett he’d probably have been fine. And not only did the Mets fail to comprehend what kind of raw talent they had in both Otis and Ryan, their scouts failed to perform due diligence in assessing what they were getting in Foy (who apparently never met a drug he didn’t like) and Fregosi (whose knees were beyond repair).

Instead, it was a case of Royals GM Cedric Tallis and Angels GM Harry Dalton, two of the sharpest traders of this or any other era, scarfing the Mets’ lunch.

Dec. 2, 1971: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded infielder-outfielder Richie Allen to the Chicago White Sox for pitcher Tommy John and infielder Steve Huntz.

Dec. 2, 1971: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded pitchers Doyle Alexander and Bob O’Brien, first baseman-outfielder Royle Stillman and catcher Sergio Robles to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder Frank Robinson and pitcher Pete Richert.

Dec. 5, 1973: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded outfielder Willie Davis to the Montreal Expos for pitcher Mike Marshall.

Dec. 6, 1973: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded pitcher Claude Osteen and minor league pitcher Dave Culpepper to the Houston Astros for outfielder Jim Wynn.

He never seems to be credited for it, but in his long tenure as Dodgers’ GM, Al Campanis forged an excellent trading record. Indeed his image has never recovered from the blockheaded comments he made on television in 1987, but to consider Campanis as some sort of stooge is to dismiss one of the most impressive of all GM careers.

This sequence of decisive deals is indicative of Campanis’ exquisite sense of timing. While in the Allen-for-John trade he didn’t receive fair talent-for-talent, remember that Campanis had acquired Allen just a year before in exchange for Ted Sizemore (as we saw in October), and the parlay of Sizemore-for-John worked distinctly to the Dodgers’ advantage, and left the inevitable Allen headache as someone else’s problem.

The trade with Baltimore was an outright steal for the Dodgers, and a year later (as we saw last month) Campanis would use Robinson as a key element in the package to acquire Andy Messersmith. In both the Davis and Osteen deals, Campanis deftly dealt long-term stars for premium value just as they were about to decline.

In 1974 Campanis’ Dodgers would emerge from the rebuilding effort he had begun in 1969 with a 102-win NL champion powerhouse, and John, Messersmith, Marshall and Wynn all would play key roles, combining for 89 Win Shares.

Dec. 11, 1973: The Chicago White Sox traded pitchers Steve Stone and Ken Frailing, catcher Steve Swisher and a player to be named later to the Chicago Cubs for third baseman Ron Santo. (On Dec. 18, 1973, the White Sox sent pitcher Jim Kremmel to the Cubs, completing the deal.

Santo would be 34 for the 1974 season, and though it was clear he was declining, he appeared to have several useful seasons left. But the White Sox simply didn’t have room for him, either at third base (occupied by Bill Melton), first base (Dick Allen, thank you) or designated hitter (the position both Carlos May and Pat Kelly were born to play). Therefore, expending two decent young pitchers and a top catching prospect to get Santo was a pointless move on the part of South Side GM Roland Hemond.

But then White Sox manager Chuck Tanner demonstrated just how to make a bad decision worse: He came up with the jaw-dropping idea of converting the thick-bodied 14-year veteran Santo into a second baseman.

Shall we say it didn’t work out real well.

Dec. 4, 1974: The Baltimore Orioles traded pitcher Dave McNally, outfielder Rich Coggins and minor league pitcher Bill Kirkpatrick to the Montreal Expos for outfielder Ken Singleton and pitcher Mike Torrez.

Not only was this one preposterously lopsided in both concept and outcome, it was just one of a series of deals executed by Expos GM Jim Fanning that trading season that followed no coherent pattern. I have no idea what Fanning’s plan was, but whatever it was it didn’t work.

Dec. 11, 1975: The New York Yankees traded outfielder Bobby Bonds to the California Angels for outfielder Mickey Rivers and pitcher Ed Figueroa.

Dec. 11, 1975: The New York Yankees traded pitcher Doc Medich to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitchers Dock Ellis and Ken Brett and second baseman Willie Randolph.

Gabe Paul’s career as a big league general manager spanned more than a quarter century, but overall his performance could best be described as “spotty.” Yet with the Yankees in his final engagement, Paul presented a masterful performance.

The 1975 Yanks featured a core of stars, but they lacked depth. The two trades above were the heart of a sequence of deals executed by Paul that methodically filled nearly every hole, and the Yankees would capture both the division and pennant in ’76. Moreover, Paul had netted the young Randolph, who would provide outstanding coverage of second base for more than a decade to come.

