The Greatest, Until They Weren’t

Carlton-Fisk

As I write this, the 2018 Boston Red Sox sit at 59-29, the best record in baseball, a pace that would have them finish 109-53. The Red Sox have not won 100 games since 1946, and only the Pirates and White Sox have gone longer without reaching that mark.

Winning 100 games isn’t everything — the team has won 95 games 13 times since 1946, along with occasional pennants and what not, and plenty of teams have won 100 games only to fail in October.  But there is still something magical about winning 100 games, and it has gnawed at me for 40 years.

The reason it has gnawed at me for 40 years is the 1978 Red Sox. This was the best team I ever saw in Boston, the team that came the closest to ending this drought — 99-63, followed, alas!, by a loss in the division playoff against the Yankees on October 2.

Is this surprising? The 1978 Red Sox are famous for collapsing, for coughing up a big lead in September. Ask any Red Sox fan over 50 to remember the 1978 Red Sox, and he or she will likely grimace and turn away.  But honestly, how good do you have to be to collapse to 99 wins?

The infamous club was 62-28 on July 19, 9 games ahead of the Brewers and 14 up on the Yankees, the struggling defending champs. Suddenly, so quickly that no one noticed until the shift was well under way, the Yankees and Red Sox changed direction; just 53 days later—on September 10—the race was tied. Six days after that—September 16—the Yankees were 3½ games ahead, an astonishing 17½ game reversal in 59 days. Their fans having completely given up, the Red Sox then won 12 of their last 14 games to force the playoff game.

Once the Red Sox lost that game, history has simplified the team’s saga to Bucky Dent’s lazy fly ball into the screen which put the Yankees ahead 3-2 in the seventh inning. But for fans of a certain age, the rooters who suffered through that roller coaster of a season, watching an unstoppable juggernaut go through an unthinkable series of slumps and injuries, a second look is long overdue. Why did this great team stop playing well? What went wrong?

Personally, this was an interesting year.  I graduated from high school in June, spent the summer doing whatever nonsense 17-year-olds do, and started college in September.  In those pre-internet days, I watched or listened to as many games as I could through the end of August, and then resettled to Troy, New York, losing contact with the team in real-time.  I literally read about most of the games in the next morning’s paper.

So, how did the Red Sox win 99 games?  Or, as it has come to be phrased, how did the Red Sox win only 99 games?

The 1977 Red Sox were no slouches — they won 97, the team’s highest total in 31 years, and followed up with a very productive off-season. That team finished second in the league in runs scored, but sixth (of 14) teams in preventing runs, the typical imbalance that seemed to plague all Boston teams in this era. The club slugged 213 home runs, a franchise record, with five players hitting 25 or more: Jim Rice (39), George Scott (33), Butch Hobson (30), Carl Yastrzemski (28), and Carlton Fisk (26). Meanwhile, no starting pitcher won more than 12 games, and the team’s 40 complete games was a very low total for the era. Clearly, the team needed pitching.

Or did they?

According to Baseball-Reference.com, Fenway Park in the late 1970s was the most hitter-friendly American League park of the past 60 years. More concretely, in 81 road games the 1977 Red Sox averaged 4.49 runs, the seventh highest total in the league, while allowing 3.77 runs, second lowest. When properly taking Fenway into account, the Red Sox actually had a very good pitching staff, and a good (though not great) offense. Manager Don Zimmer, like many a Red Sox manager through the years, was forever complaining about the pitching, while yanking guys in and out of the rotation after a few bad starts.

Nonetheless, the team made several moves in the 1977-78 off-season to correct their pitching “problem.”

In November the club signed Mike Torrez, a 17-game winner who had won two games for the Yankees in the just completed World Series. Taking a pitcher from their primary rival was a good start. The team also traded for Jerry Remy, a defensive-minded second baseman, and signed Dick Drago and Tom Burgmeier, two of the more reliable relief pitchers of the period. Finally, very late in spring training, the Red Sox dealt four players to the Cleveland Indians (including pitchers Rick Wise and Mike Paxton) for Dennis Eckersley, already one of the better pitchers in the league at age 23. Without losing any offense, the Red Sox had added two top starters and two very good relievers to a 97-win team. Optimism all around.

The pitching upgrade was not as large as it appeared. As Bill James wrote in the 1978 Baseball Abstract, “Take it for what it’s worth, but in my opinion, this [1977] pitching staff, scattered to the winds, was the best in the league. Cleveland, Jenkins, Paxton, Aase, Wise … gone. They will never receive credit for it, even from their manager, but they pitched very well, under impossible circumstances.”[2] Ferguson Jenkins, who posted a 3.68 ERA in 28 starts before Don Zimmer pulled him from the rotation, was dealt to Texas for John Poloni and won 18 games for the Rangers in 1978. Don Aase, who finished 6-2, 3.12 in 92.1 innings after a late July call up, was dealt for Remy.

With the pitching staff fortified, the 1978 Red Sox would be led by three star offensive players in the prime of their careers. Catcher Carlton Fisk was coming off a .315/.402/.521 season, arguably the best of his many great years. Jim Rice, left fielder and DH, had hit 39 home runs and 15 triples. Center fielder Fred Lynn had had an injury-plagued off-year with the bat, but was one of the best players in the game. Rounding out this core were slugging first baseman George Scott; new second baseman Remy; Rick Burleson, a brilliant defensive shortstop who had hit .293; third baseman Hobson coming off a promising first full year; 38-year-old left fielder Carl Yastrzemski (.296/.372/.505 in 1977); and Dwight Evans, still just 25 and the best defensive right fielder in the game.

The top four starters were Eckersley, Torrez, Bill Lee, and Luis Tiant. Lee had pitched well in 1977 after recovering from an injury sustained during a 1976 on-field brawl with the Yankees. Tiant was just one year removed from a 21-victory season. The best pitcher on the 1977 team was reliever Bill Campbell, who had won 13 games and saved 31 in 140 innings. He would be joined in the bullpen by Drago and Burgmeier, along with Bob Stanley, who had pitched well in his 1977 rookie season.

The 1978 Red Sox started slowly, blowing late inning leads in the season’s first two games and finishing April at 11-9. But then the team took off like a freight train, finishing 23-7 in May, 19-7 in June, and cruising to the 90-game mark at 62-28, a pace that would have yielded an American League record 112 wins. They had scored 488 runs, a very high total for the era—only two other AL teams, Milwaukee and Kansas City, had yet scored 400 runs. They had also allowed just 351, the second lowest total in the league.

As Table 1 shows, the offense was high-powered and deep.

Table 1 – 1978 Red Sox Hitters, through July 19

Player BA OBP Slugging OPS
Jim Rice .322 .378 .609 .987
Fred Lynn .327 .405 .559 .964
Carlton Fisk .296 .380 .531 .911
Dwight Evans .272 .366 .507 .873
Carl Yastrzemksi .311 .406 .455 .861
George Scott .267 .344 .466 .811
Butch Hobson .255 .325 .471 .796
Rick Burleson .248 .298 .357 .656
Jerry Remy .266 .303 .330

.632

There were three legitimate MVP candidates on this team. Rice, splitting his time between left field and designated hitter, had 23 homers and 76 RBI, while Lynn and Fisk were having great seasons while playing key defensive positions. Dwight Evans was enjoying the best offensive season of his young career, and Yaz was still crushing the ball approaching his 39th birthday. Fisk, Rice, and Lynn started the All-Star game, while teammates Burleson, Remy, Yastrzemski, and Evans were selected as reserves. Scott had missed six weeks early in the season with a bad back and a broken finger, while Hobson returned from the DL on July 19, recovering from bone chips in his elbow. Both were hitting.

