In other words, if, in the first installment, we looked at how rules—mostly the reserve clause—changed trades, in this installment, we look at how certain trades changed the rules governing trades. Many if not most of those rules still determine which players teams can trade, when they can trade them, and to whom they can trade them. We start with some good old-fashioned baseball chicanery.
Trade No. 5: April 2, 1885. New York Metropolitans sold Dude Esterbrook and Tim Keefe to New York Giants.
Although not, strictly speaking, a trade, this deal would come to influence major league trade history for the century that followed. In 1885, tobacco magnate John B. Day owned the New York Metropolitans of the American Association and the New York Gothams—soon to be Giants—of the National League. In 1884, the Metropolitans finished first in the American Association, while the Gothams finished a distant fourth in the National League. At the time, the National League was the more prestigious of the two leagues, and Day wanted the Gothams to triumph where it mattered, even if it meant stripping the Metropolitans of whatever assets they had, which is precisely what Day proceeded to do. Before the start of the 1885 season, he engineered the sale of two of the Metropolitans’ best players—pitcher Tim Keefe and third baseman Dude Esterbrook—to the Gothams.
Outraged, owners in both leagues quickly instituted the first version of waivers. Before a player could be sold to a team from outside a league, the rule stipulated, he had to be offered to every other team in that league, and each of these teams had to “waive” its right to acquire him. With this rule, owners hoped, they could prevent teams from robbing the league of its star players. In 1934, owners would expand this rule to apply not just to sales but to trades, possibly—though remarkably little information is available about it—because Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics had spent the 1933 offseason trading or selling his best (and most expensive) players like Lefty Grove, Rube Wahlberg and Mickey Cochrane.
Regardless of its origins, the rule would continue to constrain trades between leagues until 1986. It explains why for the first six decades of 20th-century baseball, most trades occurred between teams within the same league and only rarely between teams from different leagues.
In the first entry in this series I mentioned the Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas trade following the 1965 season, which is notable because it was one of the first interleague trades—and certainly the first blockbuster interleague trade—to occur after owners eased these rules. In 1959, owners opened windows after the conclusion of one season and before the start of a new one when teams could trade players between leagues without players having to pass through waivers.
In 1986, Major League Baseball did away with this rule altogether. But it reminds us that for roughly the first half of the 20th century, the two leagues did not consider themselves part of one umbrella major league but, rather, two very much independent, even competing leagues. As a result, they guarded their assets—that is, their players and the autonomy of their pennant races—zealously.
By the way, the baseball gods did not smile on Day’s hijinks. In 1885, with Keefe on the mound and Esterbrook at the hot corner, the Gothams finished with a .759 winning percentage, which was good, but not quite good enough. They finished two games behind Chicago.
Trade No. 6: Aug. 28, 1916. New York Giants traded Larry Doyle, Herb Hunter and Merwin Jacobson to Chicago Cubs in exchange for Heinie Zimmerman.
At first glance, nothing stands out about this trade, but look closely at the date. That is awfully late in the season for a trade involving two flawed but nevertheless outstanding players. As a result, this trade would be the last of its kind.
After a great year for the Giants in 1915, second basemen Larry Doyle, then 29 years old, had slumped in 1916. Meanwhile, the mercurial third baseman Heinie Zimmerman, also 29 and having a good year, though never as good as his stellar 1912 season, had worn out his welcome in Chicago. In addition to rubbing fans and reporters the wrong way, Zimmerman was often accused of dogging it—or worse. In 1919 he and Giants first baseman Hal Chase would be banned from baseball for life for fixing games.
In 1916, though, he was still an impact player. After coming over to the Giants in the late August trade, Zimmerman cooled off, but the Giants caught fire, and with Zimmerman at third base they won 26 straight games—still a record—and nearly caught Brooklyn in the pennant race.
Fearing that a late-season trade like this one could alter a pennant race, the owners in the National League put a stop to such deals. During the offseason, owners ruled that after Aug. 20, players would have to clear waivers in both leagues before teams could trade them. In other words, they established a trade deadline, which, in one form or another, baseball has had since. Three years later, the American League followed suit, though the AL chose a July 1 trade deadline. In 1921, both leagues settled on Aug. 1 as a deadline, until the following year when it was moved to June 15. There it remained until 1986, when owners changed it to July 31.
