A Trade of MVPs - 06/25/2002
The offseason trade that saw the Cleveland Indians deal superstar second baseman Roberto Alomar to the New York Mets calls to mind baseball’s legacy of blockbuster deals. Such transactions, like Amos Rusie for Christy Mathewson, Frankie Frisch for Rogers Hornsby, and Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez, headline a history of trades involving Hall of Fame and potential Hall of Fame talents. Yet, 30 years ago, the Oakland A’s and Atlanta Braves struck an historical first when they traded one former Most Valuable Player, Denny McLain, for another, Orlando Cepeda. No teams had ever before exchanged former league MVPs in the same deal. (Frisch and Hornsby both won MVP awards, but were traded for each other in 1926, five years prior to Frisch winning the award for the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1969, the Cardinals traded Cepeda to the Braves for Joe Torre, two years before Torre would win the National League MVP.) Yet, the trade of Cepeda for McLain created nary a headline at the time, given the recent declines experienced by the two players involved in the exchange.
In the spring of 1972, the Oakland A’s had viewed McLain as insurance against the continuing holdout of 1971 Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player Vida Blue. “When you don’t have your big starter in camp, and it’s been open for two weeks,” explained A’s manager Dick Williams, “you’ve got to take action.” The A’ s surrendered a pair of pitching prospects in the deal, sending young right-handers Jim Panther and Don Stanhouse (of “Stan the Man Unusual” and “Full Pack” fame) to the Texas Rangers for McLain, who had struggled to a 10-22 record with Washington in 1971. Although McLain had lost more games than any other American League pitcher the previous summer, the A’s held out hope that the portly right-hander still possessed some of the vast ability that had made him a 31-game winner for the Detroit Tigers in 1968. McLain, still only 27 years old, was only four years removed from one of the most dominant seasons in recent pitching history.
McLain reported to the A’s, joining the club in Phoenix, Arizona, where the team’s spring training hotel was located. As he relaxed by the hotel pool on his first day with the team, a reporter from ABC television approached McLain in an effort to record his reaction to the trade. The volatile right-hander yelled at the reporter and made indirect threats against ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, who had previously criticized McLain. McLain’s disposition matched his spring training performance. In his first exhibition start for the A’s, a shell-shocked McLain allowed 10 runs on eight hits and six walks. His second start produced more ghastly numbers: seven runs on an explosion of 14 hits. Although McLain had not pitched well for Washington the previous summer, he hadn’t pitched this badly, either.
McLain won his first regular season start for the A’s, but then pitched poorly virtually every time he took to the mound. In his second start with Oakland, McLain lasted only four innings against the New York Yankees, giving up five hits and three earned runs. In his next outing, McLain pitched creditably against the Milwaukee Brewers, but took the loss after pitching six and one-third innings of three-run baseball. In a May 7th appearance against the Yankees, the veteran right-hander failed to reach the fourth inning, giving up eight hits and five runs. Five days later, McLain lasted only two innings against the Boston Red Sox, who pounded him for four runs. The start against Boston left McLain with an earned run average of 6.05, an awful mark in any era but especially ghastly in 1972, when pitching tended to have the upper hand over hitting.
Most alarmingly, McLain had exhibited extremely poor velocity in all five of his starts. One rival player, the Red Sox’ Duane Josephson, was asked to compare the difference between McLain’s current fastball to the heater he threw in 1968, when he won both the Cy Young and MVP for the Tigers. “About 20 miles an hour,” Josephson said bluntly. “McLain’s ball comes up to the plate as straight as a string.”
Rumors circulated that the A’s would release McLain, even they would be liable for the balance of his contract. The right-hander reacted philosophically to the prospect of being waived. “If the game ends tonight,” McLain said, “I’ve had thrills other people never dreamed of having.” On May 15, the A’s decided they had seen enough of McLain at the major league level. Instead of releasing him and paying off his guaranteed salary in full, they did the next best thing: demote him to their Double-A affiliate at Birmingham of the Southern League. “They’ll have to rip the uniform off me,” McLain said, in reacting to the news.