My favorite line about the latter deal, which was the worst trade in the 20-year tenure of Pirates GM Joe Brown: Watching Medich (who gained his nickname because he’d studied medicine, and was endeavoring to become an M.D.) struggle on the mound in 1976, a Pittsburgh writer moaned, “Ellis is a better doctor than this guy.”

Dec. 6, 1976: The Milwaukee Brewers traded first baseman George Scott and outfielder Bernie Carbo to the Boston Red Sox for first baseman Cecil Cooper.

Scott did well in both of his stints with the Red Sox, and is warmly remembered by Boston fans. Yet Red Sox GM Dick O’Connell, who was generally good at his job, pretty much botched the works with him. First, O’Connell traded Scott away in 1971 just as Boomer was entering his peak, and then he reacquired Boomer just as he was leaving his peak behind—in exchange for Cooper, who was, you guessed it, just entering his peak.

Dec. 8, 1976: The San Diego Padres traded outfielder Johnny Grubb, catcher Fred Kendall and infielder Hector Torres to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder George Hendrick.

As with so many of the deals executed by Indians GM Phil Seghi, this one simply defies comprehension.

Dec. 9, 1976: The Atlanta Braves traded pitchers Adrian Devine, Carl Morton and Roger Moret, outfielders Ken Henderson and Dave May and $250,000 cash to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Jeff Burroughs.

The package of has-beens and never-weres the Braves sent to Texas was essentially window dressing around an old-fashioned star-player sale, the sort of which became a rare occurrence in baseball after about 1950. But new Atlanta owner Ted Turner had plenty of money, and was never shy about spending it. For a couple of years it appeared as though this had been a shrewd investment, but then Burroughs, who’d already taken one swan dive in his career, would belly-flop again.

Dec. 16, 1976: The Cincinnati Reds traded first baseman Tony Perez and pitcher Will McEnaney to the Montreal Expos for pitchers Woodie Fryman and Dale Murray.

The idea of the Reds trading their longtime star Perez wasn’t necessarily a bad one. “Doggie” would soon be 35 and was no longer the hitter he’d once been, and moreover the Reds had a fine replacement on hand in Dan Driessen.

But sending away the immensely popular Perez was bound to stimulate a huge public relations backlash, and thus it was incumbent upon GM Bob Howsam to yield something impressive in return. The so-so package of Fryman and Murray really didn’t measure up.

Dec. 10, 1976: The Chicago White Sox traded pitchers Rich Gossage and Terry Forster to the Pittsburgh Pirates for outfielder Richie Zisk and pitcher Silvio Martinez.

Dec. 5, 1977: The Chicago White Sox traded pitchers Chris Knapp and Dave Frost and catcher Brian Downing to the California Angels for outfielders Bobby Bonds and Thad Bosley and pitcher Richard Dotson.

There were lots of reasons to love Bill Veeck, and for sportswriters, his candid, good-humored quotability earned Veeck constantly favorable reviews. But the truth is that for all his strengths as a promoter, executive gadfly and “champion of the little guy,” throughout his long career Veeck rarely demonstrated much acumen at building or sustaining winning teams.

In Veeck’s second stint as White Sox owner, he retained holdover Roland Hemond as his GM, even though Hemond hadn’t demonstrated particular distinction in the job. Operating on a customarily Veeckian shoestring budget, Hemond was charged with carrying out what was described as a “rent-a-player” strategy: Without the capability of signing stars as free agents, the White Sox were supposedly trading for them cheaply in their “walk” years and getting the benefit of that one good season.

Whatever the merits of such an approach, Hemond didn’t really carry it out. Zisk was a star entering his free agent year when the White Sox acquired him, but both Gossage and Forster were to become free agents as well, and anyway Gossage at his best was better than Zisk. In truth, both Gossage and Forster were extraordinarily talented young pitchers, but their market value was at a low point due to their mishandling in 1976 by White Sox field manager Paul Richards—a one-time brilliant handler of pitchers, but who at the age of 67 hadn’t been a field manager in 15 years. At this point he was far out of his element, yet Veeck hired him anyway.

The robustly talented Bonds wasn’t an impending free agent, yet Hemond acquired him at a very reasonable price—but would keep him for a grand total of just 26 games before pointlessly peddling him away in early 1978. For all the rollicking “Na Na Hey Hey” good fun Veeck’s White Sox generated in 1977, they were on a fast treadmill to nowhere under the direction of Veeck and Hemond.

