On Jan. 22, 1969, the Expos traded Donn Clendenon to the Houston Astros. Unhappy with the move, Clendenon announced his retirement. So how did he end up the MVP of the World Series for the Miracle Mets that year?
For most fans, the story of Donn Clendenon’s 1969 season might as well start on Oct. 11 of that year. That was the first day of the World Series, pitting the Miracle Mets against Earl Weaver’s Orioles. Although the Mets would lose Game One, Clendenon scored their only run, and in Game Two he would hit a home run to give the Mets their first lead in the series. He would go on to hit two more homers, bat .357 with a 1.509 OPS (sic) and win the Series’ MVP award. What most fans don’t know is that Clendenon came close to playing for the National League’s other 1962 expansion team that year, and even closer to not playing at all.
On Oct. 14, 1968, baseball in Montréal was regarded as a great idea (though it would seem an equally bad idea fewer than 40 years later). The newly formed Expos—along with the San Diego Padres—were holding their expansion draft. The American League Pilots and Royals would hold theirs the next day.
Among others, the Expos took Donn Clendenon and Manny Mota from the Pirates and Jesus Alou (who will play a minor role in our story) from the Giants. In late January of 1969, seeking to add youth to their largely veteran squad, the ‘Spos packaged Clendenon and Alou and shipped them to the Astros for Rusty Staub.
A brief aside is necessary here. This was a ghastly trade for the Astros. Staub was just 26 and coming off seasons in which he had posted OPS+ of 155 and 131. In exchange, the Astros were receiving a 33-year-old first baseman and 27-year-old outfielder, both so little regarded by their teams the year before that they were left unprotected in an expansion draft. The Expos’ press release quoted Gene Mauch as describing the trade as “manifique, manifique” and he had the right idea. Staub would play 17 more years after leaving Houston, including four All-Star appearances and five times receiving MVP votes. It is only the controversy that would come to surround the trade that masks what a catastrophic deal this was.
The controversy began on March 1, when Clendenon announced his retirement, saying he planned to work for Scripto Inc., an Atlanta-based pen company. Clendenon told The New York Times that the trade had nothing to do with his decision to retire. The problem was that no one—Clendenon included—believed that, despite his noble claims of using his position to find black players work after their careers. On March 7, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn “declined to accept” Clendenon’s retirement, and ordered Staub and Alou to report to their new teams. Houston management was furious, since it now had dealt Staub for just Jesus Alou, and began making noises about a lawsuit to force the trade to be undone.
Meanwhile, in the spirit of confusing things even further, Staub announced that if he were made to return to the Astros he was going to retire. Like Clendenon, Staub had a series of righteous reasons for his threat, including his helping sell Expos’ tickets and meeting with their owner, to say nothing of having driven his car all the way to Montreal and fitted his apartment with “drapes (and) rugs.” Despite facing the alarming possibility of getting neither Alou and Clendenon nor Staub, the Astros persisted in their demands the trade be undone. They were predictably furious when Kuhn announced that not only would the trade stand, but that Clendenon could return to Montreal.
Astros’ owner Judge Roy Hofheinz, who also owned Ringling Brothers, decided to combine his two non-baseball interests, the law and circuses, by suing in federal court. Hofheinz raised a tremendous stir, contending that Kuhn’s ruling would destabilize the reserve clause and that the judiciary was necessary to uphold it. At the same time, other owners were concerned a federal judge might take the case for the sole purpose of using it to eliminate the reserve clause.
Despite such contrasting views, a settlement was reached with comparative ease. In early April, Clendenon announced he would return to the Expos, signing a two-year contract for a reported $50,000 a year. Meanwhile, Kuhn had somehow convinced cooler heads to prevail in Houston: By the time of Clendenon’s announcement, the Astros and Expos were negotiating over which players and how much cash the Houston franchise would receive to even out the trade.
Ultimately, Montréal gave up righty Jack Billingham, lefty Skip Guinn and an “undisclosed sum,” generally stated to be $100,000. Billingham would go on to fame both for giving up Hank Aaron’s 714th home run and for setting the all-time lowest World Series ERA record, one he still holds. Guinn would appear in just 32 games for the Astros over two seasons. Even with the additional players and the cash, it was a disaster of a trade for the Astros.
Of course, the man who ultimately laughed loudest in the deal was Clendenon, albeit followed closely by Staub. Clendenon, spared from either going to play for the Astros or working for a pen company, ended up having a pretty good year. Although he was putting up fairly pedestrian numbers for the Expos, in mid-June the Mets acquired him for a four-player package. Clendenon improved his performance, helping the Mets overcome the Chicago Cubs and, of course, putting together that great World Series. Staub would spend just three seasons in Montréal but he made the All-Star team all three years, became Le Grande Orange, returned briefly in 1979 and eventually became the first Expo to have his number retired.
All this only further served to rub salt in Houston’s wounds as the players they received didn’t produce enough combined value to come close to that of Staub. Judge Hofheinz did not have to suffer through much of that, however; a stroke in 1970 left him confined to a wheelchair and by 1975 his financial empire had collapsed. Despite his active style of ownership (reflected in his desire to file the lawsuit), the Astros finished better than .500 just twice during his tenure. Perhaps inspired by the man who had nearly been his owner, Clendenon earned a law degree after his retirement, and would practice until his death in September 2005.