The most common everyday lineup for the Red Sox: Burleson, Remy, Rice, Yastrzemski, Fisk, Lynn, Evans, Scott, Hobson.[5] This ordering seems odd today, with the team’s two worst offensive players at the top of the lineup, but this was not unusual for the period, as bat control (Burleson) and speed (Remy) were considered the most important tools at the start of the batting order. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that Jim Rice drove in 139 runs in this lineup configuration.

After considering their home park, the pitching staff was as impressive as the offense.

Table 2 – 1978 Red Sox Pitchers, through July 19

Pitcher W-L SV IP ERA
Mike Torrez 12-5 0 149 3.80
Dennis Eckersley 11-2 0 145 3.41
Bill Lee 10-3 0 119 2.94
Luis Tiant 7-2 0 103 3.06
Jim Wright 5-1 0 72 2.86
Bob Stanley 5-1 7 62 2.92
Dick Drago 2-2 6 34 3.74
Tom Burgmeier 2-1 3 32 3.94

Torrez and Eckersley were the workhorses, but veterans Lee and Tiant were also pitching very well. Jim Wright had taken over for Alan Ripley as the fifth starter in June. The club had an effective, flexible bullpen which also included Bill Campbell, struggling through injuries. The best and deepest pitching staff in the league was backed by a wonderful defense, anchored by Lynn, Evans, Fisk, and Burleson.

This team, the team that stood at 62-28 on July 19, 1978, was the best Red Sox team I have ever seen, and absolute joy to watch play every day.

Fifty-nine days later, the Red Sox were 3½ games behind the Yankees.

It was not actually a 59 day death march, but two terrible streaks separated by a good month. Starting on July 20 the Red Sox lost 10 of 12 games, watching their 9-game lead reduced to 4 1/2. For the next month, the ship was righted. From July 31 through the end of August, the Red Sox put up a record of 20-10, and the lead was back up to 6 1/2 games, with the Yankees now the leading contender.

With a record of 84-48 on August 31, the team just needed to finish 16-14 down the stretch to win that elusive 100 games.  And don’t think I wasn’t monitoring this on a daily basis.

The Red Sox then had their second terrible stretch of the season, starting the month of September at 3 and 13, while the Yankees over the same period went 13-3. A 10-game swing, and, just like that, the Yankees led by 3 ½ and the Red Sox were dead in the water.

The lowlight of this second bad period was the notorious “Boston Massacre,” when the Yankees came to Boston September 7 trailing by four games, and crushed the Red Sox four times by a combined score of 42-9.

It was OVER.

Remarkably, just as right-thinking people had looked away in horror, the Red Sox caught fire, winning 12 of their last 14 games, including their final 8, to force the playoff game.

Setting aside the daily details, what went wrong?  What caused this remarkable team to stumble and give up the lead over the last 10 weeks of the season?

Very simply, the Red Sox stopped hitting. That’s it.

While the team’s pitching and defense regressed slightly from 3.9 runs allowed per game to 4.2 over the final 72 games, the star-studded offense tumbled from 5.6 to 4.2 runs per game.

Table 3 –1978 Red Sox OPS Before and After July 19

Player Before After Change
Jim Rice .987 .949 -.038
Fred Lynn .964 .760 -.204
Carlton Fisk .911 .759 -.152
Dwight Evans .873 .655 -.218
Carl Yastrzemski .861 .681 -.180
George Scott .810 .573 -.237
Butch Hobson .796 .642 -.154
Rick Burleson .656 .606 -.040
Jerry Remy .632 .728 +.096

 

Jim Rice continued slugging, but all the other star hitters fell off a cliff. Fisk and Lynn were MVP candidates no more. Yastrzemski looked every bit of his 39 years old down the stretch.

George Scott, most dramatically, was finished as an effective player.

Two severe injuries contributed to the collapse. Hobson’s elbow (he actually had to re-arrange the bone chips before every at bat) had deteriorated past the point where he could effectively play third base, though Zimmer continued to play him. After 17 first-half errors, Hobson logged a remarkable 12 in August, and 11 more in September before finally moving to DH for the final nine games.

Dwight Evans was beaned by Seattle’s Mike Parrott on August 28 and was worthless the rest of the season. He valiantly (?) continued to play, but hit just .147 with one home run in September before taking a seat for the final week.

For five months, Don Zimmer managed this remarkable collection of players as if every game was a World Series game. He used his bench only when a starter was physically incapable of playing. Hobson missed 16 games all season, despite missing 15 during his DL stint. A bad back sidelined Yastrzemski for two weeks in August, but he still played 144 games. George Scott missed six weeks with injuries beginning in late April, but played 120 games through an ungodly slump. Carlton Fisk caught a mind-boggling 156 games, still a team record. Lynn played 150 games, the most he would ever play. Rice logged all 163.

When the bench was needed early on, a few players acquitted themselves well. Jack Brohammer hit .284 in 124 at bats through July 19. Bob Bailey had a .778 OPS on that date, mainly as a DH during Scott’s injury. But mainly the bench was not used.

Bernie Carbo, after hitting .289 with 15 home runs in part-time work in 1977, had just 46 at bats through May 21 (.762 OPS) when he turned his ankle. On June 15 he was sold to the Indians largely because Don Zimmer hated him, much like he hated his friend Bill Lee. Lee was still needed, though, while Carbo (apparently) was not. Lee protested the sale by leaving the team for a few days. (Carbo’s later admission that he was a daily drug user who was high every game throughout his time in Boston helps explain his problems with Zimmer.)

As it transpired, the team desperately needed Carbo, and their need grew as the injuries mounted. Zimmer continued to play Evans because he felt he had no one else. The Red Sox called up Gary Hancock on July 16, and he became the team’s most used reserve outfielder the rest of the season—.225 in 80 at bats. When players like Bailey and Brohammer were desperately needed in September, they hadn’t played much in three months and they were ineffective. Bernie Carbo, meanwhile, was in Cleveland.

The pitching rolled on after July 19. Mike Torrez posted a 4.20 ERA in this period, perfectly acceptable for someone pitching half their games in Boston, yet finished only 4-8. Bill Lee lost all seven of his decisions, though his performance (4.53 ERA) was not as bad as his record—it was just a slump. Having disposed of Carbo, Zimmer yanked Lee from the rotation in August, for the most part going with a four-man rotation the rest of the way. Eckersley was great (9-6 2.55) and Bob Stanley, mainly in relief, went 10-1, 2.36 in those 10 weeks (to finish 15-2 on the season).

It is likely that the team’s defense/pitching was the best in the AL, even better than it had been in 1977. When the hitters were crushing the ball over the first 90 games, the team was unstoppable. But the pitching was not enough to carry the anemic hitting over the last 10 weeks of the season.

Meanwhile, I was trying to navigate my way through my first month of college, my first month away from home — meeting new people, learning how to do laundry, figuring out how much Genesee Cream Ale was enough, trying to understand Dr. Medicus’s Physics lectures. The Red Sox were no help, and they should have been.

