July 18, 2003
Cross Your Fingers
Cautionary Tales From the Second Base Trade Logs, Part I
In honor of the Mets' rethinking their philosophy on Roberto Alomar, the corresponding White Sox dump of D'Angelo Jimenez, and that inevitable day in the future when Alfonso Soriano plays a bad center field for the Mets, here is a top 10 list of 11 trades and transactions involving some of the best keystone commandos ever to play the game. Note that most of these moves are spectacularly lopsided; apparently it's a rare thing to come up with a two-way second baseman, but rarer still to recognize what you have, or know how to hold on to him.
Presented in reverse order of inequity:
11. Eddie Collins from A's to White Sox for $50,000 (December 8, 1914)
In the early days of the American League, league president Bancroft Johnson was not above influencing player transactions to ensure that the teams in the biggest cities were more competitive. When Connie Mack decided to disband his four-time pennant winners in response to the Federal League threat, Johnson stepped in to make sure that the Yankees, under new ownership after years of incompetent management, got the pick of the litter--except for Eddie Collins.
One of the most productive hitters in baseball, Collins was a .337 career hitter at that point, with slugging and on-base averages in the .420s at a time when the average player hovered around 100 points lower than that. The White Sox had not been competitive since 1908, and Johnson wanted the American League to present a better alternative to the Cubs. He succeeded too well, as the 1919 World Series would prove. The Yankees never forgave Johnson for sending Collins--the greatest second baseman in history to that point (and still a contender for the honor)--west instead of east. That grudge would cost Johnson dearly in political struggles to come, especially since Chicago owner Charles Comiskey turned on Johnson too. As for Connie Mack, trades like these, in which he gave up top players for nothing but dough, helped consign the A's to years of pointlessness.
10. 2B Joe Gordon and 3B Eddie Bockman from Yankees to Indians for P Allie Reynolds (October 19, 1946)
In 1946, Yankees president Larry MacPhail set out to rebuild the team. Two pressing problems: (1) Joe Gordon, an All-Star second baseman before the war and an MVP during, had hit a weak .210 in 1946 and looked to be on the downside of his career, and (2) after 20-game winner Spud Chandler and Bill Bevens, the pitching staff looked like a bomb had hit it. The Yankees had gone through the entire season without setting the third, fourth, and fifth spots in the rotation.
The problems of Gordon and the pitching staff solved each other. MacPhail had a good infielder going to waste in Snuffy Stirnweiss, who had been pushed to the bench when Gordon and third baseman Billy Johnson returned from the war. That made Gordon expendable. Indians front man Bill Veeck came along to snatch him up. In one of the famous turning points in Yankees history, Veeck gave MacPhail his choice of two deals. He could have starting pitcher Allie Reynolds in exchange for Gordon and Eddie Bockman, a 26-year-old third baseman who had hit .303 with 12 homers for New York's farm club at Kansas City, or he could have pitcher Red Embree straight up for Gordon.
According to Veeck, MacPhail was about to go for Embree when he suddenly hesitated. "Let me ask DiMaggio," he said. MacPhail put the choice to the Clipper. Joe DiMaggio told MacPhail that he would be "off his rocker" if he didn't go for Reynolds. MacPhail was off his rocker in other ways--he would celebrate the Yankees' 1947 championship by going semi-postal at the victory party--but that was in the future. He listened to DiMaggio.
The Gordon-Reynolds deal--along with another MacPhail-Veeck transaction involving the lefty knuckleballer Gene Bearden--would win the 1948 World Series for the Cleveland Indians, with Gordon chipping in a .280-32-125 season. Reynolds went on to be one of the great pitchers in the history of the Yankees and a borderline Hall of Famer. Red Embree went on to the St. Louis Browns, which isn't nearly the same thing.
9. 2B Billy Herman from Cubs to Dodgers for 2B Johnny Hudson, OF Charlie Gilbert, $65,000 (May 6, 1941)
By 1941, Leo Durocher had concluded that Billy Herman was the only thing standing between the Dodgers and the team's first pennant since 1920. The main problem was that the Cubs had Herman and the Dodgers didn't. Durocher communicated his feelings to team president Larry MacPhail (an earlier incarnation of the same MacPhail), who couldn't have been too shocked, as a quick perusal of NL rosters would have told him that Herman was easily the best second baseman on the senior circuit.
