On December 7, 1976 the Seattle Mariners traded Grant Jackson to the Pirates for Craig Reynolds and Jimmy Sexton. The trade is notable, but not for the players involved.
Baseball, like most sports, loves its milestones. A large part of the conversation about Derek Jeter’s contract negotiations with the Yankees centered around how improbable it seemed that Jeter would record his three-thousandth hit in another uniform. Barring an incredibly unexpected turn of events, Jeter will end up getting hit number 3,000 with the Yankees.
But of course, as the cliché goes, a journey of a thousand miles (or 3,000 hits) starts with a single step. For Jeter, that came on May 30, 1995 when he singled off Seattle’s Tim Belcher. But while first hits, or first wins for a pitcher, are often noted, the first moves made by a franchise are often forgotten. This week, we’ll look back at the first trade some teams ever made. Since the early history of baseball is often unclear, we’ll focus for this week on the recent expansion teams, whose transactions are better recorded.
As noted above, the Seattle Mariners—who were to begin play the following season—made their first move in early December of 1976. Grant Jackson, acquired from the Yankees as the eleventh pick in the Expansion Draft just over a month prior, was sent to the Pirates in exchange for two players. For Jackson, this was just another move in his much travelled career; he would finish with a lifetime 3.46 ERA with six teams across eighteen years.
The trade would prove a good one for the Pirates, as Jackson posted a 3.28 ERA his first three years in Pittsburgh and went 2-0 without allowing a run during the 1979 playoffs as well. For Seattle, meanwhile, this trade was another in the long list of reasons they would not have a winning season until 1991. Craig Reynolds put up just a .661 OPS during his time at the Kingdome; Jimmy Sexton was even worse, coming in at .635 during his only season with the M’s.
|Dmitri Young, briefly a Tampa Bay Devil Ray (Icon/SMI)|
When it comes to first trades, that might be the only thing the Mariners did worse than their spiritual predecessors, the Seattle Pilots. The Pilots’ first trade was actually a strong deal for them, compared to the outright mess the Mariners made. (Of course, the Pilots made a mess of pretty much everything else, which is why the Seattle market was open for the Mariners to move into in 1977.)
In February of 1969, just a couple of months before their season was to begin, the Pilots traded for Greg Goosen from the Mets. Goosen is most famous as the man who was the subject of Casey Stengel’s line that Goosen was 20, and “in ten years, he’s got a chance to be 30.” As it turned out, Stengel was right; Goosen didn’t even make it to age 25 in the major leagues. But he did have his moment in the sun for the Pilots, batting .309/.385/.597 with ten home runs—third on the team—in limited action.
Goosen was never that good again, but for the Pilots that was okay, because the player they sent to the Mets (initially a player to be named later) was Jim Gosger. Gosger appeared in only ten games for the Mets, hitting .133, and was traded in the off-season, ultimately ending up in Montreal.
Of course, that was not the first trade for the Expos, but it was surely easier than their actual first deal. That took place in January of 1969 when the Expos tried to trade Jesus Alou and Donn Clendenon to the Astros for Rusty Staub. I’ve written more extensively about that trade here, but the short version is that Clendenon refused to report to Houston, and the Expos ended up sending additional players and cash to complete the trade while keeping Clendenon.
Even with the cash and players, the deal was a steal for the Expos, who managed to end up with the best player in the trade. Staub would grow into an Expo fan favorite, Le Grande Orange, putting up a combined .295/.404/.501 line his three seasons in Montreal.
(If you set the somewhat arbitrary line as the beginning of 2005, the first trade for the franchise after it moved to Washington was sending Jerry Owens to the White Sox for one-time top prospect Alex Escobar.)
Like the Mariners, the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays took many years to reach success, and like the Mariners, their initial trade reveals why, even if that is not quite the full story. On November 14, the Rays acquired Mike Kelly, an outfielder of no particular distinction, from the Reds for a player to be named later. On November 18, they completed that trade, sending Dmitri Young—whom they had acquired in the expansion draft—to the Reds. On the face, this was a terrible trade for the Rays. Kelly played one season in Tampa Bay, hit .240 and was out of baseball after the next season. Young, on the other hand, would go to bat .310 that year and hit 166 home runs the remainder of his career.
But the catch here is that Young was taken in the Expansion Draft from the Reds. Cincinnati and Tampa Bay had a deal in place before the draft. This allowed the Reds to leave certain players unexposed without fear of losing them to the expansion teams. And yes, that’s expansion teams, plural, because the Reds worked out a similar deal with Arizona for reliever Felix Rodriguez, in what was Arizona’s first trade in history. Credit goes to then Reds’ GM Jim Bowden, who is said to have come up with the idea.
Much like first hits, of which there are many, with only a small handful ever constituting one in a meaningful collection, first trades by franchises are not necessarily meaningful. The Seattle Pilots and Montreal Expos did a much better job on their first trades than the Seattle Mariners or Tampa Bay Rays. But you can still watch those teams today, whereas the Pilots and Expos now play in different cities under different names. Nonetheless, it is a fun bit of history to look back on.