1971 Swap Meet - 11/27/2001
The baseball off-season isn’t exactly what it used to be, now is it? For the first time since 1899 (or well before the days of ESPN and the New York Post’s sports section), talk of contracting major league teams dominates many of the print headlines. Such talk has left fans in Montreal and Minnesota raving mad, while creating a nasty debate between segments of the general fandom, arguing both the pros and cons of a complicated—and often painfully tedious—economic issue. The possibility of contraction has also created a detraction from the usual buzz surrounding the annual free agent market, although superstars like Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi (and agents like Scott Boras) will do their best to reverse that course in the coming weeks.
And as for trades at the upcoming winter meetings (December 9-13 in Boston), they may be the most endangered breed of all—perhaps even more so than the small market teams facing uncertain futures. Given even the slightest possibility of contraction, teams like the Florida Marlins, Montreal Expos, and Minnesota Twins will likely act as if their hands are tied, effectively removing themselves from the off-season trade market and making their presence at the winter meetings a study in futility. And even without contraction, it’s not like many teams feel well-equipped to make major trades in the first place. Few teams have a surplus of pitching to trade, yet pitching remains the commodity that many teams in hope of 2002 contention will readily seek. High-priced, complicated multi-year contracts will limit other trade possibilities to the pages of Peter Gammons, well away from the realm of actuality. No, the few trades that will be made at the winter meetings will likely involve what has become a tired formula over the last 20 years: I’ll trade my star veteran, a year or two away from free agency, for a package of two to three prospects (who may be well known to the sophisticated fan but unknown to the casual observer). There will be few trades that consist of veteran star for veteran star, probably nothing that will approach the Roberto Alomar-and-Joe Carter-for-Fred McGriff-and-Tony Fernandez blockbuster swap of the previous decade. Heck, few teams will even make prospects-for-prospects deals, even if they have a surplus of young talent at one position and a dearth at another. No, the few newsmakers at the winter meetings will once again be the free agents who sign new contracts, making one team’s fans happy while leaving another team’s followers bitterly disappointed.
Thankfully, it wasn’t always this way, with “Hot Stove League” sessions dominated by talk of team contraction and free agent millionaires leaving one club for another. As late as the 1970s, teams actually used to make news at the winter meetings by making trades of genuine interest, with recognizable names of players on both ends of the deal. And perhaps it was never better than thirty years ago, when baseball’s executives, for at least a few days, made the winter meetings the kings of the sporting world.
Shortly after the game’s 24 general managers landed in Phoenix, Arizona, during the final days of November in 1971, a flood of news conferences and announcements poured through hotel suites and lobbies. On November 29, no fewer than six teams involved themselves in a series of blockbuster trades, all involving prominent players with well-established reputations. In a swap of star pitchers and staff aces, the San Francisco Giants sent Gaylord Perry and touted shortstop Frank Duffy to the Cleveland Indians for Sam McDowell, one of the era’s hardest throwing pitchers. In another exchange, the Chicago Cubs dealt left-hander Ken Holtzman, the owner of two career no-hitters, to the Oakland A’s for outfielder Rick Monday, the first player taken in baseball’s initial amateur draft of 1965. Still, as big a ripple as both deals caused, they paled in comparison with the day’s biggest trade: the Cincinnati Reds’ swap of power-hitting first baseman Lee May and infielders Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart to the Houston Astros for second baseman Joe Morgan and four other players (infielder Denis Menke, outfielders Ed Armbrister and Cesar Geronimo, and pitcher Jack Billingham). The grand totals for the day? Six teams, three trades, 13 players, a half-dozen household names…Wow.
Still, there was more news to come, news that would dwarf the activity of November 29. Three days later, on December 2, major league teams engineered eight trades, involving a total of 30 players. The slate of activity included a three-player deal between Kansas City and Houston, in which the Royals acquired promising first baseman John Mayberry from the Astros for two young pitchers, Jim York and Lance Clemons. In the biggest deal of the day, the Baltimore Orioles sent star outfielder Frank Robinson (and hard-throwing reliever Pete Richert) to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a six-player swap that brought young right-hander Doyle Alexander and three minor leaguers to Baltimore. After acquiring Robinson, the Dodgers sent slugging first baseman Richie Allen—one of the era’s greatest and most controversial talents—to the Chicago White Sox for standout left-hander Tommy John and an obscure utility infielder named Steve Huntz.
By the time the winter meetings ended on December 3, major league teams had combined to make 15 trades, while swapping an unprecedented 53 players. The burst of off-season activity served two purposes. The series of blockbuster deals generated headlines in newspapers and sports weeklies, keeping baseball’s hot stove churning during the NFL’s post-season push. More significantly, the trades created a series of aftershocks that would affect the game’s landscape—both individually and from a team standpoint—for years to come.