Normally a team would try to horde that advantage, but the Cubs had gotten into an awkward situation with Herman because they had bypassed him for their managerial job during the 1940-1941 off-season. Instead of Herman (who would later prove to be a disaster as a manager of the Red Sox), owner Phil Wrigley selected catcher Jimmie Wilson, 40, who (1) had already failed as manager of the Phillies but (2) was a hot commodity because he had come out of retirement to catch for the Reds after starting catcher Ernie Lombardi was injured and backup catcher Willard Hershberger killed himself. Moreover, the Reds won the World Series.
Herman played badly early in 1941, and his departure from Chicago was just a matter of time. Bill James once observed that teams never make good deals when they are focused on what they are trying to get rid of rather than what they are trying to get. Herman was stolen, the Cubs sank into the second division, and the Dodgers went to the World Series. Moral: no manager is worth as much as a star player, particularly if that player is a middle infielder.
8. Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter from Padres to Jays for Fred McGriff, Tony Fernandez (December 5, 1990)
San Diego's thinking can be summed up as follows: Joe Carter: albatross. Drove in 115 runs but slugged .390 and reached base only 29 percent of the time. Get him to a nunnery or Toronto, whichever comes first. Jack Clark is our first baseman and he can still hit, but he could sneeze and tear an ACL. Garry Templeton is our shortstop, and he hasn't been any fun since before Ronald Reagan was Grover Cleveland Alexander, or maybe since he was president; been so long it's hard to remember. Plus, we've got Bip Roberts, and he's kinda sorta a second baseman, so we can afford to use 22-year-old Roberto Alomar as the clincher in this deal. Yeah, that's the ticket.
The only problem with this thinking was that as a 22 year-old with a three-year record of success in the majors, Alomar was spectacularly projectable. As for Bip, he was sent to Cincinnati for a certain fatigues-and-flack-jacket-wearing southpaw reliever in 1993. Moral: Never trade your rationale for Randy Myers.
7. 2B Frankie Frisch and P Jimmy Ring from Giants to Cards for 2B Rogers Hornsby (December 20, 1926)
People You Just Can't Get Along With Trades #1: Frankie Frisch, 27, was the Giants team captain under autocratic, dictatorial manager John McGraw. In McGraw's mind, being team captain meant that you took extra abuse from McGraw (George Steinbrenner, are you listening?). The captain's function was to serve as a whipping boy for the team as a whole. The shortstop made an error, Frisch was yelled at. The pitcher gave up a single on an 0-2 pitch, Frisch was poked with hot needles. The tying run was picked off of first in the bottom of the ninth, Frisch was rowed across the river to Weehawken, New Jersey and gut-shot with a dueling pistol.
All of this overlooked the important fact that Frisch, popularly the Fordham Flash, was a heck of a player, a switch hitter with doubles and triples power and plenty of speed who could play second or third depending on where you needed him. This was the quixotic way that McGraw motivated his teams. Fred Merkle made a right turn at second base during a key game with the Cubs in 1906, McGraw went to his grave defending him. Fred Snodgrass dropped a critical fly ball in the 1912 World Series and he got a raise. Frisch hit .363 in four World Series and all he got was abuse.
By August 20, 1926, Frisch had had nearly seven years of this treatment and he was through. After McGraw publicly excoriated him for missing a sign, Frisch said, in the words of Eric Cartman: "Screw you guys, I'm going home." "I made up my mind," he said later, "that I was through with the Giants. I wouldn't take it anymore." (Charles Alexander, John McGraw, p. 274.) He jumped the team and didn't come back.
Frisch's breaking point came in St. Louis, where another great second baseman was having trouble with the authority figures in his life. Rogers Hornsby wasn't much with the glove, but since 1915 he had pounded out over 2,000 hits for the Cardinals, was spectacularly popular in spite of the fact that he was probably even less tactful than Ty Cobb, and had just guided the team to a World Series win over Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees, highlighted by his timely deployment of the supposedly superannuated Pete Alexander against precocious New York rookie Tony Lazzeri. Nonetheless, Hornsby had made himself persona non grata.
