Off-season blockbusters:  March (Part 1:  1893-1978)

Well, little darling, it’s been a long, cold lonely winter, but we’ve kept ourselves cozy by reviewing all of the biggest trades conducted through the off-season months. Now, here comes the sun, and with it the most memorable deals conducted during spring training.

As a reminder, here are our ground rules:

– We’re talking about trades here, and only trades. No draft picks (expansion, Rule 5 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. We 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.

March 11, 1893: The New York Giants traded catcher Jack Boyle, pitcher Jack Sharrott and cash to the Philadelphia Phillies for first baseman Roger Connor.

Last month we saw the Giants swapping their longtime star Buck Ewing in late February of 1893. Here a couple of weeks later, they were re-acquiring their longtime star Connor, who’d jumped his Giants contract following the 1891 season.

Connor was quite a player. He was 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, utterly enormous for that era, and a tremendous power hitter. He was 35 at this point, but had showed no sign of decline, yet still the Phillies were willing to give him up for the modest package of a journeyman catcher, a prospect pitcher and some cash.

The deal would balance out pretty evenly. Connor would hit well for the Giants, but not as ferociously as he once had, and they’d give up on him after one season and change. Sharrott wouldn’t pan out, but Boyle would be a solid catcher for the Phillies for several years.

March 1, 1919: The Philadelphia Athletics traded third baseman Larry Gardner, outfielder Charlie Jamieson and pitcher Elmer Myers to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder Braggo Roth.

This was a curious move on the part of Connie Mack. After he blew up his dynastic team following its shocking loss in the 1914 World Series, Mack’s A’s had been completely disastrous. But they appeared to making progress in 1918, still in last place, but with a winning percentage finally creeping over .400, and only four games out of seventh.

Thus Mack decided the time was right to indulge in a three-for-one, surrendering two regulars and a young pitcher who’d shown some promise, in exchange for the impressive young outfielder Roth. Yet Roth wasn’t truly a star-quality talent; he was good, but not the sort of impact player one would expect to be attracting this kind of a price, especially not from a team that still had a long way to go.

Roth would hit a ton for the A’s in early 1919, but the team around him would relapse into hopelessness, and Mack would send him away in a head-scratching trade in June. Meanwhile in Cleveland, Myers wouldn’t do a whole lot, but Gardner and Jamieson would both be highly productive regulars for years.

March 4, 1921: The Chicago White Sox traded first baseman-outfielder Shano Collins and outfielder Nemo Leibold to the Boston Red Sox for outfielder Harry Hooper.

Reeling from the sudden, permanent loss of most of his stars as the outcome of the Black Sox scandal, Chicago owner/operator Charlie Comiskey endeavored to import a new star. He made a good deal (or perhaps it was just that in the Red Sox’ Harry Frazee he found an easy mark), as Collins and Leibold were ho-hum journeymen, while Hooper, though he was 33, was still going strong.

Widely regarded as the best defensive right fielder in the game, and a solid all-around hitter as well, Hooper would give the White Sox four fine years, though his strong contribution wouldn’t be enough to prevent the once-great ball club from tumbling into the second division. Collins and Leibold would be predictably lackluster for the Red Sox.

Hooper is a questionable Hall of Famer; he was among the many dubious early-’70s Veterans Committee selections, and the Hall of Merit didn’t induct him. But he was a very fine player for a long time.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

Hooper is especially highly regarded in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area of California, where he spent nearly his entire life outside of his big league career. He was born in Bell Station, a remote ranching area in the rugged oak-flecked hills between Gilroy and Los Banos, and he attended St. Mary’s College in Moraga, where he earned a degree in engineering. Hooper had stints as the player-manager with the San Francisco Missions of the Pacific Coast League, and as the baseball coach at Princeton University (in someplace called New Jersey) before settling into the real estate business in the Santa Cruz area, and was for many years postmaster of the idyllic seaside town of Capitola.

March 14, 1932: The Cincinnati Reds traded second baseman Tony Cuccinello, third baseman Joe Stripp and catcher Clyde Sukeforth to the Brooklyn Dodgers for outfielder Babe Herman, third baseman Wally Gilbert and catcher Ernie Lombardi.

The genesis of this one was that Herman, the Dodgers’ star slugger, was holding out. Wilbert Robinson had recently been forced out by an infighting Brooklyn ownership, and the faction now controlling things wasn’t inclined to be as patient with Herman as Uncle Robbie would have been.

Trading a player in the midst of an acrimonious contract negotiation clearly puts the trading team in a less-than-ideal bargaining position, but the Dodgers really blew it here. Cuccinello was a very good young infielder, and Stripp a useful journeyman, but Sukeforth was just backup material. Thus the package of not only the still-in-his-prime Herman, but also the terrific hitting prospect Lombardi (and the good-field-no-hit Gilbert) was a coup for Reds GM Sidney Weil.