Although McLain’s poor pitching justified the demotion, Oakland manager Dick Williams may have felt extra motivation to make the move because of the pitcher’s shaky reputation. McLain’s well-known gambling habit, coupled with his associations with illegal bookmakers, had already prompted Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to suspend the pitcher for half of the 1970 season. Williams felt that McLain’s continuing gambling habit posed a threat to the discipline that he had succeeded in instilling in the Oakland clubhouse.
McLain delayed reporting to the minor leagues for three days. Some writers speculated that the 27-year-old right-hander was pondering retirement. Others claimed that McLain was merely stalling, in order to avoid the embarrassment of pitching at the Double-A level. Finally, McLain agreed to report to Birmingham, as a matter of survival. “There were a lot of reasons for my decision (to report to the minor leagues),” McLain explained. “But when you come right down to it, it’s a matter of eating.”
On May 20, McLain made his first start for Birmingham. Even though he was now facing batters two classes below the caliber of major league hitters, McLain continued to struggle—badly. In five innings against Montgomery, he gave up nine hits, including three home runs, and suffered a 9-3 loss. Somehow, McLain had managed to pitch worse in Double-A ball than he had in the major leagues. McLain fared no better in his next start, giving up three home runs. In 11 minor league innings, McLain had now given up six home runs and 16 runs. In his third start, McLain appeared on the verge of extinction, giving up two walks and a single in the first inning. The struggling McLain told manager Phil Cavarretta that his shoulder was “killing” him, but he insisted that he be left in the game. Somehow, the sore-armed right-hander recovered to throw seven innings of one-run ball, while collecting eight strikeouts along the way. “I don’t know what was wrong,” McLain said of his first inning travails. “Maybe I didn’t warm up enough. But after I threw four or five pitches in the second inning, it felt better. And by the third inning, I could have gotten anybody out.”
With his third start providing a springboard, McLain eventually improved his record at Birmingham to 3-3. McLain telephoned Dick Williams, asking him to be placed on the A’s’ 25-man roster. “I’ve accomplished everything they’ve asked me to do down here,” McLain told The Sporting News. “I’ve got my arm in shape and I’m in shape.”
Even though the A’s possessed only nine healthy pitchers at the time, Williams told McLain he had no need for another starting pitcher. “He indicated to me that he has no plans for me,” McLain said after conversing with Williams. “He told me they had five starters and needed a left-handed reliever.” Since McLain had no plans to become a left-handed pitcher (even though some of his cruelest critics might have been tempted to suggest that change to him), his future appeared to lie with another major league organization. McLain told reporters that two other teams—the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos—had expressed interest in acquiring him. McLain asked Charlie Finley to work out a trade, which would alleviate the A’s’ responsibility of having to pay the balance of McLain’s $75,000 salary. Finley preferred a trade, since an outright release of McLain would leave the Oakland owner saddled with paying off McLain’s contract. Under baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement, any player released during the season would be owed his salary in full.
Faced with having an unwanted and expensive player, Finley decided to resolve the problem. On June 29, he sold his minor league albatross to the Atlanta Braves and simultaneously purchased 1968 National League MVP Orlando Cepeda from Atlanta. Knee troubles had limited the talented Cepeda to only 84 at-bats, but he had still managed four home runs and a .298 batting average. Although the A’s and Braves officially announced the transactions as separate sales, the two teams had essentially traded one former MVP for another.
If this trade had been made five years earlier, it might have been hailed as the deal of the century. At his peak in 1967, Cepeda had batted .325 with 25 home runs and 111 RBI’s for the world champion St. Louis Cardinals. In 1968, McLain had forged an eye-popping record of 31-6 with an ERA of 1.96. By now, both players had fallen on hard times, McLain victimized by his weight and gambling problems and Cepeda undermined by his chronically injured knees. Since each player had to clear waivers before the trade could be consummated, any of the other 22 major league teams could have claimed McLain or Cepeda for the waiver price of $25,000. Five years earlier, any team would have jumped at the chance to pick up Cepeda or McLain, but by now, both were regarded as damaged goods. New York Times columnist Arthur Daley aptly summarized the trade of former MVP’s. “It is a trade that is a lot more historic than it is momentous.”
