As a reminder, here are our ground rules:
- We’re talking about trades here, and only trades. No draft picks (expansion, Rule V 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. As we did in our midseason series, we’ll 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.
Davis had put terrific seasons back-to-back in 1962-63, but he’d had an off-year in ’64, then suffered a compound ankle fracture in ’65. He was back only as a platoon player in 1966, hitting all right but not as he once had.
Given all this, it wasn’t surprising to find Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi shopping him around. What was surprising was the price Mets GM Bing Devine was willing to pay: Hunt was among the better offensive second basemen in baseball, and two years younger than Davis. Unless Davis regained his years-ago form, it was hard to see how this deal would help the Mets.
Davis would come back with a strong year for the Mets in ’67, but he’d never be the player he’d once been. Still the Mets would be able to leverage Davis into something better, which we’ll examine next month.
In his 1963-68 tenure as GM of the threadbare expansion Senators, likely the best move George Selkirk made was in May of ’63, when he traded an over-the-hill Jimmy Piersall to the Mets for an even-further-over-the-hill Gil Hodges. Selkirk immediately retired Hodges as a player and named him field manager.
Widely respected as a quiet leader in his long career as a player—in 1962 Roger Angell described him as “perhaps the most popular ballplayer in the major leagues today”—Hodges took on the challenge of managing with predictable calm confidence. Slowly but steadily, the rag-tag Senators began to improve. Their winning percentage for Hodges was .344 in 1963, .383 in 1964 (when for the first time they didn’t finish last), .432 in 1965 (when they rose to eighth), .447 in 1966 (eighth again), and .472 in 1967 (when they tied for sixth, and were on the outskirts of the pennant race as late as August). Never in these years was the Senators’ roster impressive, but almost imperceptibly they were working themselves out of the status of patsy, and flirting with respectability.
Meanwhile in New York, perhaps the most egregious blunder of the many committed by founding GM George Weiss was his choice of field manager. Casey Stengel had, of course, been a brilliant manager through much of his tenure with the Yankees. But while always beloved by the quote-hungry press, Stengel, a protégé of John McGraw, had never been very popular with his players, and by 1960 the septuagenarian was increasingly unable to relate to the 20-somethings in his charge.
Nevertheless when Weiss began the construction of the Mets he would accept no other manager, spending most of 1961 relentlessly pursuing Stengel, who’d thought himself happily retired in California. Finally Stengel accepted Weiss’s offer, and was thus, at 71, placed in charge of a brand-new ballclub pervaded with young players. He was not only the oldest manager in baseball at the time (the next was 53), but the oldest manager other than Connie Mack to ever work in the major leagues to that point.
The New York sportswriters were overjoyed. But Stengel’s mastery of media relations, never better than in his tenure with the Mets, was no longer matched by a capacity to motivate and develop athletes. His doddering inability to remember players’ names was rollicking good fun in the newspaper columns, but not an endearing or confidence-building trait from the players’ perspective.
Stengel with the Mets was a living caricature of his once-great self, and as the real star, the only star of the Mets’ show, his ubiquitous anachronistic presence served as a daily suggestion to Mets players that they weren’t a legitimate ballclub, but rather something more like a barnstorming exhibition, a clown act.
In this atmosphere it wasn’t only difficult for a player to excel, but in fact it became easy, indeed cheerfully expected, for a player to fail, the more outrageously the better. The mood Stengel fostered was one of zany, surrealistic hilarity in the face of defeat; conspicuously lacking were seriousness of purpose, expectation of excellence, and the profound intolerance of failure that steels successful enterprises—in short, the qualities that would suffuse the Mets as soon as Hodges took over as manager.
The Mets’ “miraculous” championship of 1969 has never been forgotten, but routinely overlooked is the fact that it came on the heels of a 12-win gain (and 18-win Pythagorean improvement) upon Hodges’ arrival in 1968. Meanwhile, in Hodges’ absence, the Senators’ steady progress immediately evaporated, and Washington fell all the way back to last place.