Dec. 8, 1977: In a four-club deal, the Atlanta Braves sent first baseman Willie Montañez to the New York Mets; the Mets sent pitcher Jon Matlack to the Texas Rangers and first baseman-outfielder John Milner to the Pittsburgh Pirates; the Rangers sent pitcher Bert Blyleven to the Pirates, pitchers Adrian Devine and Tommy Boggs and outfielder Eddie Miller to the Braves and outfielder Tom Grieve and a player to be named later to the Mets; and the Pittsburgh Pirates sent outfielder-first baseman Al Oliver and shortstop Nelson Norman to the Rangers. (On March 15, 1978, the Rangers sent outfielder Ken Henderson to the Mets, completing the deal.)

Making sense of this elaborate snarl is akin to disentangling the Christmas tree light strands, but let’s take a shot at it. (First, pour me another egg nog—and this time don’t be such a Scrooge with the brandy!)

Braves: Montañez for Devine, Boggs and Miller. None of the latter three would ever do much; Montañez wasn’t a great player, but the Braves should have gotten more than this for him.

Mets: Matlack and Milner for Montañez, Grieve and Henderson. Ouch.

Rangers: Blyleven, Devine, Boggs, Miller, Grieve and Henderson for Oliver, Matlack and Norman. Boil off the froth and it’s Blyleven for Oliver and Matlack, a very nice deal.

Pirates: Oliver and Norman for Blyleven and Milner, another very nice deal.

Dec. 9, 1980: The Cleveland Indians traded pitchers Victor Cruz, Bob Owchinko and Rafael Vasquez and catcher Gary Alexander to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Bert Blyleven and catcher Manny Sanguillen.

Okay, let’s give Phil Seghi his due and acknowledge that he pulled off a good one here, as none among the package he sent to Pittsburgh for Blyleven would have much of a future.

But even a good Seghi trade seems to require a head-scratching component. Why would you accept the 36-year-old beyond-his-last-legs Sanguillen as part of a trade in the first place, and then having done so, shortly thereafter give Sanguillen his release?

Dec. 10, 1980: The California Angels traded third baseman Carney Lansford, pitcher Mark Clear and outfielder Rick Miller to the Boston Red Sox for shortstop Rick Burleson and third baseman Butch Hobson.

The Angels had thudded from a division title in 1979 to a 65-95, sixth-place finish in 1980, and so their extreme-veteran GM Buzzie Bavasi understandably felt the need to take significant action. However it wasn’t clear how this particular action would help, and it didn’t, neither right away nor (especially) in the long run.

Dec. 8, 1980: The St. Louis Cardinals traded catchers Terry Kennedy and Steve Swisher, pitchers John Littlefield, John Urrea, Kim Seaman and Al Olmsted and infielder Mike Phillips to the San Diego Padres for pitchers Rollie Fingers and Bob Shirley and catcher-first baseman Gene Tenace and a player to be named later. (On Dec. 10, 1980, the Padres sent catcher Bob Geren to the Cardinals, completing the deal.)

Dec. 9, 1980: The St. Louis Cardinals traded outfielder-first baseman Leon Durham, third baseman Ken Reitz and a player to be named later to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Bruce Sutter. (On Dec. 22, 1980, the Cardinals sent third baseman Ty Waller to the Cubs, completing the deal.)

Dec. 12, 1980: The St. Louis Cardinals traded catcher Ted Simmons and pitchers Rollie Fingers and Pete Vuckovich to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielders Sixto Lezcano and David Green and pitchers Lary Sorensen and Dave LaPoint.

Dec. 10, 1981: The St. Louis Cardinals traded shortstop Garry Templeton, outfielder Sixto Lezcano and a player to be named later to the San Diego Padres for shortstop Ozzie Smith, pitcher Steve Mura and a player to be named later. (On Feb. 19, 1982, the Cardinals traded pitcher Luis DeLeon to the Padres for pitcher Al Olmsted, completing the deal.)

Whitey Herzog was hired by St. Louis in late 1980 and given complete control of operations, in an old-fashioned John McGraw-style general manager/field manager role. The ball club he inherited had earned a reputation as a talented underachiever: It featured a terrific offensive core, but was thin in pitching, sloppy on defense, and undisciplined in fundamentals.

Rarely has a GM acted with as much alacrity as Herzog. He didn’t necessarily “win” each of these trades in terms of talent exchanged, but each was dramatic and purposeful. With all the subtlety of a jackhammer, Herzog turned the Cardinals’ roster every which way but loose; this wasn’t a rebuilding, it was a reinvention.

When the smoke cleared, a very different style of ball club emerged, and there wasn’t a shred of ambiguity as to who was in charge. In 1982, St. Louis would win the division, pennant and World Series. It was, all in all, quite McGraw-like.

Next time

We’ll complete the December tour, including the biggest swaps taking place this very month.

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