So, the 2018 Red Sox are 59-29.  To keep that in perspective, I track their progress against their predecessor from 40 years ago.  As of today, they are one game behind the 1978 club, who were 60-28.  Once the current team pulls ahead I will start to take them seriously.

The Red Sox have won three championships in recent years, but none of those teams will ever match the late 1970s Red Sox for me.  Why?  Because I wasn’t 17, for one thing.

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The Astros Trade Joe Morgan

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in April 2018 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

On November 29, 1971 the Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds made an eight-person trade that, most famously, moved Joe Morgan to the Reds and helped upgrade a very good team into a great one. This story is usually told from the point of the view of the Reds and their general manager Bob Howsam, whose fleecing of the Astros was the crowning achievement of a remarkable career.

But what of the Astros? What in the world were they thinking? In this essay, rather than treating the latter question rhetorically, we will try to answer it head on. What were the Astros thinking? What were they trying to accomplish with the deal?

In 1971 the Reds and Astros had actually finished tied for 4th in the NL West, 11 games behind the San Francisco Giants. The Reds standing was considered a fluke – they had won 100 games in 1970 but suffered through a series of devastating injuries and off-years. They still had Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Tony Perez, all in their primes. The Astros’ 79 win season was not surprising at all – this was a repeat of their 1970 record, and they had never finished above .500 in their 10-year existence.

The Astros had a fairly lopsided team at the time.   They had a fine and deep set of starting pitchers – Don Wilson, Larry Dierker, Ken Forsch and Jack Billingham – all still in their 20s, and a strong bullpen. In addition, their two best prospects – Scipio Spinks and (especially) James Rodney Richard – were starting pitchers. But they had a very weak offense, even after accounting for the challenges of the Astrodome. In 1971 they hit below the league average in road games, and at home they hit just 18 home runs in 81 games.

Some of this was by design. The team’s manager, Harry Walker, was fancied a sort of hitting guru at the time, largely based on his success with Matty Alou a few years earlier. Walker was managing the Pirates in 1966 when they acquired Alou, and Walker spent the spring teaching the small free-swinging speedster to bunt or to chop the ball to the opposite (left) field and use his speed to leg out singles. He told the press that Alou would gain 50 points in batting average by following this advice. In fact, Alou gained 111 points (.231 to .342) and won the league batting title, and remained a .330 hitter for four years. Understandably, this brought Walker a fair bit of praise.

Unfortunately, it appears that Walker tried to foist this style onto players that didn’t need it. When he took over the Astros in mid-1968, their second baseman Joe Morgan had already enjoyed a few excellent seasons as a well-rounded offensive player. He led the league in walks as a rookie, had excellent power for a middle infielder, and was an efficient base stealer.

Walker took one look at his 5-foot-7, 160 pound frame and saw another Matty Alou. He asked Joe to choke up, hit the ball to left field, and use his speed to get to first base. What he could not see was that Morgan was a much better hitter than Alou would ever be. One of my favorite baseball cards is the 1970 card of Morgan, where he is standing in a bunter’s pose and looking miserable. Morgan was self-confident enough to disagree with Walker, and the two never got along.

And it wasn’t just Morgan.

Bob Watson was a fine young right-handed power hitter, but Walker fought with him to hit the ball to the opposite field, once telling him he would fine him every time he pulled a fly ball to the left fielder. Watson was a natural first baseman who Walker first tried to make a catcher, and later an outfielder, neither of which he could play. Instead Walker’s most used 1971 first baseman was Denis Menke, who hit 1 home run all year.

John Mayberry was another power-hitting first baseman, hitting from the left side. Just 22, he had several excellent minor league seasons but had not hit in two extended trials with the Astros. Predictably, Walker also hated the way Mayberry swung the bat. Mayberry wanted to hit like Willie McCovey, another big left-handed hitting first baseman with a long swing, while Walker wanted him hit line drives to all fields. Mayberry’s attempts to hit like Matty Alou were a failure but he was still a kid.

Right fielder Jim Wynn had plenty of power, but Walker could not deal with the fact that he struck out so much (he led the league in 1967). “He kept telling me I’d hit .300 if I just choked up on the bat, went to the opposite field and concentrated on average. No way. My swing was already grooved. I didn’t get all those home runs being a Punch-and-Judy hitter. I guess when you’re short, managers have a tendency to mess with you more.”

In 1969 Wynn struck out 142 times but also led the league with an NL-record 148 walks. Coupled with his 33 home runs, this made Wynn one of the game’s best offensive players. Walks were largely unappreciated at the time, and all Harry Walker saw was the strikeout total.

Walker and Wynn battled on, and in 1971 Wynn suffered through a dreadful 1971 season — .203 with just seven homers – while battling injuries and off-field problems. His problems with Walker included benchings for not hustling. Still just 29, there was every reason to hope he would be able to come back.

In Morgan’s post-career memoir he claimed that Walker was a racist, citing several incidents related to himself, Jim Wynn and Marty Martinez. Morgan believed Walker treated black players like children, incapable of thinking for themselves. Although Morgan remained a good player under Walker, his hitting regressed: his three pre-Walker seasons averaged an outstanding 131 OPS+, while he dropped to 113 in his three Walker years in what should have been his hitting prime (ages 25-27). In 1971 Morgan led the club in home runs, but also in sacrifice bunts.

The speculation throughout the 1971 season was that either Walker would be fired, or that general manager Spec Richardson would have to trade some of the malcontents. As The Sporting News wryly admitted in October, “The pruning of ‘troublemakers’ is a yearly project with the Astros, particularly so since Walker has been manager.” In the event, Richardson kept Walker and tried to deal Wynn and Morgan.

Other teams were well aware of the problems in Houston, and offers for both players came quickly. The Phillies offered first baseman Deron Johnson and second baseman Denny Doyle for Morgan, but were turned down. This speaks well of Richardson – Johnson hit 34 home runs in 1971, so this was no throwaway offer. The Dodgers reportedly offered Wes Parker, which was also turned down. The Astros were looking for best deal.

When Bob Howsam called Richardson to let him know the Reds wanted to trade power-hitting first baseman Lee May for Morgan, Richardson was intrigued. May was a perennial 35-home run guy, the only power hitter unaffected by the Reds team-wide slump in 1971, and a quiet (important to Walker) leader. The Reds had spent the latter part of the season asking around about Morgan’s off-the-field personality, and concluded that he would fit right into their outspoken confident group of stars.

During the negotations, the trade kept getting worse for the Astros. Richardson asked for Tommie Helms (the Reds’ second baseman who would be supplanted by Morgan) and offered Denis Menke to balance the infielders. Howsam countered that Helms was a tough loss, so he would then want pitcher Jack Billingham and outfielder Cesar Geronimo. Houston did not feel a need for either player (Cesar Cedeno was a star in center field and the Astros had a lot of starting pitchers) but they could have been shopped elsewhere rather than tossed into another deal. Richardson feebly asked for utilityman Jimmy Stewart, and Howsam got another prospect to finish the deal. It was announced on the first day of the winter meetings in Phoenix.

The media reaction was mainly pro-Houston. Clark Nealon, in the Houston Post, oddly reasoned: “An edge to Morgan on offense, and an edge to Helms on defense. So a standoff there…” On the other hand, Bob Hertzel in the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote: “For Lee May, you’d expect a Willie Mays, not just a guy named Joe.” The degree to which people undervalued Joe Morgan’s skills is striking looking back today.