Two years after they’d faced off in a riveting seven-game World Series, these two ballclubs were swapping essential elements. Twins owner/GM Calvin Griffith’s desire to unload Versalles and Grant was obvious, as both had fallen off a cliff since 1965. Given that, it was startling that Griffith was able to extract what he did from Bavasi: Miller had delivered an off-year in 1967, but Roseboro and Perranoski were both fine players showing no signs of decline.
Though Grant would have a good season in the Los Angeles bullpen in ’68, Versalles would sustain his appalling regression. Meanwhile, Roseboro, Perranoski and Miller all would thrive in Minnesota.
Nov. 29, 1967: The Baltimore Orioles traded shortstop Luis Aparicio and outfielders Russ Snyder and John Matias to the Chicago White Sox for infielder-outfielder Don Buford and pitchers Bruce Howard and Roger Nelson.
The Orioles careened from their runaway-pennant-and-World-Series-sweep season of 1966 into a 76-85, sixth-place ditch in ’ 67, and an off-year from the 33-year-old Aparicio was one of their problems. They had a young Mark Belanger coming along, so Baltimore GM Harry Dalton sensibly put Aparicio on the market.
As was often the case with Dalton, he struck a remarkably good bargain here. The versatile, multi-talented Buford would play a key role in the Orioles’ return to contention in 1968, and their tremendous championship run of 1969-71.
For several years Cardenas had been a good-fielding shortstop with some pop in his bat, but nagged by injuries, he’d had off-seasons in both 1967 and ’68. In need of pitching help, the Reds were willing to let him go. The Twins had been suffering a gaping hole at shortstop since The Fall of Versalles, and reasoned they had enough pitching depth to surrender the control artist southpaw Merritt to address it.
Both teams would benefit. Cardenas would rebound in fine form in Minnesota, while Merritt, despite unimposing ERAs, would deliver abundant innings and wins to the Reds in 1969-70.
Nov. 17, 1969: The Chicago Cubs traded pitcher Dick Selma and outfielder Oscar Gamble to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Johnny Callison and a player to be named later. (In January 1970 the Phillies sent pitcher Larry Colton to the Cubs, completing the deal.)
We’ve examined before the Cubs’ logic in getting the fading-but-still-productive Callison, and how this deal was one of many that Chicago GM John Holland swung in this period that filled one hole but opened another. The Cubs sure could have made good use of the hard-throwing Selma in their beleaguered bullpen in 1970.
The raw stats of both teams were amplified by park effects, but the 1969 Angels were a legitimately weak-hitting club with decent pitching (a team OPS+ of 83, and a team ERA+ of 98), while the Reds were just the reverse (114 OPS+, 91 ERA+). So these organizations matched up perfectly to address mutual needs.
It would work out exactly as hoped for both in 1970, as Johnson provided the Angels the big bat they’d lacked, and McGlothlin filled the Reds’ need for a dependable starter. The Angels would improve by 15 wins, and the Reds by 13, lifting Cincinnati to championship status.
But as we explored last month, in 1971 things would go dreadfully sour for Johnson and the Angels. And utility man Ruiz would play his own part in their multitude of controversies that year, as he was at the center of a murky pistol-brandishing-in-the-clubhouse incident. McGlothlin would soon encounter arm trouble, and he would throw his last pitch before he was 30.
To add a tragic twist, Ruiz would be killed in an automobile accident in early 1972, and in 1975 McGlothlin would succumb to leukemia.
Born 17 days apart in late 1945, Monday and Holtzman both had been selected at age 19 in the first-ever free agent draft, Monday the very first pick. Both quickly reached the majors, and flashed brilliance. Monday was an All-Star at 22 in 1968, and the 21-year-old Holtzman went a dazzling 9-0 in his 12 starts in 1967.