At the time, the swap of the 33-year-old Gaylord Perry for the 29-year-old Sam McDowell seemed promising for the Giants. After all, they were acquiring the younger pitcher and the harder thrower, not to mention the guy who happened to be left-handed in the deal. Yet, the Giants didn’t realize the extent of McDowell’s drinking problems, and how they would derail his career, making him an ex-Giant by 1973 and a shell of a pitcher before his 30th birthday. In the meantime, Perry went on win a league-best 24 games for the Indians in 1972 and 21 more games in 1974, when he captured the American League’s Cy Young Award. Unfortunately, the Indians didn’t finish any higher than fourth in the AL East, but they couldn’t reasonably blame the future Hall of Famer for their poor place in the standings.
Another major American League award would be won by one of the other superstars involved in the winter tradefest of 1971. For much of his career, Richie Allen had sparred with managers, first in Philadelphia and then in Los Angeles. Thanks to the trade that sent him to the White Sox, Allen would find his ideal manager in the Windy City. “The way I see it,” White Sox skipper Chuck Tanner told longtime Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, “he ought to help us win at least 20 games with his bat.” An exaggeration to be sure, but not by as much as some skeptics would have thought. Motivated by the always-encouraging Tanner, Allen led all AL batters in slugging percentage, RBIs, and walks in 1972, while carrying the Sox to within a five-and-a-half-game finish of the far more talented Oakland A’s. It was arguably Allen’s best season ever—and would earn him the league’s MVP Award. (Not that the Dodgers would complain too much about their end of the Allen deal, as Tommy John would become an integral part of their National League championship teams in 1977 and ’78.)
By the winter of 1971, the Kansas City Royals had played three full seasons as an American League expansion team. Although they were hardly ready for contention in the AL West, the addition of the 22-year-old John Mayberry gave their offense a foundation from which to build. By the time the Royals became a sanctioned playoff team (i.e. 1976), Mayberry had developed into a legitimate cleanup hitter. With Mayberry, George Brett, Hal McRae, and Amos Otis forming the nucleus of the Royal offense, Kansas City won back-to-back division titles in ’76 and ’77.
Other trades played even larger roles in affecting outcomes across the major leagues. Few would benefit as much as the game’s budding dynasty, the one taking root in Oakland. The addition of Ken Holtzman, who had clashed with an unyielding Leo Durocher in Chicago, gave the A’s a third top-drawer starter after Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Vida Blue. Given the chronically injured throwing arms of Chuck Dobson and John “Blue Moon” Odom, the A’s needed another reliable starter even more badly. With Holtzman in tow and their pitching staff a notch deeper, the A’s became a more formidable foe in the post-season. From 1972 to 1974, Holtzman won four of five World Series decisions while posting an ERA of 2.55. During that same span, the stylish left-hander pitched even more effectively in the American League Championship Series, forging a miniscule ERA of 1.55, with two wins in three decisions. Without Holtzman’s clutch post-season pitching, not to mention his nearly 20 wins per season from 1972 to 1974, the A’s might not have been fortunate enough to garner three consecutive World Championships.
In contrast, no trade had more of a negative impact on any one team than the Orioles’ decision to trade Frank Robinson, their best all-round player and most forceful presence in the clubhouse, where he ruled Baltimore’s famed “Kangaroo Court.” Although an aging player at 36, Robinson’s departure accelerated the Orioles’ fall from grace. The touted Merv Rettenmund—a .318 hitter as a kind of super utility outfielder in 1971—proved inadequate as Robinson’s replacement in right field, while fellow outfielders Paul Blair and Don Buford slipped badly, causing the defending American League champions to fall to third place in 1972. The Orioles bounced back to win the AL East the next two seasons, but lost both of their Championship Series matchups to the eventual World Champion A’s. The presence of Robinson certainly wouldn’t have guaranteed a win over the A’s in either season, but the O’s surely would have preferred his experienced post-season bat over Doyle Alexander, who was ineffective in his one playoff start against Oakland. As for Rettenmund, he also continued to struggle, prompting his trade to the Reds in the winter of ‘73.
Although the Orioles clearly missed F. Robby’s presence, he actually proved a disappointment in Los Angeles. Clashing with venerable skipper Walter Alston, Robinson lasted only one injury-plagued season at Chavez Ravine before being dispatched to the California Angels, where he revived himself in 1973. As for the ‘72 Dodgers, they did finish a respectable third in the National League West, but that still left them a full 10 and a half games off the pace of the Reds.
