Offseason blockbusters:  January (Part 1:  1894-1965)

Since the beginning of this offseason, we’ve examined the biggest swaps of October, and those occurring in November, and as well we’ve delved through December.

With the new year the offseason progresses, and so we’re ready to begin looking at the largest deals that have taken place in January.

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.

Jan. 1, 1894: The Baltimore Orioles traded third baseman Billy Shindle and outfielder George Treadway to the Brooklyn Grooms for outfielder Willie Keeler and first baseman Dan Brouthers.

Oops.

The Grooms’ logic here is defensible: Brouthers had been a superstar for years, but he was soon to be 36 and one had to suspect he would soon begin to decline, and Keeler was an unproven prospect. Neither Shindle nor Treadway was a star, but they were solid commodities, so the deal could plausibly have turned out as a fair exchange.

But it wouldn’t. Brouthers would indeed have only one more big year, but Keeler would blossom into long-term stardom. This was among the key transactions that vaulted the Orioles into back-to-back-to-back pennants in 1894-95-96, and Keeler’s small-ball wizardry in particular was one of the elements of their style of play that secured the status of the 1890s Orioles in baseball legend.

Jan. 4, 1918: The Boston Braves traded pitcher Lefty Tyler to the Chicago Cubs for second baseman Larry Doyle, catcher Art Wilson and $15,000 cash.

Jan. 8, 1918: The Boston Braves traded second baseman Larry Doyle and pitcher Jesse Barnes to the New York Giants for infielder Buck Herzog.

So the Braves’ parlay was two very good pitchers in Tyler and Barnes for Herzog, the backup catcher Wilson, and 15 grand. Huh? Fifteen thousand was a pretty good chunk of change in those days, but still.

Herzog was an intriguing guy. He was a versatile defensive infielder, and a solid hitter, but not a star. Yet he was repeatedly valued in trades as though a star, as we see here; there was apparently something about him that doesn’t translate to the stat sheet.

Jan. 9, 1918: The Pittsburgh Pirates traded shortstop Chuck Ward and pitchers Al Mamaux and Burleigh Grimes to the Brooklyn Robins for second baseman George Cutshaw and outfielder Casey Stengel.

His managerial career understandably overshadows his playing career, but Stengel was a fine player, a solid defensive outfielder with decent power.

This deal was essentially of the potential-for-certainty mode, as Ward, Mamaux and Grimes were all quite young, while Cutshaw and Stengel were established regulars. The Pirates would get the solidity they sought, but the Robins came out far ahead as Grimes blossomed into a major star.

Jan. 10, 1918: The Boston Red Sox traded third baseman Larry Gardner, catcher Hick Cady and a player to be named later to the Philadelphia Athletics for first baseman Stuffy McInnis. (On Feb. 20, 1918, the Red Sox sent outfielder Tilly Walker to the Athletics, completing the deal.)

Connie Mack earned his great reputation not by much wheeling and dealing, but instead through his excellent eye for amateur and minor league talent, and his ability to nurture and develop it (and for his amazing longevity, of course). But Mack could swing a sharp trade, too, and this was one.

McInnis had been a star first baseman for years, yet he was still just 27 when Mack dealt him here. But while he would remain a regular for nearly another decade, his hitting would immediately drop to a distinctly lower tier, and he’d never again be the performer he had been. Meanwhile the veteran star Gardner would continue to do well, and the journeyman throw-in Walker would blossom into a terrific slugger under Mack.

Jan. 22, 1918: The New York Yankees traded pitchers Urban Shocker and Nick Cullop, catcher Les Nunamaker, infielders Joe Gedeon and Fritz Maisel and $15,000 cash to the St. Louis Browns for second baseman Del Pratt and pitcher Eddie Plank.

Pratt had suffered an off year in 1917, but it came on the heels of five straight seasons as an outstanding all-around second baseman. Given that he was just turning 30, the Yankees’ decision to surrender this elaborate package for him wasn’t unreasonable.

But while Pratt would be good in New York, he’d never again be a major star. Meanwhile Shocker would rapidly develop into a terrific ace.