Yet the major stardom expected for both failed to materialize: Both were good, but not great. When in 1971 each had a setback season—Monday’s batting average dipped to .245, and Holtzman’s ERA ballooned to 4.48—Charlie Finley’s A’s and Phil Wrigley’s Cubs lost patience, and decided to swap frustrations.
Each player would thrive in his new environment. Though neither became a superstar, Monday and Holtzman would be among the finer players of the 1970s. It’s remarkable how comparable in overall accomplishment they were through their peak years, and how fair this trade would be.
Here Giants owner/GM Horace Stoneham guessed terribly wrong, both that the durable Perry, at the age of 33, was nearing the end of his productive years, and that the hard-throwing, hard-drinking McDowell, at the age of 29, had big seasons yet to come. Yet while few trades in baseball history have turned out as lopsided as this one, it must be understood that no observers at the time were predicting McDowell’s imminent collapse, nor did anyone foresee how exceptional Perry’s pitching longevity would be.
And anyway, from the Giants’ standpoint this deal was made less on the basis of logical analysis of the talent involved, or of the team’s fundamental needs, than it was on the basis of the comparative images of the players involved. In that sense this trade had something in common with the 1974 Bobby Bonds-for-Bobby Murcer swap we examined last month.
Perry was a dour character, short on charisma, and though he was a remarkable pitcher, he’d never become a particular favorite of the fans. McDowell, wild in his pitches and his behavior, was seen by Stoneham as a more exciting figure, a strikeout king and a headline grabber. In acquiring McDowell, the Giants—anxious to reverse a several-years-long decline in attendance—were capturing the ideal of a flashy, young fastballing ace. The reality of McDowell’s physical and mental condition wasn’t so attractive, but the Giants were too dazzled by the image to pay attention.
Meanwhile, Cleveland GM Gabe Paul, knowing McDowell first-hand, had no such illusions. The veteran executive’s brief 1971-72 tenure with the Indians (he’d previously held the job from 1961-69) wasn’t exactly successful—as we’ll see below—but he must be credited with exceptional sagacity in this instance.
Nov. 29, 1971: The Houston Astros traded second baseman Joe Morgan, infielder Denis Menke, pitcher Jack Billingham and outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister to the Cincinnati Reds for first baseman Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms and infielder Jim Stewart.
The third blockbuster conducted on this remarkable day at baseball’s winter meetings was one of the most impactful transactions in the history of the sport. Cincinnati GM Bob Howsam executed a masterpiece in two separate ways.
Conceptually, Howsam’s brilliance was in seizing the opportunity to address, in one bold stroke, two of his high-profile ball club’s structural flaws. The Big Red Machine had suffered an off-year in 1971, but had been the NL’s pennant winner in 1970, and in both seasons their key strength was the tremendous power-hitting core of Tony Perez, Johnny Bench and Lee May. However, within that very core nestled two problems: All three big sluggers were right-handed batters, and two of the three were natural first basemen.
Right-handed, slow-footed big swingers back-to-back-to-back at the heart of the Reds’ lineup rendered them vulnerable to right-handed pitching, as well as prone to rally-killing double play grounders. And finding room for Perez and May in the lineup required the Reds to deploy Perez at third base, creating a fielding weakness. Thus the essential swap at the epicenter of this tectonic shift—May-for-Morgan—dealt with both issues at once, balancing the team’s offensive profile while clearing space for Perez to shift to first base, allowing the defense to be improved at third.
And from a practical standpoint, Howsam didn’t just get Morgan for May, he got so very much more. By simply adding the slick-fielding-but-light-hitting Helms and utility player Stewart to the package, Howsam yielded in return Menke (a solid veteran who would, in the short run, capably fill the third base opening), Billingham (a workhorse starting pitcher just entering his prime) and Geronimo (a 23-year-old outfielder with world-class defensive tools). Howsam even got the Astros to toss a prospect (Armbrister) into the jackpot.
One was left in gaping wonder (as one often was) what in the world Astros GM Spec Richardson was thinking: May and Helms were good talents, but each had obvious flaws; it just didn’t add up for Houston to surrender this quantity of resources to get them.