March 6, 1938: The Brooklyn Dodgers traded outfielder-first baseman Eddie Morgan and $45,000 cash to the Philadelphia Phillies for first baseman Dolph Camilli.

This was one of the most significant of the sequence of major acquisitions GM Larry MacPhail pulled off that rapidly transformed the Dodgers from an also-ran into a champion.

Clearly this was far more a straight sale than a trade, as Morgan was the most marginal of prospects; so marginal that the nothing-to-lose Phillies would never use him for even an inning. Which begs the question: Why the window-dressing? Why did Phillies owner Gerry Nugent bother with the charade that this was anything other than a straight sale of Camilli? Everyone knew the Phillies were desperate for cash. Who did Nugent think he was kidding?

March 18, 1938: The Chicago White Sox traded first baseman Zeke Bonura to the Washington Senators for first baseman Joe Kuhel.

Another straight-up challenge trade in the decade that was the golden age of challenge trades. This one is particularly intriguing, in that although Bonura and Kuhel were both good-but-not-great regular first basemen, in many regards they differed:

– Bonura batted and threw right-handed, while Kuhel was lefty-lefty
– Bonura was 29, Kuhel soon to be 32
– Bonura was beefy, strong and slow, while Kuhel was lithe and ran quite well
– Bonura was a robust power hitter, Kuhel a medium-grade line-drive producer
– Bonura was regarded as a bad fielder, Kuhel considered among the best with the glove
– Bonura was a colorful, quotable “character” from New Orleans, while Kuhel was a quiet, steady “company man” from the upper Midwest

Bonura would have the better season in 1938. But the Senators would immediately trade him again, and he’d bounce around, wind up in the minors in 1941, and then spend the duration of World War II in military service, having played his final big league game in 1940. Kuhel, despite being three years older, would remain a major league regular through 1945 (despite remarkably inconsistent hitting).

March 6, 1948: The Boston Braves traded outfielder-infielder Bama Rowell, first baseman Ray Sanders and $40,000 cash to the Brooklyn Dodgers for second baseman Eddie Stanky.

Rowell and Sanders were both decent talents, but the Dodgers had no room for either, and would quickly discard both (Sanders, in fact, would be sold right back to the Braves). In effect this was a sale of Stanky, to make room to shift Jackie Robinson from first base to second.

As such, the timing of this deal has always intrigued me. At what point, I wonder, did Branch Rickey decide to shift Robinson?

He’d played second base in his one season in the minors. Robinson’s deployment at first as a major league rookie in 1947, while it made sense from the standpoint of easing his defensive burden while he dealt with everything else he had to deal with, was clearly a suboptimal use of a player with Robinson’s range and athleticism.

But why did Rickey wait until spring training of 1948 to deal Stanky? Perhaps The Mahatma was waiting until he had a chance to work Robinson out at second base in spring training before committing. But Rickey made this trade quite early in the spring of ’48, and Robinson wasn’t wowing the Dodgers in the early spring workouts that year: After a winter of being feted on the banquet circuit following his triumphant rookie year, Robinson had reported to camp distressingly overweight.

March 25, 1959: The San Francisco Giants traded first baseman Bill White and third baseman Ray Jablonski to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitchers Sam Jones and Don Choate.

Probably no team in history has ever had a surplus of great young talent at first base the way the Giants did in the spring of 1959. Elbowing each other for playing time were:

– Twenty-one-year-old Orlando Cepeda, the unanimous 1958 NL Rookie of the Year.
– Twenty-one-year-old Willie McCovey, who in ’58 had hit .319 with 61 extra-base hits in Triple-A.
– The 25-year-old White, who’d hit 22 homers and stolen 15 bases as a rookie in 1956, only to be drafted into the Army for two years, and had just returned to find this logjam.

Meanwhile the Cardinals had enjoyed the late-career blossoming of Jones in 1958 into a stud ace of their staff, with a 144 ERA+ in 250 innings, and the most strikeouts by any National League pitcher since 1936. But, alas, bogged down by a lackluster offense, the Cards had finished 72-82 in ’58, and moreover Jones was 33 years old.

So it made good sense for both ball clubs to engage, and the deal they swung was bold and clever. The Giants took the reasonable gamble that Jones had some mileage remaining, and the Cardinals made the sensible decision to cash in Jones for White’s outstanding young talent, even though they were already overstocked at first base themselves, with Stan Musial and Joe Cunningham.

Both teams would get what they sought. Jones would only have two big years left, but they were huge; indeed in 1959 he would arguably be the best pitcher in the major leagues. White would develop into a star, eventually taking over as the St. Louis first baseman, and would be a key to their championship season of 1964.