Jan. 10, 1922: In a three-club deal, the Boston Red Sox sent shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh to the Washington Senators. The Senators sent infielder Frank O’Rourke to the Red Sox and outfielder Bing Miller and pitcher Jose Acosta to the Philadelphia Athletics. The Athletics sent infielder Joe Dugan to the Red Sox.

All right, let’s break this one down:

The Red Sox traded Peckinpaugh for Dugan and O’Rourke. That was a nice deal; Peckinpaugh and Dugan were both solid regulars, and O’Rourke was a useful utility man, so the Sox benefitted. But Dugan would soon be sold off to the Yankees, as we’ll discuss below.

The Senators traded Miller, O’Rourke and Acosta for Peckinpaugh. That was too much to expend; Peckinpaugh would provide Clark Griffith’s Senators with several years of decent play, but he wasn’t anything special: he was a (generally) good fielder and so-so hitter. He would be voted an MVP award in 1925, but it’s important to understand that:

(a) the rules regarding MVP votes at that time disqualified any previous winners, distinctly narrowing the field of contestants, and
(b) even given that, awarding it to Peckinpaugh was completely nuts. The most prominent feature of Peckinpaugh’s career is the uncharacteristic eight, count ‘em, eight errors he committed in the 1925 World Series.

The A’s traded Dugan for Miller and Acosta. Score another one for Mr. Mack: Miller would be a consistently good performer for the next decade. Plus, Mack would pocket the sale price of the marginal Acosta, whom he would sell within a month.

Jan. 30, 1923: The New York Yankees traded pitcher George Murray, outfielder-infielder Norm McMillan, outfielder Camp Skinner and $50,000 cash to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Herb Pennock.

This would be the last of Boston owner Harry Frazee’s major sell-offs to the Yankees; there were a total of eight significant transactions between the clubs from December 1918 through this one.

In addition to Pennock, the Yankees netted pitchers Carl Mays, Waite Hoyt, Joe Bush, Sam Jones and George Pipgras, catcher Wally Schang, infielders Everett Scott and Joe Dugan and some outfielder named Ruth. They went from a below-.500 also-ran in 1918 to a strong contender by 1920, and winners of six pennants between 1921 and 1928.

The Red Sox netted a largely forgettable collection of odds and ends. They’d been World Series champions four times between 1912 and 1918, but wouldn’t be at .500 again after 1918, and would finish in last nine times between 1922 and 1932.

Oh, one other point: Frazee pocketed a total of more than $280,000 in cash via these deals (in addition to a friendly-terms loan of $350,000 from the Yankees’ ownership), and would sell the Red Sox in 1923 for $1.2 million, nearly double what he’d paid to purchase the franchise in 1916.

Over the years many have brought forth justifications and rationalizations that endeavor to explain away Frazee’s actions, but they amount to little more than nonsense. What happened was simple: Frazee leveraged his relationship with the well-heeled and aggressive Yankee ownership to opportunistically plunder the Boston franchise, and Frazee walked away with a fortune.

Jan. 9, 1927: In a three-club deal, the New York Giants sent pitcher Jack Scott and second baseman Fresco Thompson to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies sent outfielder George Harper to the Giants and catcher Butch Henline to the Brooklyn Robins. The Robins sent pitcher Burleigh Grimes to the Giants.

John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson were teammates on the fabled 1890s Orioles. Though quite different in personality—McGraw was feisty, while Robinson was jolly—both were energetic and extroverted, and they became close friends. So they would remain for the rest of their lives, even as business rivals for decades, with McGraw operating the Giants and Robinson the Dodgers—er, Robins, as they came to be called, in honor of Robinson, a vivid demonstration of the deep esteem in which “Uncle Robbie” was held.

But while Robinson was beloved for his benevolent spirit—a status McGraw, shall we say, failed to attain—it was McGraw who earned deeper respect for his acumen in recognizing, developing and organizing talent. The deal we see here is an illustration: McGraw leveraged the mid-level performers Scott and Thompson into not only the veteran workhorse Grimes but also the excellent platoon hitter Harper. Robinson, meanwhile, surrendered Grimes and received just the journeyman catcher Henline.