To be sure, it isn’t fair to credit Howsam with the prescience of anticipating Morgan’s subsequent improvement. But the issue is that even if Morgan hadn’t improved at all, and had just continued to perform for the Reds the way he’d performed for the Astros, Cincinnati still would have won this deal. Morgan’s sudden transformation from terrific all-around second baseman into inner-circle all-time great was simply delectable icing on the cake.
Nov. 27, 1972: The New York Yankees traded catcher John Ellis, outfielders Charlie Spikes and Rusty Torres and infielder Jerry Kenney to the Cleveland Indians for third baseman Graig Nettles and catcher Jerry Moses.
The McDowell-for-Perry swap above was Gabe Paul doing something smart. This, well, wasn’t.
The Indians’ issue was that they had two good third basemen, in Nettles and the young Buddy Bell. So, trading one or the other made sense.
But they didn’t have to make a trade. They could have continued to deploy Bell in the outfield, where he was just fine defensively.
And of all things, trading Nettles to a division rival in exchange for three nice-but-nothing-special prospects most assuredly didn’t make sense. Lee MacPhail’s 1966-73 tenure as Yankees’ GM wasn’t exactly memorable, but this was one exceptional contribution he made to the franchise, laying one of the cornerstones for their great 1976-81 team.
Nov. 28, 1972: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded outfielder Frank Robinson, pitchers Bill Singer and Mike Strahler, infielder-outfielder Bobby Valentine and infielder Billy Grabarkewitz to the California Angels for pitcher Andy Messersmith and third baseman Ken McMullen.
This was nice work by Dodgers GM Al Campanis. He leveraged one thing the 1972 Dodgers had in abundance—depth—and focused on improving at one position, starting pitcher, and the upgrade from Singer to Messersmith was quite substantial. Before departing Los Angeles as a free agent in profoundly historic fashion, Messersmith would deliver three exceptionally strong seasons.
While Bradley didn’t have Messersmith’s nasty stuff, his was real good. Moreover, Bradley had better control than Messersmith, had been more durable, and was a year younger. This looked like a splendid acquisition for Stoneham’s Giants, who had plenty of young outfield talent to replace Henderson.
Ah, but pitchers. They will break your heart.
Nov. 30, 1972: The Baltimore Orioles traded second baseman Dave Johnson, pitchers Pat Dobson and Roric Harrison and catcher Johnny Oates to the Atlanta Braves for catcher Earl Williams and infielder Taylor Duncan.
A year earlier, Frank Cashen had replaced Harry Dalton as the Orioles’ GM, and Cashen wouldn’t display Dalton’s trading savvy—though, to be fair, few GMs ever have.
Cashen had a young Bobby Grich ready to take over for Johnson at second base, and so was converting his infield surplus into a power-hitting young catcher in Williams. That was fine, but Cashen apparently hadn’t done all the homework he might have on Williams, who would prove to be not only brutal defensively but singularly lacking in work ethic. Perhaps Cashen ought to have been more curious as to why Braves GM Eddie Robinson would be ready to unload Williams at the tender age of 24.
At the very least, including the workhorse starter Dobson, as well as Harrison and Oates—who weren’t great, but weren’t chopped liver—might have been something Cashen would have resisted.
The 1972 winter meetings were just as tumultuous as those of the preceding season. Here was the fifth bombshell in four days.
We’ve marveled before at what an act of larceny on the part of Royals GM Cedric Tallis this turned out to be. But it must be said that for the Reds’ Howsam, this offer was simply far too good to refuse. Neither Nelson nor Scheinblum had a good track record, but both had been superb in 1972, vastly better than their counterparts Simpson and McRae.
Nov. 17, 1975: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded outfielders Jim Wynn and Tom Paciorek and infielder-outfielders Lee Lacy and Jerry Royster to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Dusty Baker and first baseman-third baseman Ed Goodson.
