The trade is an integral part of the mystique of baseball. It has fueled the long, dark winter discussions of the hot stove league, provoked many a barroom squabble, occupied the leisure hours of the brainy experts.
It has been upstaged, of late, not to say rendered nearly obsolete by the emergence of free agentry. A player trades himself nowadays, so to speak.
But it made a ringing comeback, of sorts, recently with the rash of pre-deadline trades between teams and between leagues. Bret Saberhagen, a Cy Young Award pitcher, went from the Mets to Colorado. Bobby Bonilla left the Mets for Baltimore. Jim Abbott came back to California. David Cone went to the Yankees from Toronto. And so on.
The lure of the trade was sometimes a desire to better your team. At other times it was a desire to better your bank account. The modern version of that is not to get money but to save it. The trades are made to get rid of multimillion-dollar salaries.
The lore of the trade is something else again. It is an art form all its own. Here are some of its historical components:
Question: What do we mean by a trade “that will help both teams?”
Answer: That is baseball talk for when two teams get together to swap disappointments.
Q: What was the worst trade in baseball history?
A: That has to be the trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. Harry Frazee, owner of the Red Sox, traded Ruth for money. The Yankees paid $100,000 for the Babe and loaned Frazee an additional $300,000, which he needed to finance a Broadway show, “No, No, Nanette.” Frazee ruined the Red Sox. Ruth made the Yankees. And baseball. On the other hand, “No, No, Nanette” was a great success too.
Q: What was the next-worst trade?
A: Had to be the 1965 swap of Frank Robinson from the Cincinnati Reds to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Milt Pappas and a couple of friends. Robinson turned the Orioles into a mini-dynasty with pennants in 1966-69-70-71. He was MVP in both leagues. Pappas was never much better than a .500 pitcher after the deal.
Q: What was the worst trade in the National League?
A: Hard to say, there’ve been so many. But well in the hunt is the 1964 swap of Lou Brock, a fleet-footed outfielder, by the Chicago Cubs to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Ernie Broglio. Brock helped the Cardinals to three World Series and went on to steal 118 bases in one season and 938 lifetime and make the Hall of Fame. Broglio’s records after the trade were 4-7, 7-12, 1-6 and 2-6 and he was out of baseball.
Q: Any other trades register as “Oops!” on the charts?
A: On Dec. 10, 1971, believe it or not, the New York Mets traded Nolan Ryan to the Angels for Jim Fregosi, a .233-hitting infielder. Not only that, the Mets threw in three other players! Nolan Ryan went on to throw seven (count ‘em!) no-hitters, win 324 games and strike out 5,714 batters, tops in history.
Q: What about the traders’ caveat, “When in doubt, get a pitcher?”
A: Well, you have the contradictory examples above of getting a pitcher for Robinson and a pitcher for Brock, but you have the additional example of the San Francisco Giants trading Orlando Cepeda to the Cardinals in 1966 to get pitcher Ray Sadecki. Cepeda, who belongs in the Hall of Fame, helped the Cardinals to two World Series. Sadecki was a sub-.500 pitcher.
Q: What was the “dream” trade?
A: Well, for a very long time, that was the trade of Ted Williams for Joe DiMaggio. It never took place, but it was a dream of the players’ fans. Each was playing in a park ill-suited for his batting skills. Williams in Fenway Park had a 380-foot right-field fence. DiMaggio in Yankee Stadium had a similar thing in left and left-center. The idea was to put the right-handed DiMag at the plate in Fenway with its 315-foot left-field wall and put the left-handed Williams in Yankee Stadium with its 296-foot right-field fence. The trade actually reached the discussion stage, but neither Yankee General Manager George Weiss nor Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey quite had the stomach for it.
Q: What’s the policy on malcontents?
A: There isn’t any. The Yankees just traded Danny Tartabull, who was unhappy in New York, for Ruben Sierra, who was unhappy in Oakland. It’s interesting to note that in 1908, after Ty Cobb had only four years in organized ball, his manager at Detroit, Hughey Jennings, tried to trade him for a Cleveland ballplayer named Elmer Flick. Jennings’ complaint? Cobb was not a team player, given to fighting with teammates, and had come to blows with two of them that spring, Jennings said. Cleveland owner Charley Somers passed on the deal. Flick was out of baseball in three years; Cobb went on to bat better than .400 three times and lead the whole world in average. It would have been the worst trade in history. Or would it? Cobb’s Tigers never won a pennant after his third year.
Q: Has there ever been a “trade that helps both clubs”?
A: Probably not.