Jan. 10, 1928: The Boston Braves traded catcher Shanty Hogan and outfielder Jimmy Welsh to the New York Giants for second baseman Rogers Hornsby.

Hornsby’s overly intense personality wasn’t at all similar to the blasé aloofness of Dick Allen, but their careers bear a lot in common: Both were stupendous hitters whose exceptional difficulty at fitting in put them on a trading merry-go-round. And this particular deal is remarkably like the 1970 Allen-for-Ted Sizemore exchange between the Cardinals and Dodgers:

- Hornsby had been acquired by the Giants just a year earlier, as had Allen by the Cardinals.
- Hornsby had hit up a storm in his only season in New York, as had Allen for St. Louis.
- Hornsby would last just a single season with the Braves (still hitting up a storm) before being traded again, as would Allen with the Dodgers.
- Hogan was a good young player, as was Sizemore, but neither was the budding star his acquiring team would hype him to be.
- Hogan would remain with the Giants for five years, as would Sizemore with the Cardinals.

Jan. 4, 1936: The Boston Red Sox traded infielder Al Niemiec, pitcher Hank Johnson and $75,000 cash to the Philadelphia Athletics for outfielder Doc Cramer and infielder Eric McNair.

Here was the final episode in the several-years-long saga of Connie Mack selling off his 1930s big names. Yet in this case the aura was more alluring than the reality; while Cramer and McNair were useful talents, both could more far more accurately be described as journeymen than stars.

Cramer was a pretty big guy (6-foot-2, 185), but didn’t play like one. He didn’t steal bases, but other than that he was a dead ringer for Juan Pierre: a fleet-footed center fielder who hit for a good average, but utterly without power, and drawing few walks to fortify the OBP. Much as Pierre is today, Cramer was quite overrated in his time, making five All-Star teams and collecting some MVP votes in five seasons as well.

McNair was a pretty good defensive infielder with nice power, but poor on-base ability.

Jan. 17, 1937: The St. Louis Browns traded outfielder Moose Solters, shortstop Lyn Lary and pitcher Ivy Andrews to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder Joe Vosmik, shortstop Bill Knickerbocker and pitcher Oral Hildebrand.

For some reason the 1930s seem to have been the peak era for challenge trades, and challenge trades don’t get much purer than this triple-decker.

Solters and Vosmik were both right-handed-hitting left fielders, good line-drive hitters with moderate power. Lary was a jackrabbit shortstop with good on-base ability; Knickerbocker didn’t have Lary’s offensive skills but he was 25 and Lary was 31. Right-handers Andrews and Hildebrand were solid, unspectacular swingmen.

All in all, it would be difficult to design a more evenly balanced, and for that matter less purposeful, exchange. It would have precious little impact on either team’s fortunes: All six players would continue to do just about exactly as expected, and the tail-ender Browns would remain a tail-ender, while the middle-of-the-pack Indians would remain middle-of-the-pack.

Jan. 3, 1946: The Boston Red Sox traded infielder Eddie Lake to the Detroit Tigers for first baseman Rudy York.

These were two of the more intriguing players of their era, representing types that could hardly be more different. That they would find themselves traded for one another straight-up makes for an altogether fascinating transaction.

York was immensely strong, and spent the first half of his career terrorizing pitchers. In three minor league seasons, York hit 95 home runs and batted well over .300, but failed the defensive test as a catcher and was shifted to first base. However, upon arriving in the majors with Detroit he was blocked at first base by none other than Hank Greenberg. Therefore, the Tigers, over three seasons, gave York another shot at catcher, and then one at third base, and then one in left field, but his fielding was so catastrophically inept in every case that Detroit finally became unwilling to use York as a regular, despite his putting up OPS+ figures of 151, 140 and 129.

As a last resort, the Tigers moved the slow-footed, poor-fielding Greenberg to left field to make room for York at first base. Voila! Deployed in this least-awful defensive alignment, in 1940 York and Greenberg combined for 96 doubles, 74 homers, 284 RBIs and a 158 OPS+, and Detroit won the pennant.