For Cardinals GM Bing Devine, this was just one among several very sharp transactions in this period. And this sort of adroitness wasn’t out of character for owner-operator Horace Stoneham of the Giants, either—at least not yet. But Stoneham was poised to embark upon a period in which, shall we say, his judgments could be questioned.

March 17, 1969: The Atlanta Braves traded catcher-first baseman Joe Torre to the St. Louis Cardinals for first baseman Orlando Cepeda.

Yes, Cepeda had been once been a terrific player; as recently as his MVP season of 1967, in fact. And yes, Torre had suffered an injury-nagged, sub-par performance in 1968.

But Cepeda had slumped even worse than Torre in ’68. Moreover, Cepeda was three years older than Torre, and had a history of serious knee trouble. All in all, the notion that Torre-for-Cepeda was a sensible talent swap from the Braves’ perspective was, well, nuts.

However, a clear-eyed analysis of the talent really wasn’t what was motivating Atlanta GM Paul Richards.

During this period, many owners and executives resented the awakening posture of the Major League Baseball Players Association. But Richards’ resentment was second to none. The Wizard of Waxahachie had never been easygoing, and the contentiousness of modern players stimulated the bitter mode of his personality. Amid the “generation gap” disquiet of the era, Richards was a high-profile “establishment” hardliner.

In The Lords of Baseball, John Helyar describes it this way:

Paul Richards hated the union even more than he hated a 10-game losing streak. He called Marvin Miller everything from a Communist to a “mustachioed four-flusher”—fighting words in Waxahachie.

Joe Torre was one of Richards’ most precious Atlanta assets, a still-young catcher with a tremendous bat. But Torre was also the Braves’ player representative, indeed an active leader in the MLBPA. In the 1968-69 off-season, the antipathy between Richards and Torre reached a crisis.

The Braves catcher had suffered through a sub-par 1968: 10 homers, 55 RBIs, a .271 average. Now the Waxahachie Wizard wanted to cut his salary the maximum 20 percent. Torre refused to sign.

Now, Torre was a lifetime .294 hitter in eight seasons with the Braves. He’d had a 36-homer, 101-RBI, .315 season in 1966. He was a heady catcher, destined to become a manager. He’d had a relatively bad year because of injuries. But nothing got a player on Richards’ master s— list like being a union activist. “For as much good as he’s done this club,” Richards told the writers, “I don’t care if he holds out until Thanksgiving.”

After spring training was under way, Braves chairman Bill Bartholomay offered to fly Torre to Florida to meet with Richards. He thought a face-to-face meeting might help. So did Torre until he walked into Richards’ office. The GM quickly and frostily made clear he wasn’t budging from his 20 percent cut position.

Torre, who’d been working for a Wall Street municipal-bonds firm in the off-season, put his business card on the GM’s desk. “If you need me, here’s where you can reach me,” he said.

Richards picked up the card gingerly, as though disposing of some noxious waste, and dropped it in the wastebasket. Two weeks later, Torre was traded to St. Louis.

From 1969 forward, Cepeda would earn 63 Win Shares. Torre would earn 160.

March 22, 1972: The New York Yankees traded first baseman Danny Cater and a player to be named later to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Sparky Lyle. (On June 30, 1972, the Yankees sent infielder Mario Guerrero to the Red Sox, completing the deal.)

A few months ago, I asked this question:

Has any other team in history timed the trading for, and then the trading away, of a star of Kevin Mitchell’s magnitude as well as the Giants did with Mitchell? … There might have been another case of timing as perfect, and trades as favorable, on both the acquisition and disposal ends, but without undertaking serious research I really can’t think of one.

In the intervening months we’ve considered a few other cases, but none have measured up. But now we might have one …

Lyle wasn’t as good as Mitchell, of course. But he was one damn fine relief pitcher, and the Yankees’ timing with him was just about as exquisite as the Giants’ was with Mitchell.

One of the first relief specialists groomed for that role in the minor leagues, Lyle had been a good young reliever in Boston, but not a star. Yankees GM Lee MacPhail was able to pluck him from the Red Sox for this quite modest package (it was an extremely silly trade on the part of Boston’s Dick O’Connell—I mean, come on, Danny Freaking Cater?).

The Yankees got Lyle just in time to see him blossom into one of the game’s premier ace relievers through the mid-1970s. They would then unload him to the Rangers following the 1978 season, just as Lyle was entering his decline, in a deal that netted New York a prospect named Dave Righetti.

That was nice work.

March 24, 1973: The Oakland Athletics traded catcher Dave Duncan and outfielder George Hendrick to the Cleveland Indians for catcher Ray Fosse and infielder Jack Heidemann.