Baker was an outstanding young outfielder, but through the age of 26 he hadn’t developed into quite the star the Braves had expected. And in 1975 he’d begun to be nagged by a bad knee, and moreover the team had endured its worst season since 1941. So under the circumstances it was reasonable for Eddie Robinson to be open to trade offers.
The package presented by the Dodgers’ Campanis was substantial. Wynn was obviously in decline, but he would deliver value to the Braves in 1976. And Lacy, Royster and Paciorek were all meaningful talents—though the Braves, as was often the case in that period, wouldn’t seem to figure out how to deploy them.
Baker’s knee would become a serious problem in 1976, but following surgery he would deliver many years as a very good left fielder for the Dodgers.
Finley’s great Oakland dynasty had suffered its first terrific blow in December of 1974 when ace pitcher Catfish Hunter was declared a free agent due to Finley’s defaulting on contractually obligated payments. Yet even without Hunter, in 1975 the A’s had been division champions for the fifth straight season. But with free agency looming in 1976, Finley traded away right fielder Reggie Jackson, and attempted to sell pitchers Rollie Fingers and Vida Blue and left fielder Joe Rudi—only to have that maneuver thwarted by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Still Finley’s A’s in 1976, with Tanner on board as manager, had enough talent on hand to finish second (and steal a modern-record 341 bases).
But by the autumn of ’76, Finley was suing Kuhn (Charlie O. would lose) and watching not only Fingers, Blue and Rudi, but also catcher-first baseman Gene Tenace, third baseman Sal Bando, shortstop Bert Campaneris and outfielder-first baseman Don Baylor desert him as free agents. Finley resorted to getting what he could for his few remaining assets, here persuading the Pirates to hand over the veteran catcher Sanguillen and a hundred grand in exchange for the then-highly regarded Tanner.
Nov. 10, 1978: The New York Yankees traded pitchers Sparky Lyle, Dave Rajsich and Larry McCall, catcher Mike Heath, infielder Domingo Ramos and cash to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Juan Beniquez, pitchers Dave Righetti, Paul Mirabella and Mike Griffin and minor league outfielder Greg Jemison.
Nov. 1, 1979: The New York Yankees traded outfielder Juan Beniquez, catcher Jerry Narron and pitchers Jim Beattie and Rick Anderson to the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Ruppert Jones and pitcher Jim Lewis.
Nov. 1, 1979: The New York Yankees traded first baseman Chris Chambliss, infielder Damaso Garcia and pitcher Paul Mirabella to the Toronto Blue Jays for catcher Rick Cerone, pitcher Tom Underwood and outfielder Ted Wilborn.
Until he settled on Brian Cashman in 1998, Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner churned through GMs in much the same way he churned through field managers (until, that is, he settled on Joe Torre in 1996). The first deal above was executed by Cedric Tallis, and the next pair by Gene Michael; each would have a two-year stint at the Yankees’ helm in this period.
Yet Tallis was still on board with the title of executive vice president when Michael swung the latter trades, and all three were excellent pieces of work, following a common theme: They served to make the roster generally younger while addressing specific immediate needs. This sort of subtle refreshment, re-tooling while remaining highly competitive, was reminiscent of the masterful touch of the legendary Yankees GM of 1947-1960, George Weiss.
Nov. 20, 1981: In a three-club deal, the St. Louis Cardinals sent pitchers Lary Sorensen and Silvio Martinez to the Cleveland Indians; the Indians sent catcher Bo Diaz to the Philadelphia Phillies; and the Phillies sent outfielder Lonnie Smith to the Cardinals and pitcher Scott Munninghoff to the Indians.
Here Cardinals GM Whitey Herzog cleverly landed an excellent (well, offensively, anyway) young left fielder, and Phillies GM Paul Owens filled a need at catcher. Meanwhile, the Indians’ GM, the often-hapless Phil Seghi, sucked a lemon.
Oddly, not another November blockbuster would occur for the rest of the 1980s. But they would reappear, big time, in the ’90s.