Ah the Reds. No team enjoyed a greater benefit from the ripples of activity at the 1971 winter meetings than the budding “Big Red Machine,” which renovated its infield at three of four positions with one fell swoop. In dispatching with Lee May as part of the trade with the Astros, the Reds cleared out first base for Tony Perez, who had been playing a less-than-ideal third base. The quality of Cincinnati’s infield took another step upward with the addition of Joe Morgan, a very good but not yet hallmark player during his days in Houston, who replaced the more limited Tommy Helms at second base. Most importantly, the theft of Morgan provided The Machine with the missing link to its offense, which lacked speed, left-handed hitting, and Morgan’s ability to reach base. When asked about “Little Joe’s” .256 batting average, manager Sparky Anderson dismissed the misleading number and revealed himself as an ahead-of-his-time baseball thinker. “Here’s a guy who gets on base an awful lot of times,” Anderson told Cincinnati sportswriter Earl Lawson. “His on-base ratio is unbelievable, like last year—149 hits and 88 walks.” And Morgan would get better. Enjoying a career breakthrough in 1972, Morgan led the National League with 115 walks and a .419 on-base percentage and batted a career-high .292, helping the Reds win the pennant and come within one game of the World Championship. Three years later, the future Hall of Famer spearheaded the Reds to their first World Series victory of the Anderson era, batting a career-high .327 and leading the league with a .471 on-base percentage on the way to winning the NL’s MVP Award. Morgan repeated as league MVP the following season, compiling a league-best .576 slugging percentage, as the Reds easily defended their world title.
Thanks to a swap meet that saw over 50 players change uniforms, baseball throughout the 1970s underwent a drastic and undeniable facelift. Within a span of five winter days in 1971, major league general managers had made a series of decisions that would affect the following fortunes: the crowning of one Cy Young and three Most Valuable Player awards, the beginnings of a Royal foundation, the derailing of Baltimore’s American League championship run, the pitching puzzle of Oakland’s “Swingin’ A’s,” and the clockwork of the Big Red Machine. Now those were some winter meetings to remember.
The Trades That Weren’t
While the 15 officially completed trades at the 1971 winter meetings created a stir, there were other blockbuster deals that were rumored, but did not take place. Here are some of the trades that didn’t come to pass in Phoenix…
The Atlanta Braves offered future Hall of Fame first baseman Orlando Cepeda to numerous teams as part of an effort to improve their suspect pitching staff. The Braves tried to pry Holtzman from the Cubs, John from the White Sox, and McDowell from the Indians, but watched all of those teams make deals with other clubs. Another proposed target, Denny McLain of the Texas Rangers (just transplanted from Washington), would eventually join the Braves in the middle of the 1972 season, with Cepeda heading to the Oakland A’s (who had acquired the over-the-hill McLain during spring training). While at the winter meetings in Phoenix, the Braves also discussed a deal that would have sent 1970 National League batting champion Rico Carty to the Philadelphia Phillies as part of a deal for starting pitcher Rick Wise and side-arming reliever Joe Hoerner. (If that trade had occurred, the Phillies might never have acquired Steve Carlton, who would eventually join Philadelphia in a steal-of-a-deal for Wise.) By the time the winter meetings ended, the gun-shy Braves managed only one minor trade: a swap of backup catchers, with lefty-swinging Hal King going to the Rangers for the defensive-minded Paul Casanova… Like the Braves, the St. Louis Cardinals tried to swing a deal with the Cubs for Holtzman, but refused to part with any of the three high-grade outfielders that Chicago requested—Matty Alou, Lou Brock, or Jose Cruz. A trade for Brock would have been particularly interesting given that the Cubs had originally owned the Hall of Fame left fielder, only to swap him to St. Louis as part of the infamous Ernie Broglio trade. As for Alou, the Cards would trade him to the A’s the following summer for veteran right-hander Diego Segui, a forkball (or according to some, a spitball) specialist… The Orioles offered Frank Robinson to several teams before settling on the weak return they received from Los Angeles. Another southern California team, the Angels, considered surrendering right-hander Andy Messersmith, one of two men who would challenge baseball’s reserve clause in 1975… Another rumored Robinson deal had the Yankees sending left-hander Fritz Peterson to Baltimore for F. Robby, but the O’s might have been leery of trading within their division. If that trade had happened, the more memorable (and more infamous) wife swap between Peterson and fellow Yankee left-hander Kekich might not have happened. Kekich and Peterson would exchange wives, children, and family dogs during the spring of ‘72… Prior to trading McDowell to the Giants, the Indians considered a three-man package offered by the Detroit Tigers. The proposed deal would have sent second baseman Dick McAuliffe, center fielder Mickey Stanley, and left-handed pitcher Mike Kilkenny to the Tribe. Concerned about McAuliffe’s age, Cleveland turned down the offer. The Indians would eventually get their hands on Kilkenny, but not before he spent time with the Tigers, A’s, and Padres during a personal four-stop tour in 1972… Before agreeing on the deal with the Astros involving the youthful Mayberry, Kansas City considered making deals for three aging first basemen. The Royals talked trade with the Braves (for Cepeda), the Phillies (Deron Johnson), and the Rangers (Frank Howard). All of those negotiations fell through, a fortunate occurrence for the Royals given that the major league careers of Cepeda, Johnson, and Howard would all be over by 1975.
Bruce Markusen is the author of The Orlando Cepeda Story, recently published by Arte Publico Press. For more information on the book, log onto the website www.arte.uh.edu. or e-mail Bruce Markusen at email@example.com.
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