Trade No. 7: Aug. 28, 1952. New York Yankees traded Johnny Schmitz, Jim Greengrass, Ernie Nevel, Bob Marquis and $35,000 to Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Ewell Blackwell.
Despite the 1934 rule that players had to clear waivers in their own league before they could be traded to a team in a different league, then as now players occasionally slipped through waivers without a team claiming them and could then be traded outside the league. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Yankees pulled off this trick several times, purchasing or trading for useful players during pennant races.
One was the above trade, when the Yankees sent some redundancies, spare parts, and a whole lot of cash to the lackluster Cincinnati Reds for their struggling but once dominant pitcher Ewell Blackwell. Previous trades like this one had netted the Yankees the likes of Johnny Mize, Johnny Hopp and Johnny Sain. But Major League Baseball soon put a stop to this, too. In 1953, it ruled that for a team to trade a player to a team in a different league after June 15, the player had to clear waivers in both leagues. Presumably, teams in a pennant race with another team—let’s call them the Yankees—would claim a player before he could be traded to a rival and play a decisive role in a pennant race. Blessedly, this rule remains with us.
Trade No. 8: Oct. 7, 1969. Philadelphia Phillies traded Jerry Johnson, Dick Allen and Cookie Rojas to St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, Joe Hoerner and Curt Flood. Curt Flood refused to report to Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals sent Willie Montanez (April 8, 1970) and Jim Browning (Aug. 30, 1970) to complete the trade.
You knew this one was coming. Still, it is hard to overestimate how important this trade would be to baseball history, certainly modern baseball history. Not since 1889 had one seen those portentous words, “failed to report,” but that is exactly what Curt Flood did following his trade from the Cardinals to the Phillies. During the 1969 season, despite winning his seventh straight Gold Glove, Flood had clearly lost a step in center field, and he was no longer quite so fearsome at the plate either. By WAR, though, he was still a three- or four-win player and promised to be for at least the next couple of years. But for a variety of reasons, he had alienated the Cardinals front office, and the first chance the Cardinals got, they traded him.
Flood, however, had no desire to go to Philadelphia, partly because of its wretched racial history and partly because it was a second-rate franchise, finishing with a 63-99 record in 1969. Instead, Flood chose to challenge the reserve clause that gave the Cardinals the right to do with him what they pleased.
“I am a man, I live in a democratic society,” he said, “and I believe I am entitled to participate in our free enterprise system. I do not, however,” he added, speaking the language of chattel slavery, “consider myself to be a piece of property to be sold regardless of my desire.”
The Supreme Court, however, did. Three years after the initial trade, during which time the Phillies had traded Flood to the Washington Senators, the court ruled that in theory baseball was subject to antitrust laws—which the reserve clause clearly violated—as much as any other business in the United States, but it was up to Congress and not the courts to make it so. In short, Flood would have to abide by the reserve clause. While his case wound its way through the courts, Flood sat out a year and then played a hopeless stint with the Senators in 1971, which revealed how much sitting out a year had cost him. Soon thereafter he retired from baseball.
It is curious to think about the trade as a trade, that is, whether the Cardinals or the Phillies got the better of the deal, or would have got the better of the deal had it gone through as planned. I will look at it later in this series in an entry on trades involving disgruntled stars. (In the trade, the equally unhappy Dick Allen had gone to the Cardinals.) But in retrospect the clear winner in this trade was neither the Cardinals nor the Phillies but players who profited from what Flood had lost. After Flood, it would become increasingly difficult to treat players like a piece of property, as the next trade—or, rather, cancelled trade—shows.
Trade No. 9: Dec. 11, 1973. Chicago Cubs traded Ron Santo to Chicago White Sox in exchange for Steve Stone, Ken Frailing, Steve Swisher and a player to be named later; Chicago Cubs received Jim Kremmel (Dec. 18, 1973).
This trade goes down in the transaction log, but it is the unrecorded one from a week earlier that matters. On Dec. 5, the Cubs had traded their aging but perennial All-Star third baseman Ron Santo to the Angels for pitchers Andy Hassler and Bruce Heinbechner. In February of 1973, though, in the wake of the Curt Flood revolt, players had bargained for a rule that said those with at least 10 years of service in the major leagues and five with the same team had the right to veto trades that sent them to a team to which they did not wish to play. Santo, who was coming to the end of his career and had settled down in the city, wanted to remain in Chicago. Santo vetoed the trade. A week later, the Cubs traded him to the White Sox, where he had to DH since the White Sox already had a good third baseman (Bill Melton). Santo would retire the next year.