Charlie Finley fancied himself a promotional genius, but he was anything but; his constant barrage of tacky, gimmicky marketing campaigns was ill-conceived and generally made Finley’s A’s look ridiculous. Furthermore Finley operated his franchise on the most meager of shoestrings; for most of his tenure, Finley’s “front office” consisted—literally—of himself, a handful of trusted scouts, and a couple of part-time interns to handle paperwork. And on top of all that Finley was a thoroughly unlikeable man, infuriating everyone who knew him; in his 20 years in baseball, Finley made absolutely zero friends, and countless enemies.

It would seem to have added up to a recipe for disaster, a hopeless laughingstock of a franchise reminiscent of the old Phillies or St. Louis Browns at their dreariest. But, no: Finley took on an organization that actually was a hopeless laughingstock, and in a decade’s time he transformed it into one of the most devastating dynasties in history. The reason was simple: For all his faults, the one enormous, staggering strength of Finley’s was his baseball acumen. As a judge of talent at every level and in every phase of the game, Finley’s brilliance takes a back seat to no one’s in the history of the sport.

Phil Seghi, meanwhile, was among the most hapless of GMs. In his long tenure in that role in Cleveland—which had just begun a couple of months prior to this trade—Seghi would reliably pull off pointless, unfathomable moves; often his decisions seemed to be simply random, as though he worked his way through each day merrily flipping coins.

Yet here, against the longest odds, Seghi picked Finley’s pocket. Robbed him blind. Worked him over.

About something like this, what can one say? I’m inclined to think (as I so often am) that the wisest words on such a subject were penned by the authors of The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, when they pondered that which is familiar to ontological nuclear physicist rocket science brain surgeon existentialists as “The Don Larsen Phenomenon”:

In the 75 or so years that the World Series has been in existence, there have been perhaps 1,200 pitchers who have pitched in it. Of these, Don Larsen is the only one to have pitched a perfect game. Like Sophia Loren’s marriage to Carlo Ponti, the continuing popularity of Danny Thomas, and the political career of Spiro Agnew, there is no rational explanation for this. It just is.

March 15, 1977: The Oakland Athletics traded infielders Phil Garner and Tommy Helms and pitcher Chris Batton to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitchers Doc Medich, Dave Giusti, Doug Bair and Rick Langford and outfielders Tony Armas and Mitchell Page.

March 15, 1978: The Oakland Athletics traded pitcher Vida Blue to the San Francisco Giants for catcher Gary Alexander, outfielder-first baseman Gary Thomasson, pitchers Dave Heaverlo, Alan Wirth, John Henry Johnson and Phil Huffman, a player to be named later and $300,000 cash. (On April 7, 1978, the Giants sent infielder Mario Guerrero to the Athletics, completing the deal.)

Ah, but here we see Charlie O. operating with his far more familiar shrewdness.

Though he was in full desperation mode at this point, having seen virtually all of his stars eagerly desert him for free agency, Finley cleverly made the best of a bad situation, ransoming off what few assets he had left for generous packages of young talent (and, in the Blue deal, as much cold hard cash as the commissioner would allow). Finley’s financial hardship would force him to sell the franchise just as its phoenix-like resurrection was taking shape, but the manner in which he reconstructed his team in the late 1970s was just as remarkably impressive as that in which he’d built it in the 1960s. He was amazing.

March 30, 1978: The Boston Red Sox traded pitchers Rick Wise and Mike Paxton, infielder Ted Cox and catcher Bo Diaz to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Dennis Eckersley and catcher Fred Kendall.

And this was far more in character for our friend Phil Seghi.

The backstory here, of course, was the bad blood between Eckersley and his teammate, center fielder Rick Manning, brought on by an affair between Manning and Eckersley’s wife. While this obviously made for a tense situation, and it was entirely understandable for Eckersley to wish to be traded, the sad truth is that these sorts of things do happen sometimes on ball clubs (and in every other realm of human existence); if a team accomodated a player with a trade every time he wanted to strangle a teammate, nary a week would go by without such a forced deal. At the end of the day, the GM’s job is to keep his eye on the bigger picture. (Besides, if the Indians should have been trading anybody in that situation, it rightly would be Manning, not Eckersley.)

In any case, the trade Seghi completed was, well, ridiculous. Wise was clearly heading into the sunset, Paxton and Diaz were so-so young talents, and Cox—touted by the Indians as the key talent in the deal—was something along the lines of a practical joke. Eckersley, stepping directly into his prime, would finish fourth and seventh in AL Cy Young Award balloting in 1978 and ’79 respectively.

References & Resources
John Helyar, Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball, New York: Ballantine, 1994, pp. 101-102.

Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, Boston: Little, Brown, 1973, p. 103.

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