Yet as the undisturbed Tiger first baseman in the seasons to follow, York failed to sustain the ferocious hitting he’d consistently demonstrated through 1940. Despite being allowed to concentrate just on hitting, only once in his age-27 through age-32 seasons would York put up an OPS+ figure comparable to those of his earlier performances. Injuries don’t appear to be an explanation, as through this period York was remarkably durable, playing more than 150 games every year, and routinely placing among the league’s top 10 in plate appearances. York was dependably good, but nothing like the superstar slugger he’d appeared ready to become.

When Greenberg returned from military service in mid-1945, the Tigers continued to deploy York at first base and Greenberg in left field, and they won another pennant that year. But Greenberg was now in his mid-30s. It was clear that keeping him in left field wasn’t viable going forward, so it wasn’t surprising to see York placed on the trading block.

What was surprising was who the Tigers accepted as a one-for-one exchange. Eddie Lake was a pint-sized middle infielder with a nice glove and a negligible bat who’d scraped together a few major league seasons as a scrubeenie. Then, in 1945, with the wartime talent shortage at its peak, the Red Sox had no alternative but to give the 29-year-old Lake a chance as their first-string shortstop. Lo and behold, he produced a .279 average, and leveraged his diminutive stature into a miniscule strike zone, finishing second in the league with 106 walks. Most unexpectedly, Lake clouted 11 homers and 27 doubles off the Balata ball—he was 10th in the league in home runs and in slugging.

That was a great year for Lake. But objectively, it had “wartime anomaly” written all over it, and, with every team returning to full strength for 1946, Lake would seem to be a guy fighting to hold a roster spot. Being traded straight-up for York—who with all his shortcomings was a five-time All-Star who’d collected MVP votes in eight separate seasons—was the last thing one might have expected for Lake.

But give Detroit GM George Trautman credit for looking past reputations and recognizing Lake’s talent. While he would never hit .279 again, Lake would be a pretty good (though error-prone) regular shortstop for the Tigers in 1946 and 1947, particularly notable for his extraordinary ability to work bases on balls.

And give longtime Boston GM Eddie Collins credit for being quick to leverage the surprise success of his wartime-scavenge pickup Lake into a serious bat. York would contribute one final strong season with the Red Sox in 1946, finishing third in the league in RBIs and helping the Red Sox achieve their first pennant since 1918.

This unusual trade was one that, as the old saying goes, helped both teams.

Jan. 27, 1953: The Chicago White Sox traded first baseman Eddie Robinson, shortstop Joe DeMaestri and outfielder Ed McGhee to the Philadelphia Athletics for first baseman Ferris Fain and minor leaguer Bob Wilson.

The A’s had picked up Fain as a Rule 5 draftee back in 1946, and he’d provided them with an excellent run as their regular first baseman. He’d peaked with terrific back-to-back seasons in 1951-52, winning batting championships and finishing sixth in the MVP vote both times. But Fain would soon turn 32, and Philadelphia GM Art Ehlers judged that the time was right to sell high. He negotiated a premium price from the White Sox, in the power-hitting Robinson along with defensive specialists DeMaestri and McGhee.

Ehlers’ timing was exquisite, as Fain would immediately decline, rendering the deal’s outcome strongly in the Athletics’ favor. White Sox field manager Paul Richards was reportedly livid with Frank Lane over this trade, and it was likely something that contributed to Richards’ decision to leave Chicago in 1954 and become his own GM in Baltimore.

Jan. 30, 1959: The Cincinnati Redlegs traded third baseman Don Hoak, pitcher Harvey Haddix and catcher Smoky Burgess to the Pittsburgh Pirates for third baseman-outfielder Frank Thomas, outfielder-infielder Jim Pendleton, outfielder Johnny Powers and pitcher Whammy Douglas.

The Reds (officially dubbed the “Redlegs” during this period as a gesture toward Cold War political correctness, but nobody paid attention) had been a strong contender in 1956, but by 1958 they’d dropped below .500. Under such circumstances, a move toward traditional rebuilding wouldn’t be unexpected: say, unloading a key veteran and retooling with younger talent.

