One of the great baseball pastimes is complaining about trades. I’m a Yankees fan, which means that I spend most of my time worrying about deals involving the Red Sox. Sometimes this concern is for nothing; much as I griped that Texas just gave away Eric Gagné in 2007, he did not do much for the Red Sox.
Fans of all teams have similar stories, but no fans were more the victim of such trades as those of the Kansas City Athletics in the 1950s. During that period the A’s traded, among others, Roger Maris, Bob Cerv, Ralph Terry and Enos Slaughter to the Yankees. Those players would win two MVP awards, earn multiple All-Star selections and help the Yankees win nine pennants and five World Series in ten years.
The A’s service as a de-facto farm system for the Yankees began with their sale from the Mack Family to Arnold Johnson. Johnson had previous owned Yankee Stadium. Not surprisingly, he had a strong relationship with the Yankees’ ownership, who supported him when he attempted, then succeeded, in buying the A’s.
To Major League Baseball’s credit, they did force Johnson to sell Yankee Stadium, but the shenanigans between the Yankees and Johnson were only beginning. At first the Yankees’ motives seemed altruistic, granting the A’s the Kansas City territory rights for free, but even this was based on the unprofitable nature of their farm club there.
Nonetheless, the initial dealings between Kansas City and New York were nothing special. In the mid 50s, Kansas City acquired former All-Stars Ewell Blackwell and Johnny Sain and future Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter. All were basically done, however. Slaughter was nearly forty, Sain had a 6.75 ERA at the time of the trade and Blackwell had not pitched at all the season before the A’s acquired him.
The only player with anything left was Slaughter, and the A’s sent him back to the Yankees in a waiver deal, allowing him to win two additional World Series in the Bronx.
Similar to Slaughter was the fate of Bob Cerv. In October of 1956 the Yankees sold Cerv to the A’s. Cerv had considerably more left than the Yankees evidently anticipated, after a 1957 season that did nothing to prove the Bronx Bombers wrong, Cerv posted a 159 OPS+ in 1958. That was good for fourth in the league, earning him the same place in MVP voting.
Cerv spent another season hitting well in Kansas City, albeit not as well as 1958 but in May of 1960 he was sent back to the Yankees for Andy Carey. Carey was wildly inconsistent third baseman who was hardly an upgrade on the man he was replacing, Dick Williams.
Players like Cerv and Slaughter, although talented, were small potatoes when compared with the trade that prompted today’s topic. The deal, more than any other, cemented the idea of the A’s as little more than a Yankees farm club, existing to provide them with talent while taking the Yankees’ former greats.
In its entirety, the trade sent Maris, Joe DeMaestri and Kent Hadley to the Yankees in exchange for Hank Bauer, Don Larsen, Marv Throneberry and Norm Siebern. DeMaestri was a no-hit shortstop who spent only two seasons in New York and Hadley was a first baseman who didn’t hit enough; he lasted only a year with the Yankees.
But those players didn’t matter because the star of the deal was Maris. In his first year in pinstripes, the North Dakotan missed 18 games, but hit so well that he made the All-Star team and won the MVP. Maris led the league in slugging percentage, RBIs, total bases and extra base hits while ranking second in homers, runs and winning the Gold Glove in right field.
The next year Maris not only won his second MVP trophy and became the first AL player to drive in more than 140 runs since Al Rosen in 1953 but famously broke the single season home run record while driving the Yankees to 109 wins and a World Series triumph.
Maris would remain an effective player through 1968, with a trade to the St. Louis Cardinals before the 1967 season bringing him even more postseason glory.
So what did the Athletics receive in return for such a talent? Siebern and three guys worth nothing. Siebern was a pretty decent player, one who ranked as high as seventh in MVP voting during his time with the A’s (coming in 1962 when he led the league in times on base).
With Siebern as one part of a strong package, the A’s could have gotten equal value for Maris. Instead, the other three pieces were worthless. Hank Bauer had been a good—sometimes great—player during his time in New York. By the time he arrived in Kansas City though, Bauer was 37 and no longer effective. He spent two years playing in KC, and eventually served as the team’s manager, where he was 50 games under .500 for his tenure.
Larsen meanwhile was three years removed from his glory in the World Series, which not coincidentally was the last season he had managed to make 20 starts and perform better than the league average. He lasted just 15 innings before being shipped to Chicago, kicking off the journeyman portion of his career.
Finally, there was Throneberry. While he was not yet “Marvelous Marv,” he is sometimes cited as the cause of the imbalance of the trade, a man whose potential failed him and left Kansas City holding the bag. Throneberry did put up strong minor league numbers, and was often described as a “feared minor league slugger” or the like.
If Kansas City management had paid attention, they would have limited their enthusiasm about Throneberry. For one, most of his minor league triumphs came with the Yankees’ new farm club in Denver, and as teams who have acquired Dante Bichette or Vinny Castilla can tell you, a player’s numbers in the thin air are not to be trusted.
Moreover, while Throneberry’s time in the majors was limited prior to his being dealt to the A’s, he had shown an alarming fondness for the strikeout. Despite coming to plate just 386 times in 1958-59, Throneberry struck out 91 times. Only one other player with as few plate appearances struck out as often.
It was therefore no surprise that by 1962 Throneberry was entering the punch line phase of his career while playing for the Mets, who picked up him from Baltimore after Kansas City sent him there in mid-1961.
Arnold Johnson died in March of 1960 and ownership of the A’s went to Charles O. Finley. Finley had a number of unorthodox ideas about running a baseball team, but none of them involved treating it like a farm club for his friends in ownership. (Even if that had been Finley’s desire, he didn’t really have any friends in ownership.)
That marked the end of the Athletics-Yankees pipeline. Nonetheless all fans, when complaining about their team’s rival were seemingly gifted a crucial piece, should remember how Kansas City rooters must have felt watching the parade of talent march to Yankees in the mid-1950s.