In fact, it took a few years for everyone to agree that the Reds won the deal. The Astros, with strong contributions from May, stardom from Cedeno, and a solid comeback from Wynn (not traded), won a franchise record 84 games and (thanks in part to bringing in the fences) led the league in runs. Bob Watson became a solid middle-of-the order hitter, though the Astros gave up on Mayberry (who became a star for the Royals). The Astros stayed at this level for a few years, a young exciting team that nonetheless could not keep up with the top clubs.

As for the Reds, they probably won the deal even without considering Morgan. Billingham was a dependable starter who won 19 games in back to back seasons. Geronimo was a fair hitter but a four-time Gold Glove winner in center field for the Reds, the backbone of their tremendous up-the-middle defense. Those two would have been a fine return for May, and the other players didn’t really matter much.

Morgan became, quite simply, the best player in baseball, reaching a five-year peak unmatched since the prime of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Over those five years, he averaged 22 home runs, 60 steals, and 118 walks, while batting .303/.431/.499 (an OPS+ of 163) and winning four Gold Gloves and two MVP awards. The Reds averaged 100 wins per season, winning the World Series in 1975 and 1976.

Much credit must go to Reds manager Sparky Anderson for Morgan’s transformation from underrated star to superstar. While Harry Walker spent three years trying to turn Joe Morgan into Matty Alou, Sparky Anderson was more than happy with the actual Joe Morgan. He asked four things of his new player: (1) get on base, (2) crush the ball, (3) run at will, and (4) be a star.

Morgan complied, and topped off one of history’s legendary teams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matty and Manny: The Greatest Platoon

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in April 2018 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

Matty Alou was the second of three ball-playing Alou brothers, all outfielders, all signed by the Giants at a time when they were swimming in outfielders and first basemen. In addition to Felipe, Matty and Jesus Alou, in the early 1960s the Giants also employed Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Willie Kirkland, Harvey Kuenn, Manny Mota, and Jose Cardenal—nine players essentially competing for left field, right field and first base. Centerfield, the province of Willie Mays, was unavailable.

Of the Alous, Matty had the least power and was ultimately the least valued by the Giants. He came up briefly in 1960, and hit around .300 in 1961 and 1962, mainly backing up Felipe in right field. In 1963 Jesus came up in September and all three brothers played together in the outfield a few times. After the season the Giants traded Felipe to the Braves to help relieve some of the outfield logjam.

Matty spent the next two seasons backing up the three outfield positions, but his hitting deteriorated enough — .246 with 3 home runs over the two years — that his major league career was in jeopardy. Alou had very little power and did not walk much, so even in the 1960s he had to hit .300 to be of much use, especially playing a corner outfield position. After the 1965 season, the Giants traded him to the Pirates.

Manny Mota grew up about 10 miles from the Alous in the Dominican Republic – he and Matty were both born in 1938, and both signed with the Giants in 1957. Mota was caught in the same logjam in San Francisco as everyone else, and he was fortunate to be traded after the 1962 season to Houston, and then a few months later to the Pirates. In 1964 and 1965 Mota platooned in centerfield with Bill Virdon, and backed up the other outfield spots as well. He hit .278 over the two seasons – he was nothing like a star, but his career seemed on firmer ground than that of his friend Matty Alou.

After the 1965 season, Virdon retired and the Pirates promptly acquired Alou from the Giants. “I may alternate Alou and Manny Mota in centerfield,” said manager Harry “The Hat” Walker, “or give the job to the man who gets off to the best start. Alou is a good centerfielder and can handle a bat.”

In fact, Alou had played very little centerfield due to the presence of Willie Mays, and had not really hit well either. But Walker believed Alou could be a better hitter–in fact, a much better hitter. He thought Alou tried to pull every pitch rather than taking advantage of his speed. As a left-handed hitter, Walker wanted Alou to hit the ball to left field, either on the ground or on a line. He also wanted Alou to bunt for hits.

“Try it my way,” Walker told Alou. “You don’t have the power to become a pull-hitter and you’ll lose hits trying.” Walker claimed Alou could raise his average (which was just .231 in 1965) 50 points just be adopting this new approach.

Matty gave it a try in spring training and the hits started coming. “I never hit to left field in my life,” said Alou, “but now I like it.” He also drew raves for his work in centerfield.

Ultimately Walker settled on a straight platoon, with the left-handed hitting Alou starting against right-handed pitchers and therefore getting most of the starts, and Mota starting against lefties and backing up the other outfielders. Of course, since the other outfielders were Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente he might not be called upon much.

Other than hitting from different sides of the plate, Alou and Mota were remarkably similar players. Neither had much power or walked often, instead hitting singles and an occasional double, bunting for hits, running the bases, and employing speed in centerfield. Both were difficult to strike out, and put the ball in play almost every time they were sent up to bat. Both were quick outfielders. Both were small men – Alou was listed at 5-9, 160 pounds, and Mota at 5-10, 160. The two were also good friends, having played in the Dominican Winter League for many years. And now they were sharing a job.

The platoon was a sensation right out of the gate. At the end of May Alou was hitting .329, which ordinarily would have been enough to force more playing time. However, Mota was hitting .370 and deserved to play more himself. The platoon lived on.

On June 7, Alou and Mota both took a routine eye test and had bad reactions to the eye drops. This turned out to be the only game on the season that neither man started in center. Clemente assumed the role and went 3-for-5 with a home run.

At the end of June, Alou (.328), Clemente (.328) and Stargell (.326) occupied the top 3 spots in the NL batting race. Remarkably, Mota was hitting .327 at the time but did not have enough plate appearances to qualify.

At this point Alou got hotter – his average never dipped below .330 again all year. So did Mota, who hit .393 in July and .359 in August. Both of them hit well enough to play full-time, obviously, but neither ever could win the job.

Since the story stays pretty much the same, let’s skip to the end. For the 1966 season:

  • Alou started 121 games in centerfield and hit .342 and won the NL batting title, beating out his brother Felipe on the final weekend. Although 119 of his starts were against righties, be ended up hitting .450 (18-for-40) against lefties. Batting exclusively leadoff, his .383 on-base-percentage compared favorably to the league’s .313. Walker had promised he could raise his average 50 points, but he raised it 111
  • Mota started 40 games in centerfield and another 30 at other positions. He also pinch hit or substituted in another 46 games. He hit .332 in 322 at bats, which would have placed him second to Alou had he qualified.
  • Because Mota hit much better when he was playing centerfield than he did playing other positions, Pittsburgh centerfielders in aggregate hit .346, with 238 hits on the 1966 season.

The platoon was a sensation and remarked upon regularly in the national press. In the off-season it was thought that the Pirates might break up the tandem in order to acquire a pitcher. The club had won 92 games and finished just three behind the Dodgers for the pennant. But Walker liked his center fielders.

In 1967, believe it or not, the Alou and Mota pretty much did it all over again. Again being deployed in a strict platoon, Alou hit .338 with remarkably similar numbers throughout his stat line. Mota, again playing other positions on occasion, hit .321. For the season, the 1967 Pirates centerfielders hit .341 with 236 hits — nearly identical to the previous season.

The next year, the Year of the Pitcher, saw Mota finally unable to keep up the spectacular pace. While Alou kept going (.332) and finally made the All-Star team as a platoon player, Mota dropped to .281. This was no disgrace – the league hit just .243 – but it was the first time there was true separation between the pair.