Prior to the deal, Cepeda had walked out briefly on the Braves, in reaction to manager Luman Harris’ decision not to play him every day at first base. The confining role of pinch-hitting did not sit well with Cepeda. The conflict between the star first baseman and the manager prompted a reconciliation effort by the team’s recently promoted director of player personnel, Eddie Robinson. After Robinson played the role of peacemaker, he then assumed the role of dealmaker, sending Cepeda to the Bay Area.
Cepeda recalls the Braves’ thinking behind the deal. “The reason they trade me was because of my knees,” says Cepeda, who had originally injured his knee in 1963 before opting for surgery in 1965. In trading Cepeda, the Braves moved Hall of Fame outfielder Hank Aaron to first base and made room for youngsters Dusty Baker and Mike Lum and comebacking veteran Rico Carty in their crowded outfield.
The A’s, however, didn’t realize the sorry condition of Cepeda’s knees. Dick Williams had envisioned a platoon of Cepeda and Mike Epstein at first base, with Cepeda facing left-handed pitching. Although Epstein had managed a respectable .250 batting average against portsiders, he had hit only one home run all season against a left-hander. Cepeda says Williams made a point of explaining his role with a new team. “Yes, he told me,” says Cepeda, “because they didn’t know I had a bad knee. They didn’t know that. But he told me that Mike was the first baseman, but when they have a tough left-handed pitcher, to be ready because you’re gonna be playing many games with this ballclub.” At least, that was Williams’ plan.
Predictably, the arrival of Cepeda angered Epstein, who had been enjoying his status as an everyday first baseman. Epstein wondered aloud why Williams didn’t approach him to explain how his role might be affected. “What hurt me is that Dick Williams hasn’t called me into the office and told me what they’re going to do with Cepeda,” Epstein said. “I’ve busted my rear for this club this year. I’m having a good season, and I think I’ve had something to do with how well the club has done.” Williams countered by saying that it wasn’t the responsibility of the manager to explain his every lineup decision. “All a player has to do is check the lineup card every day and see if his name is on it,” Williams said angrily. “If it is, he goes out and busts his rear.” When a reporter pointed out Epstein’s reputation as a moody player, Williams shot back, “Well, I’m a moody manager.”
When Cepeda learned of Epstein’s concerns over his arrival in Oakland, he sought out the big left-handed hitting first baseman. “Yes, I told him, ‘I didn’t come here to take your position away. I just came here to try to help win some games, and see what happens.’ As it would turn out, Epstein and Williams would have little to worry about with regards to a first base controversy. Cepeda’s health would soon make his availability a major concern. The “Baby Bull” could hardly run; his knees ached severely even when he tried to walk. As a result, Cepeda made all of three plate appearances for the A’s, each time as a pinch hitter. Cepeda went 0-for-3, swinging feebly on his sore knees. The A’s had hoped that Orlando would at least be able to help as a pinch-hitter, but even that had become an overwhelming task for a man with the knees of a sixty-year-old.
Although Cepeda managed to make only three plate appearances, he did travel with the A’s on occasion. “Yes, I made a couple of trips with the team,” Cepeda recalls. “In Oakland, I had the opportunity to play with Reggie [Jackson], Sal [Bando], and Vida [Blue] and some of the great ballplayers. They had a great ballclub. I mean, what a baseball team.” The A’s would win the first of three consecutive world championships in 1972, Cepeda’s only season with the team.
Even though Cepeda’s season ended quickly, it didn’t take long for him to notice the swirl of conflict surrounding the team, most of which emanated from the team’s controversial epicenter. “You know Reggie,” Cepeda says. “You know how Reggie is.”
In the meantime, the trade of the unhappy McLain ended one of the shortest chapters in the baseball life of the former Cy Young winner. Charlie Finley and Dick Williams had quietly hoped that would recapture his former pitching dominance, or at least a portion of it. By mid-season, those hopes had been transformed into the realities of a lost fastball and an expanding waistline. Although McLain lasted less than half a season in the Bay Area, he managed to leave an impression on his teammates. “Yes,” I got to know Dennis,” says Sal Bando, the A’s’ captain during their glory years. “He was still kind of recovering from being on the downward cycle of his career. Even at that point, he was a gambler; he liked to go play golf for money, bowl for money, whatever it was. He was a character.”