Curiously, the Cubs got more value for Santo from the White Sox than the Angels. Although Heinbechner and Hassler were younger and had higher upsides, Heinbechner never made it to the major leagues, and Hassler accumulated fewer than three wins above replacement level in his six cost-controlled years with the Angels. By contrast, although Steve Swisher and the player to be named later, Jim Kremmel, did not amount to much, Frailing would add two wins in his three years with the Cubs, while Steve Stone added six in his three years with the Cubs before he was granted free agency in 1976. Of course, the Cubs finished well below .500 in all those years, so one or two wins here or there probably did not matter all that much. But speaking of free agency…
Trade No. 10: June 15, 1976. Baltimore Orioles traded Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Freeman, Elrod Hendricks, Ken Holtzman and Grant Jackson to the New York Yankees for Rick Dempsey, Tippy Martinez, Rudy May, Scott McGregor and Dave Pagan.
On March 16, 1976, pitchers Dave McNally of the Montreal Expos and Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers were made free agents after having played the 1975 season without having signed a contract. (A three-person arbitration panel, which came about because of Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve clause in 1970, granted them free agency.) After a mediocre year with the Expos in 1975, McNally retired, but Messersmith, who was a very good starting pitcher, had many suitors. In April, he signed with the Atlanta Braves, and after he bolted the stable door could not be closed. To secure their own free agency, many players followed McNally and Messersmith by not signing contracts for 1976. They need not have gone to the trouble. In July of 1976, owners and players signed a new basic agreement that granted players free agency after six years in the majors.
Throughout the 1976 season, owners could see free agency coming, and some of them—as countless ones would after them—sought to get what they could for their players before they lost them. In particular, Oakland owner Charlie Finley had seven unsigned free agents on his 1976 Athletics team. (He had had eight before the season started, but in April he traded pitcher Ken Holtzman and right fielder Reggie Jackson to the Baltimore Orioles for right fielder—and fellow free agent—Don Baylor.) At the June 15 trading deadline, the Oakland Athletics remained, albeit remotely, part of the playoff picture. Nevertheless, Finley sold three of his best players to east coast rivals. Pitchers Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers went to the Red Sox for $1 million each, and Vida Blue went to the Yankees for $1.5 million.
“I will not be driven into bankruptcy,” Finley vowed, “by these astronomical, unjustified salaries ballplayers are demanding today.” However, in the days following, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn called hearings to discuss the sales, and four days later he officially voided them. In voiding them, Kuhn claimed to act in the interests of the game. Acting in the interest of his wallet, Finley sued.
Other trades of impending free agents, however, occurred without intervention by Kuhn, among them, ironically, a late August, post-deadline deal involving the Oakland Athletics. When Kuhn voided the trades to New York and Boston, and his stars came back to him, at first Finley refused to play them. However, after other Oakland players threatened to strike, Finley conceded, and the Athletics played their way back into the playoff race. To buttress their effort, Finley traded for aged first baseman—and also soon to be free agent—Willie McCovey. In the event, the Athletics finished two and a half games behind Kansas City that year. If Finley had not pouted and held out his stars, they may have won.
But the Baltimore-New York trade listed above would soon become a model, and Kuhn could do nothing about it. At the trading deadline, the Baltimore Orioles sent impending free agents Doyle Alexander and Ken Holtzman to the New York Yankees for a host of prospects and promising younger players, among them Scott McGregor, the Yankees’ first-round pick in the 1972 amateur draft, and the prize in the trade.
I look more closely at this trade, who won and who lost, in a later entry on free agent-for-prospects trades. For now, it is enough to observe that this trade was the culmination of nearly a hundred years of rules and rule changes. Indeed, think about what had to have happened for this trade to occur: the reserve clause; the trade deadline; the rule that players had to clear waivers in both leagues before they could be traded to another league, which kept this trade between fellow American League teams the Orioles and the Yankees; and free agency, which made owners and general managers want to trade players like Alexander and Holtzman in the first place.
Having traced the rules of the trading game, we can now get down to the business of trades themselves. In the next entry in this series, I will explore what teams did when their star player demanded a trade. Often, they traded him for another disgruntled star. How did these trades turn out?