After the 1969 season the National League held an expansion draft to stock the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres, and Mota was taken by Montreal with the second pick in the draft. After two spectacular seasons, and one good one, the remarkable platoon of Matty Alou and Manny Mota had come to an end.

The Pirates didn’t really replace Mota, they just gave Alou the job full time. He was a small man, and, at age 30, he had never been a full-time player. Plus he had never been asked to left-handers on a regular basis.

Could Matty Alou survive without his platoon partner?

In 1969, Alou hit .331 and led the league in at bats (698, a new major league record), hits (231), and doubles (41).

Who needs a platoon?

 

The Case for Al Campanis

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in April 2018 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

In April 1987 Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis appeared on the television show Nightline, on an episode intending to mark the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers. Campanis appeared live, and made some incendiary remarks about African-Americans and their suitability to hold management positions in the game.

Although many people, black and white, came to his defense, and although Campanis claimed he was tired and misspoke, and did not express his long-held views, he was soon forced to resign, and never worked in baseball again.

These five minutes are well known, and have served to overshadow what had been an accomplished 50 years in the game. This article will not attempt to mitigate what Campanis said, but will try to shine a light on the rest of his story, examining the whole of his baseball career.

Born on the island of Kos but living in New York by the age of six, by adulthood Campanis could speak Greek, Italian, English, Spanish and French. He starred in baseball and football in high school and at NYU, and signed with the Dodgers in 1940. He was a switch-hitting middle infielder who did not hit much, though he did make it to Brooklyn in September 1943 for seven games. He then spent more than two years in the US Navy.

Campanis got out of the Navy in early 1946, now 29 years old. With Eddie Stanky and Pee Wee Reese also in the Dodger fold, Campanis did not like his odds and was considering a career as a schoolteacher, something he had done in the off-seasons before the war. Dodger GM Branch Rickey offered him two other choices: come to Brooklyn as a utility infielder, or go to Montreal to help newcomer Jackie Robinson. Robinson had signed the previous October, the start of Rickey’s Great Experiment.

Rickey wanted support, but he also wanted Campanis to help Robinson, a shortstop, learn to play second base. Years later, the writer Roger Kahn, trying to stir up trouble, relayed to Jackie that Campanis had told him he had taught Jackie to turn the double play. “Is that what he says?” said Robinson. “Well, tell him I guess I could have worked out the pivot by myself.” He was smiling. “No. Don’t tell him. Al Campanis is a good guy. He was very good on integration when it counted.”

In 1948 the Dodgers first trained in Dodgertown at Vero Beach. Campanis was one of Rickey’s instructors. Rickey divided camp into different sections, rotated players at precise times, and then the camp leaders compared notes with Rickey at the end of the day.

For the next three seasons, 1948 to 1950, Campanis managed in the Dodger system. In late 1950, Branch Rickey sold his share of the club to Walter O’Malley and left to run the Pirates. Rickey tried to get Campanis to go with him, but Campanis stayed.

With Rickey gone, over the next seven years Campanis’s primary title was “Scout,” and he certainly did a lot of scouting. Because he could speak Spanish, Campanis spent much of the fall and winter scouting and holding clinics in Latin America – mainly Cuba and Puerto Rico. He signed Chico Fernandez in 1951, and Sandy Amoros a year later. Manny Mota, a Dominican who later signed with the Giants, later called Campanis “the father of Latin baseball.”

In December 1952, at a tryout camp in San Juan, Campanis first saw the 18-year-old Roberto Clemente. In his scouting report, Campanis graded Clemente major league average in everything except throwing arm and power, both above major league average. The Dodgers did not actually sign Clemente until February 1954, when Campanis gave the 19-year-old a $10,000 bonus.

Under the rules of the time, the Dodgers had to put Clemente on the major league roster or risk losing him. To their regret, they chose to send him to Montreal in 1954 and lost him after the season to the Pirates.

Campanis also became the lead instructor at Dodgertown. He was teaching Rickey’s lessons, for the most part, though he added more extensive organization. In 1954 he put it all together in a book that he called “The Dodgers Way to Play Baseball.” The book went through numerous printings and was translated into four languages. It was used in colleges, high schools and academies throughout the United States, Latin America, and Japan for many years.

In September 1954, tipped off by both a bird dog and a local reporter, Campanis held a tryout for Sandy Koufax at Ebbets Field.   Rube Walker, who caught Koufax in the tryout, said, “Whatever he wants, give it to him. I wouldn’t let him get out of the clubhouse.” By this Campanis had invented a scouting scale from 60-to-80, with 70 meaning “major league average.” He rated Koufax’s curve a 72, and his fastball a 77. (The scale was later expanded to 20-to-80, and is universally used today.)

Campanis also signed Tommy Davis, a Brooklyn kid from Boys High who believed he was set to sign with the Yankees. He has often told the story of being wooed by a Yankee scout while Campanis focused on Davis’s mother.   “Its important to know where the power in the family is,” Campanis would say. A phone call from Jackie Robinson sealed the deal.

After the 1957 season the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. Campanis was named Director of Scouting, a job he had been doing already. With the promise of increased income in California, Campanis was given an increased budget to sign players. In the next three off-seasons he and his scouts doled out 2.5 million dollars in bonuses. The most important players signed in this period were Frank Howard, Willie Davis, and Ron Fairly.

In 1965 the scouting world changed dramatically when baseball instituted the first-year player draft, effectively ending the type of amateur recruitment that the Dodgers had mastered. Scouts still had to find players, but the days of sweet-talking Tommy Davis’s mom were over. Campanis was in charge of the Dodgers drafts.

The greatest single draft class ever was that of the 1968 Los Angeles Dodgers, who selected and signed 234 future WAR – the equivalent of about 9 normal draft classes. This group included Ron Cey, Dave Lopes, Steve Garvey, Doyle Alexander, Joe Ferguson, Geoff Zahn, and Bill Buckner. The Dodgers had drafted Bill Russell, Charlie Hough, and Steve Yeager over the previous two years, and much of this group stayed together to help win four pennants.

In June 1968, after 18 years as general manager (including eight NL pennants) Buzzie Bavasi resigned to become president of the San Diego Padres (who would begin play the next year).   Fresco Thompson, who had served alongside Bavasi that entire time, succeeded him. Tragically, soon after his promotion Thompson was diagnosed with cancer, and by November he was dead. O’Malley named Campanis, the third member of the long-running executive team, the new GM.

Bavasi had not been a big trader during his years running the team – he always figured he had better players than everyone else, so why bother exchanging them? With the draft having balanced the scales somewhat, Campanis became an active dealer.

In the 1970s, Campanis made an extraordinary series of trades, one of the best in baseball history. In a six year period he landed Dick Allen, Al Downing, Tommy John, Frank Robinson, Andy Messersmith, Mike Marshall, Burt Hooten, Jim Wynn, Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith, and Rick Monday. In virtually all of these cases, the Dodgers gave up much less future value.

Two examples illustrate his success. He dealt pitcher Claude Osteen to get Wynn in 1973 – Osteen was at the end of the line, while Wynn gave the Dodgers one great year and one good one. Sensing that his asset had run its course, he packaged Wynn to the Braves in exchange for young outfielder Dusty Baker, who gave the Dodgers several more excellent years as Wynn faded away.