McLain’s quick departure from Oakland was sad for several reasons. Still just 28 years old, McLain seemed to be wasting his talents, which at one point had him destined for a niche in the Hall of Fame. Furthermore, his flamboyant, somewhat abrasive personality would have provided a natural fit for the A’s, given their controversial and colorful nature throughout the early 1970’s. “He would have fit in very well,” agrees Bando. “Now that we can look back you can see obviously that there were some problems in his life… But at that point he was just one of the guys that was successful years ago and still had something left.”
The Braves hoped that McLain had something left in his once-powerful right arm. Atlanta’s hierarchy saw an impressive resume and a relatively recent date on his birth certificate, factors that made them willing to gamble in making a trade for him. The gamble would fail. McLain experimented with a forkball but actually pitched worse for the Braves than he had for the A’s. In 15 National League games, McLain allowed a career high six and a half runs per nine innings, won only three decisions and lost five. The following spring, the Braves released McLain, ending his major league career at the age of 28.
Cepeda’s tenure in Oakland lasted no longer than McLain’s in Atlanta. Yet, it lasted long enough for Cepeda to experience the strangeness of A’s owner Charlie Finley. “Yeah, Charlie Finley,” Cepeda says, pondering the name for a moment. “Yeah, I did. He’s a weird guy.” In late December, Finley telephoned Cepeda to talk about the upcoming 1973 season. “After the 1972 season, I didn’t care about playing baseball because I was in such pain. My knees. And he [Finley] called me in Puerto Rico and said, ‘If you don’t call me tomorrow, I gonna release you.’ I said, ‘Go ahead and do it because I don’t want to call you.’ I didn’t call him; he released me.”
Cepeda’s disinterest in playing baseball stemmed only partly from the condition of his knees. Orlando no longer wanted any part of the A’s, mostly because of his dislike for Finley, baseball’s most controversial owner in 1972. “I don’t want to play for him,” Cepeda says. “He was very difficult.” In contract negotiations? “On everything.”
Finley said good-bye to a total of three veterans the week before Christmas, dispatching of infielder Larry Brown, pitcher Joel Horlen, and Cepeda. Finley had placed the three on waivers, hoping that some other team would be willing to place a claim and take on their salaries. When none of the other 23 teams put in a bid, Cepeda gained his release, free to negotiate with any ballclub. Cepeda, for his part, shed no tears over leaving Finley or the A’s. “My mother was crying, my friends in Puerto Rico,” says Cepeda, who tried to reassure his family that he was happy about leaving the A’s. “In Oakland, all Williams and Finley wanted for me was to pinch-hit.” Cepeda believed that once he rehabilitated his knees, he would be able to resume a regular playing role—somewhere.
Unlike Denny McLain, Cepeda enjoyed one last hurrah as a player after his trade to Oakland. Shortly after his release by the A’s, the American League adopted the controversial designated hitter rule. The new rule fit Cepeda perfectly. When he agreed to terms with the Boston Red Sox, the “Baby Bull” became the first player to sign with a team expressly for the role of DH. In 1973, Cepeda batted .286 with 20 home runs and 86 RBI’s as one of the most productive designated hitters in the American League.
While McLain has battled a host of legal problems since his career ended, Cepeda has bounced back remarkably from his 1975 conviction on marijuana importation. The affable Cepeda, who currently works in community relations for the San Francisco Giants, placed another happy footnote on his baseball career when he was elected to the by the Veterans Committee in 1999. The “Baby Bull,” who received strong support from the Baseball Writers’ Association of American during his 15 years on the ballot, Cepeda became the sixth Latin American member of the Hall of Fame.
In contrast, McLain lasted only three seasons on the writers’ ballot, garnered a high of only three votes in 1979, and was temporarily ineligible for the shrine in Cooperstown until the Hall of Fame’s board of directors revised the rules of the Veterans Committee in 2001. More importantly, he continues to serve a prison sentence for embezzlement, one of numerous legal problems he has incurred since his retirement as an active player.
Bruce Markusen is the author of The Orlando Cepeda Story, published by Arte Publico Press. He is the recipient of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award for an article he wrote in 2001 on baseball’s first all-black lineup. Markusen also serves as Manager of Program Presentations at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY.
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