The Pirates, after a decade of doormat status, had suddenly soared all the way to second place in ’58 with a blossoming young team. A ball club like this is often seen consolidating its resources by swapping a package for an established star, taking the next step toward “winning now.”

Thus the fact that the Reds and Pirates matched up to deal wasn’t surprising, but the nature of the deal they made was. In this one it was Reds GM Gabe Paul pulling together the package of mid-level talent and targeting the established star, and Pirates’ GM Joe Brown parting ways with arguably his best performer. (The three players accompanying Thomas to Cincinnati were quite marginal.)

Whatever the wisdom of this move from either perspective, in practice it would become one of the more one-sided exchanges in history. Thomas would get hurt and flop badly with the Reds, while Hoak, Haddix and Burgess would all become key contributors in the Pirates’ championship season of 1960.

Jan. 14, 1963: The Baltimore Orioles traded pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, shortstop Ron Hansen, outfielder Dave Nicholson and third baseman-outfielder Pete Ward to the Chicago White Sox for shortstop Luis Aparicio and third baseman-outfielder Al Smith.

Paul Richards began the construction of the Baltimore organization in late 1954, setting a brilliant master plan into motion. Richards scavenged what available talent he could to render the big league roster competitive, but the fundamental focus was always on signing and developing young talent, building from within. Lee MacPhail took the reins as GM in 1959, and by 1960-61 the core of organizationally nurtured youngsters was blossoming such that the team was a serious contender.

But in 1962, the Orioles were beset by a rash of injuries and slumps, and fell back to a 77-85, seventh-place finish. MacPhail responded with bold action. With this deal, for the first time Baltimore expended system-produced resources (along with the veteran star Wilhelm) to obtain high-profile veterans. It was a turning point, as despite their disappointing ’62 performance the Orioles were shifting into “win now” mode.

This particular trade didn’t work out especially well. Aparicio would be consistently good as he always was, but that wasn’t any better than a healthy Hansen. Smith would make a nice contribution in 1963, but he was getting close to the end of the line. Meanwhile, Ward would blossom as a star in Chicago (briefly, anyway), and the ageless Wilhelm would continue to perform brilliantly.

Nevertheless the new tone was clearly set: The Orioles were no longer content to be patient.

Jan. 20, 1965: In a three-club deal, the Chicago White Sox sent outfielders Mike Hershberger and Jim Landis and a player to be named later to the Kansas City Athletics and catcher Camilo Carreon to the Cleveland Indians. The Indians sent catcher John Romano, pitcher Tommy John and outfielder Tommie Agee to the White Sox. The Athletics sent outfielder Rocky Colavito to the Indians. (On Feb. 10, 1965, the White Sox sent pitcher Fred Talbot to the Athletics, completing the deal.)

Rarely in a three-way swap are the motives of each participant so distinct.

The White Sox exchanged Hershberger, Landis, Carreon and Talbot for Romano, John and Agee. Fundamentally, they were leveraging a surplus in the outfield to improve their catching, while also upgrading pitching prospects from Talbot to John. As a bonus they snagged the ultra-toolsy center field prospect Agee. It was a canny move by GM Ed Short, shoring up the current roster while also thinking of the future.

For the A’s, it was Colavito for Hershberger, Landis and Talbot. This was a case of Charlie Finley dramatically shifting gears after having acquired Colavito just one year earlier in a disastrously ill-fated attempt to transform his ball club into a power-hitting outfit. Neither Hershberger nor Landis offered a fraction of Colavito’s offensive prowess, but both were splendid with the glove, and run prevention was suddenly the top priority. The grade-B prospect Talbot was a bonus.

The Indians dealt Romano, John and Agee for Colavito and Carreon. Cleveland in 1964 had been a team with exceptional depth but unexceptional front-line talent, and this was a move in which GM Gabe Paul leveraged that depth to bring in a star. (Carreon was just a backup.) In the short run it would work out splendidly, as Colavito would deliver a terrific year in 1965, but in the ensuing seasons the decline of Colavito and the blossoming of John and Agee would cause this to be another in the long list of regrettable Cleveland deals.

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