The combination of the Campanis’s great 1960s drafts and his excellent 1970s trades led to four NL pennants and the 1981 world championship. Campanis did not trade as well after that, but the Dodger system began churning out excellent players like Fernando Valenzuela, Pedro Guerrero, Bob Welch, and Steve Sax, and captured division crowns in 1983 and 1985.

In 1987, Campanis had his interview with Ted Koppel. He lived another 11 years in the Los Angeles area, but never worked in baseball again.

But let history show that Campanis was one of the most versatile baseball minds in history. He was an historic and influential instructor, a legendary scout, one of the games greatest scouting directors, and wonderful general manager.

Had he left the game a year earlier on his own terms, he would be remembered today for far more than his interview with Ted Koppel.

 

 

The CBS Era Yankees

 

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Yankees president Mike Burke, GM Lee MacPhail, manager Ralph Houk

Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in April 2018 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

When New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died in 2010, having presided over the franchise for 37 years and seven championships, his obituary in the New York Times credited him for taking over a “declining Yankees team” and building it into a powerhouse. Most Yankee fans would agree, just as they might shudder at the mention of the “CBS Years,” the eight seasons (1965-1972) when the Yankees were owned by Steinbrenner’s predecessor, the Columbia Broadcasting System.

This is understandable. When CBS bought the club they had won 14 AL pennants in 16 seasons. After zero pennants in eight seasons, CBS sold to Steinbrenner, and a few years later they started winning pennants again. But is this view fair?

The “CBS Years” coincided with an unusual period in baseball history, when money meant the least. Once Jacob Ruppert bought the Yankees in 1915 they were always well positioned when team had stars to sell – like Babe Ruth.   Just as importantly, until the creation of the amateur draft in 1965 the Yankees could use their money and their prestige to land the best minor leaguers and the top amateur talent, helping them stay on top for decades. “Hello son, how’d you like to play for the New York Yankees?” For 50 years, this was a pretty powerful pitch.

In November 1964 Del Webb and Dan Topping, who had run the Yankees well for more than 20 years, sold 80% of the team (and eventually the other 20%) to CBS for $14 million. The purchase was part of a concerted diversification effort for CBS — in this period they also purchased magazine publishers, toy companies, and the electric guitar company Fender. Like CBS, the Yankees were a famous and successful enterprise, and its continued success would only further enhance CBS’s brand.

CBS made no changes in management. Topping stuck around as team president, and Ralph Houk as GM. And just like that, the Yankees fell to sixth place, their worst record in 40 years. Could CBS have hurt the team so quickly?

In fact, the team declined for the same reasons most teams decline: injuries (Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Jim Bouton), and aging (especially Elston Howard). The collapse was “shocking” because they were THE YANKEES, who had finished over .500 for 39 consecutive seasons. What was shocking was not the sudden decline, but the fact that the team had been able to retool and reload for 40 years without decline. But realistically, when Maris, Howard, Whitey Ford and Mantle got hurt and/or old at the same time, team could be expected to fill such huge holes.

In addition, their young players – Bouton, Joe Pepitone, Tom Tresh, Al Downing, Phil Linz — many who had shown such promise in the early 1960s, did not maintain their early gains.

After another bad year in 1966, CBS named Mike Burke club president, and Burke hired the well-respected Lee MacPhail as GM. Burke was a dashing figure, especially compared with the staid and conservative Yankees. “I won’t be satisfied,” he said, “until the Yankees are once again the champions of the world.” MacPhail began a total rebuild, discarding Hector Lopez, Roger Maris, Clete Boyer and Pedro Ramos, receiving mainly untried in return. Ford and Howard both moved on during the 1967 season, and Mantle a year later.

 

So now what? How to do you rebuild a dynasty with no ability to sign scores of amateurs and no free agency? You do what the other 19 teams were trying: development, and shrewd trading. And patience.

Ever so slowly, the Yankees began coming up with talented players. Mel Stottlemyre was the one youngster from the 1964 team that did not disappoint, starring into the 1970s. Outfielder Roy White debuted in 1965 and by 1968 he was an underrated star. Pitcher Fritz Peterson came up in 1966 and won 109 games over the next eight seasons. Righty Stan Bahnsen won 17 games and the Rookie of the Year Award in 1968. Bobby Murcer, an infielder shifted to center field, became one of the league’s best players by 1969. All of these players would have fit in on the great 1950’s teams just fine. The 1968 club finished 83-79 and in fifth place; two years later they finished second at 93-69.

So how did they draft? In 1965, the first year of the draft, the Yankees nabbed Bahnsen in Round 4 but had less luck the following year. In his first year in charge, MacPhail had the number one overall pick in 1967, but their selection of Ron Blomberg highlights the difficulty of selecting the right players.

The Yankees struck gold in 1968, taking catcher Thurman Munson with the fourth pick in the draft. The Yankees also drafted outfielder Charlie Spikes in 1969, pitcher Doc Medich in 1970, pitcher Ron Guidry in 1971, and pitcher Scott McGregor in 1972. By the early 1970s the Yankees farm system had gone from a weakness to a strength.

In 1970 the Yankees offense featured three stars from the system: White (22 home runs, .293), Murcer (23 homers), and Rookie-of-the-Year Munson (.302), destined to be their cocky leader. The club also featured three very good home grown starters — Stottlemyre, Peterson, and Bahnsen — and a great bullpen of Lindy McDaniel, Jack Aker and Ron Klimkowski (all acquired in MacPhail trades).

The Yankees could not catch the great Orioles of this period, but they had become a relevant team.

MacPhail made his best two trades in 1972, one just before the season and one just after.

In March the club swapped singles-hitting first baseman Danny Cater and minor-league infielder Mario Guerrero to the Red Sox for relief pitcher Sparky Lyle. Lyle became a sensation, finishing 9-5 with 35 saves and a 1.92 ERA. By August he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the Yankees were in the pennant race. “You know,” MacPhail said late in the season, responding to his disgruntled fan base, “the Yankees are in a strange spot. They are not competing against the Tigers, Orioles and the rest of the league. They are competing against ghosts and that’s a battle you can’t win.”

In November MacPhail dealt four of the farm system’s recently developed players — Charlie Spikes, John Ellis, Rusty Torres, and Jerry Kenney — to the Indians for third baseman Graig Nettles and reserve catcher Gerry Moses.

Nettles was a perfect fit for the club: a defensive star who hit with power from the left side, a skill particularly valued in Yankee Stadium with its short right field porch. Spikes was the big prize for Cleveland, a 21-year-old slugger and the jewel of the Yankees revamped system. MacPhail resisted giving him up, but it was the only way to get Nettles.

Burke made his most lasting contribution to the future of New York and the Yankees when he came to a deal with Mayor John Lindsay for the city to thoroughly remodel Yankee Stadium. The 50-year-old ballpark had been deteriorating for many years until Burke had the interior and exterior painted in 1967. Five years later he talked Lindsay into backing a $24 million renovation, the same cost the city had borne to build Shea Stadium for the Mets in 1964. Burke had leverage – he had been aggressively pursued by officials from New Jersey who successfully lured the football Giants at the same time. Burke would have none of it. “Yankee Stadium is the most famous arena since the Roman Coliseum,” he said.

The renovation ended up costing the city more than $100 million (largely due to major road redesign), but Burke can be said to have saved the Yankees for New York. The additional revenues from the revamped ballpark would be critical in helping underwrite the team’s aggressive approach to the coming free agency.

As the calendar flipped to 1973, many observers believed that the Yankees were the best team in the AL East and in position to regain some of their former glory. The club had added Nettles and Matty Alou to a strong offense. They had three excellent starters and a great bullpen. Burke and MacPhail were finally poised to take the last step on their journey, in their sixth year in charge. Odds makers in Las Vegas made the Yankees the 9-5 favorite to win the AL East.

In January 1973, CBS sold the Yankees to a group led by George Steinbrenner. “CBS came to the conclusion,” said a spokesman, “that perhaps it was not as viable for the network to own the Yankees as for some people. Fans get worked up over great men, not great corporations. We came to the realization, I think, that sports franchises really flourish better with people owning them.”

There is no denying the success that followed, nor that Steinbrenner’s single-minded obsession with winning pennants was a big part of that success.

But the team he bought was one of the most talented in the American League, one that most observers believed was ready to win. What’s more, the team was about to open its renovated ballpark, thanks to Mike Burke and CBS, and would once again lead the league in attendance year after year.

Finally, the dawn of free agency meant that Steinbrenner could use his large market advantage in ways that CBS could not. A new era was coming, and it was playing right into the Yankees hands.

 

The 1971 Baseball Winter Meetings

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in December 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

Although the main purpose of baseball’s winter meetings, for more than a century, has been to allow baseball management to meet on important issues of the game – franchise problems, television deals, labor issues, rules proposals – most of the media coverage, and most of the fan’s attention, is focused on trades (or, in recent years, free agent signings). Teams have always been able to trade throughout the off-season, but something about being in the same hotel has led to both increased fan expectation, and more actual trading.

If an active trade-fest is the kind of winter meetings you crave, then 1971 was the winter meetings for you. There has never been anything like it. When the dust settled, 53 players had changed teams in fifteen trades, including some of best players in the game. Most significantly, several of the deals acted to dramatically reshape teams that would dominate the rest of the decade.

The 1971 baseball winter meetings took place in Phoenix, Arizona from Saturday November 27 through Friday December 3.

Let’s go through some of the bigger deals, roughly in the order they were announced.

* The Oakland A’s traded star center fielder Rick Monday to the Chicago Cubs for starting pitcher Ken Holtzman. The Cubs had considered center field their biggest weakness, while Holtzman had run afoul of manager Leo Durocher for throwing too many offspeed pitches. The A’s were a team on the rise, having just won their first division title, and Holtzman gave the A’s three great starters (Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue). This threesome, as much as anything, would help lead the club to three consecutive World Series titles.

* The Cincinnati Reds made a franchise-altering trade, dealing first baseman Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms, and utility man Jimmy Stewart to the Houston Astros for second baseman Joe Morgan, infielder Dennis Menke, outfielder Cesar Geronimo, pitcher Jack Billingham, and minor league outfielder Ed Armbrister.

For the Astros, the key man was May, who had hit 39 home runs in 1971 – 26 more than any Astro had hit. The Reds coveted Morgan’s speed, his left-handed bat, and his ability to get on base. The deal also allowed the Reds to move Tony Perez from third base to his natural spot at first base, while slotting Menke at third. Mainly due to injuries the Reds had had a down year in 1971, but this move seemed to right the ship all at once.

Bob Howsam, the Reds general manager who made this deal, was interviewed often about it over the remainder of his life. Howsam had a history of finding out what the other team craved, or who the other team should crave, and subsequently asking for players that he believed the other team didn’t properly appreciate. Morgan was a guy the Reds manager – Sparky Anderson – loved, while his current manager – Harry Walker – wanted him to chop down on the ball and bunt.

Once Howsam got the Astros to buy into the Morgan-for-May notion, he just piled on other players he convinced Houston they didn’t really need. Geronimo became the Reds’ starting center fielder for a decade, and Billingham one of their best starters. Despite May’s continued excellence as a power hitter, this proved a brilliant deal for the Reds. Over the next five years, Joe Morgan was the greatest player in baseball.

* The Cleveland Indians traded pitcher Sam McDowell to the San Francisco Giants for pitcher Gaylord Perry and infielder Frank Duffy. “McDowell gives us the lefthanded pitcher we needed so badly,” said Giants GM Charlie Fox, “a lefthander who can strike someone out. McDowell is 29 and Perry is 33, so the age factor is in our favor.” Indians GM Gabe Paul was particularly excited about getting Duffy, a highly sought after young shortstop.

Although Perry had a long track record of success, the Giants were thought to be getting the better pitcher. In the event, McDowell battled alcohol and other problems, while Perry had many excellent seasons still ahead of him.

* The Chicago White Sox dealt pitcher Tommy John and infielder Steve Huntz to the Los Angeles Dodgers for infielder Dick Allen. Allen had had a lot of trouble with Phillies management and fans, but the White Sox were excited about his potent bat. “I know when he goes on the field he gives you 100 percent,” said manager Chuck Tanner. “He gives you a good day’s work. I judge a player strictly on what he does for me.”

The remainder of their careers brings to mind the tortoise and the hare. Allen had two-and-a-half excellent seasons in Chicago (he missed half of 1973 with a broken leg), but was finished as a player by 1977. John suffered through his own elbow injury, which led to his famous surgery, and (though just one year younger than Allen) lasted 12 additional seasons and won 204 games after the trade. In the end, he beat Allen in WAR (via BaseballReference.com), 62.3 to 58.7.

* The Astros, having acquired Lee May to play first base, dealt young first baseman John Mayberry and a minor leaguer to the Kansas City Royals for two young pitching prospects. This seemed a lesser deal, but it helped transform the upstart Royals into a contender.

Looking back, its clear that the Astros (whose craving for power led to the Morgan-for-May trade), actually had power, though the Astrodome helped mask their assets. The 1971 Astros had John Mayberry, Bob Watson, Joe Morgan, and Jimmie Wynn, all of whom had big power years ahead of them. One of their problems, according to later accounts, is that manager Harry Walker did not value the power he had, that he wanted his players to play small-ball, to hit to the opposite field, to bunt. John Mayberry became a hitting star immediately in Kansas City.

* The American League champion Baltimore Orioles traded their heart and soul, veteran outfielder Frank Robinson, to the Los Angeles Dodgers for four young players, including pitcher Doyle Alexander. Along with their tremendous major league team the Orioles had an enviable minor league system. Their latest young star was Don Baylor, the minor league player of the year in 1970 who then had to repeat Triple-A because he had no place in the play in the great Oriole outfield. Robinson was 36 and seemed the obvious player to go.

American League rivals cheered the loss of Robinson to the National League, but the Orioles were thinking of the future. “It’s a 1974-75 type deal for us,” said Baltimore manager Earl Weaver.” Robinson took the deal well, saying, “I’m leaving one classy organization and going to another.”

* There were many more deals, involving players like Leo Cardenas, Del Unser, Tom Haller, Stan Bahnsen, and Tom Hall – all of whom would play key roles on their new teams — but nothing could match the star power that included the next year’s AL MVP (Allen) and Cy Young Award winner (Perry), plus arguably the best player in the game (Morgan). For those of us following along, a lot of baseball cards had to be moved into new team piles that December.

What did Ted Williams, Texas Rangers manager whose club was involved in three trades, think of all this? Trades created positive thinking. “You’re going to be wrong, or you’re going to be right when you trade, but you’re accomplishing something because you’re stimulating the player and the manager.” Of course, Ted was never traded.

The most disappointed fans were those whose teams did NOT make any deals. The rumor mill had the New York Mets landing Ron Santo (Cubs) or Deron Johnson (Phillies), but Mets general manager Bob Scheffing came up empty. “The natives are getting restless in New York,” said the Sporting News.

Sufficiently chastened, on December 10, six days after the conclusion of the meetings, Scheffing announced that the Mets had finally joined the trading party. The club had acquired Angels shortstop Jim Fregosi at the cost of four young players, including pitcher Nolan Ryan.

The lesson, as in so much of life: be careful what you wish for.

 

The 1970 Baseball Winter Meetings

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in December 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

When compared with the previous few off-seasons, baseball’s 1970 winter meetings were relatively calm. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn seemed secure in his job, and the players and owners had agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in May. The Curt Flood case was winding its way through the courts, meaning that the process was out of baseball’s hands. Baseball’s attempts to consolidate its two leagues and place more authority in the hands of the commissioner had made no progress, and would make no more this time.

Instead, baseball management discussed ways to tinker with the game, made a few trades and closed the week with a grand awards banquet, an event that was supposed to be the first of an annual affair but has not been repeated.

The 1970 meetings were held from Sunday, November 29 through Friday, December 4 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, California.

The most interesting baseball discussions took place in the Rules Committee meeting. In 1970 three different minor leagues had experimented with new rules: the Eastern League employed a designated hitter rule; the New York-Penn League allowed the pitcher to intentionally walk a batter without having to throw four balls; and the Gulf-Coast League used expanded fair territory, with the foul lines bending outward three degrees at first and third base, creating a larger outfield. After a brief discussion, all three experiments were deemed failures and terminated. Instead, management agreed to allow some leagues to allow designated pinch runners.

The champion rule proposer in this period was Charles O. Finley, the owners of the Oakland A’s, who favored all of the above changes and more. At the 1970 meeting Finley proposed several new rules, including the use of colored bases, colored foul lines (in other years Finley had requested colored foul poles and even colored baseballs), and a 20-second pitch clock. All of these were rejected. None of this was really farfetched – it was about this time that tennis switched from white tennis balls to a bright green, for precisely the reason Finley wanted colored baseballs: visibility. But the other owners hated Finley, so he always had a bit of uphill battle to get anything approved.

One significant rule change was approved: beginning in 1971, all players would be required to wear a batting helmet. A rule that required earflaps was still far in the future; the 1971 rule required only a helmet shaped like a normal baseball hat. Players who wore a cap liner (which was the previous minimum requirement) in 1970 would be allowed to continue doing so throughout their career. Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery would the last of these “grandfathered” helmet-less players, when he finally finished in 1979.

As usual, several big name players changed teams. The Baltimore Orioles, already boasting three 20-game winners (Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, Jim Palmer), acquired Pat Dobson from the Padres to be their fourth starter. In 1971, all four won 20 games, and the Orioles ran away with the division again.

Another interesting deal involved star relief pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, who was traded from the Cubs to the Braves. This was particularly interesting because Wilhelm had been sold from the Braves to the Cubs on September 21 to help the Cubs in the division race. Wilhelm pitched just three games for Chicago before being sold back in December. The situation was suspicious enough that the commissioner investigated, though he found nothing disturbing about it.

One of the more far-reaching news items to come out of the meetings was Commissioner Kuhn’s announcement that beginning in 1971 some World Series games could be played at night. “The networks are intrigued,” said Kuhn, “in terms of potential ratings, with the possibility of telecasting … in prime time.”

In fact, the very first post-season game scheduled for an evening start would be Game 4 of the 1971 World Series. After many years of small encroachment, baseball would eventually settle on scheduling every World Series for evening hours, ultimately leading to many post-midnight finishes. But it all started right here.

On Thursday evening baseball took a break from business and held a swank Academy Awards-style dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel. There were 1200 people in attendance, paying $50 a plate, for a three-hour event that was filmed and broadcast the next week (in an edited 90-minute version) as a special edition of the Merv Griffin Show. The original plan was for Bob Hope to host, and for parts of the event to be broadcast on a later Bob Hope Show, but Hope came down ill so Griffin stepped in. Curt Gowdy and Vin Scully were also on hand to help.

This was Kuhn’s second attempt at a prime-time gala, following a July 1969 event in Washington on the eve of the All-Star game, at which baseball named its all-time All-Star team. For the second time, Kuhn was unable to secure the live prime-time telecast he craved.

Reportedly many baseball teams were less than enthusiastic about the event, and balked at Kuhn’s request that they each purchase a 10-seat table. You read that right – baseball owners did not want to spend $500 on an event that promoted and celebrated their game. Most of the media reviews stressed that such a price could not be charged in a year when the meetings were held in a place like Pittsburgh or Detroit.

Baseball had originally wanted the event to include the handing out of the longstanding famous baseball awards – including the Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards for each league. However, the Baseball Writers Association of America nixed this idea, claiming that the awards were their property and would be given out by them at a time they saw fit. Baseball officials also asked the writers to allow them to announce the Hall of Fame election results, but that too was rejected.

Instead, baseball created a new parallel set of awards that were intended to become equally famous as this event became a smash annual success.

The room was filled with famous stars from the past and present, and the award presenters included Carl Hubbell, Joe Cronin, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Casey Stengel, and Roy Campanella.

For the record, the award winners included:

  • Johnny Bench, player of the year. Bench had a tremendous season, hitting 45 home runs, driving in 148 runs, and batting .293 for the National League champion Cincinnati Reds. Bench had already copped the NL Most Valuable Player Awards, among many honors.
  • Bob Gibson, pitcher of the year. Gibson had finished 23-7 with a 3.12 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals, and had recently won the league’s Cy Young Award.
  • Brooks Robinson, defensive player of the year. The Baltimore Orioles third baseman was a perennial Gold Glove winner, but had become more nationally famous two months earlier for his tremendous World Series, for which he won the Series MVP award.
  • Willie Mays, for best typifying the game on and off the field. The San Francisco Giants center fielder was 39 years old and slowing down, but had hit 28 home runs and batted .291 in the just completed season. He had been the most famous player in baseball, and this award was something of a lifetime achievement award.
  • Danny Murtaugh, manager of the year. Murtaugh had returned to the Pirates in 1970 after battling health problems, and the team win the NL East in his first year back.
  • Harry Dalton, executive of the year. Dalton had built one of histories greatest teams, a team which had just completed an amazing season that ended with a 4-1 World Series victory over the Reds.
  • Roger Freed (Rochester), minor-league player of the year. Playing for the Orioles top minor league affiliate, Freed hit 24 homers, drove in 130, and batted .334.

As part of the festivities, the World Series trophy was presented to Baltimore owner Jerry Hoffberger. Several special awards were given to longtime baseball employees, and also to astronaut James Lovell, representing the President’s Council on Health and Physical Fitness, who had piloted the ill-fated Apollo 13 back in April.

For added gravitas, baseball also honored its three living .400 hitters (Bill Terry, George Sisler and Ted Williams), and its three living 3000-hit players (Mays, Henry Aaron, and Stan Musial.

Ultimately the success of the event, and any event of its sort, depended on securing a national television audience. This was Kuhn’s intention from the beginning, and he was not able to achieve this goal.

The media response was polite, but unenthusiastic. The event was never repeated.