Hornsby's main limitation as a manager was a failure of imagination. First, he never understood that his players should be treated with a modicum of respect. "It never entered his mind," wrote J. Roy Stockton, "that a friendly atmosphere, a warmth between players and manager, might be important." (Charles Alexander, Rogers Hornsby, p. 267) That was bad, but according to the ethos of the day, tolerable.
The real problem was that the Rajah could never get his mind around the concept that a baseball manager is a middle manager, that he serves at the whim of ownership. Throughout the season, Hornsby had bullied the team's owner, Sam Breadon, and clashed with GM Branch Rickey. After the season, Hornsby hit the owner with two demands: a three-year contract to manage at $50,000 a year and the termination of "that Ohio Wesleyan bastard" Rickey (Hornsby, p. 114). Breadon's counteroffer was for one year, made no mention of Rickey, and--the intentional deal-breaker--demanded that Hornsby stop playing the ponies. Hornsby angrily refused, leaving Breadon the happiest man ever to have maneuvered himself out of a future Hall of Famer.
McGraw had wanted Hornsby for years, almost as badly as he wanted the fabled great Jewish ballplayer who would cement the loyalty of New York's Hebraic population. A my-headache-for-your-headache swap was quickly orchestrated. Frisch was a key part of four St. Louis pennant winners. For Hornsby and the mythical Jewish ballplayer who was somehow not Hank Greenberg, see Part Two of this article, coming soon.
6. and 5. SS Buddy Myer from the Senators to the Red Sox for SS Topper Rigney (May 2, 1927) and P Milt Gaston, P Hod Lisenbee, SS Bobby Reeves, 3B Grant Gillis, OF Elliot Bigelow from the Senators to the Red Sox for SS Buddy Myer (December 15, 1928)
J.A. Robert Quinn was by reputation an able baseball man and an honorable person. After nearly building the St. Louis Browns into a pennant winner in 1922, he was given three chances to rebuild failing franchises, the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Braves. He failed each time, in part because the odds were stacked against him, in part because his instincts for talent were less than sure. Having turned down the Yankees on a proposed Lou Gehrig for Phil Todt deal, he now proceeded to acquire, then lose, one of the three best American League second basemen of the 1930s (Buddy Myer, being either second- or third-best in a group with Charlie Gehringer and Tony Lazzeri).
Washington had tried Myer at short in 1926, and though he had hit .304, player-manager Bucky Harris wasn't thrilled with his glove work (40 errors in 117 games). Harris and aging Senators rent-a-player Tris Speaker pushed for the acquisition of Boston's Topper Rigney, one of those sure-handed veterans you hear so much about. Senators owner Clark Griffith reluctantly swapped Myer for Rigney straight up. Myer was 23, Rigney 30--think of it as the spiritual equivalent of swapping Marcus Giles for Jose Vizcaino.
Griffith had many faults--he was one of many owners who was not exactly eager to integrate his ballclub, or any ballclub--but he was always quick to realize that he had let a talented player get away for no particular reason, though usually not until after the fact. Then, in direct contradiction of Yogi Berra's most famous maxim, it wasn't over even when it was over. Griffith was unlike any other owner in that to him a bad trade was never water under the bridge. If he regretted a trade, he figured out a way to undo it. There was an element of sentimentality to this; it's the only explanation for a parade of Senators repatriates like Bobo Newsom (five tours), Goose Goslin (three tours), Bucky Harris (three tours), Joe Kuhel(three tours), and many, many others who were let go and then reacquired: he missed them.
The Senators did not particularly need Myer back, as they happened to have two other good-looking young shortstops in Bobby Reeves and Joe Cronin. Nor did they need Myer at third, where the confused Red Sox had stationed him, because Ossie Bluege had a lock on the position. Griffith's mental hamster got on its exercise wheel...
Regret over the Myer trade was enough to sour him on Harris, the boy-manager who had led the Senators to their only championship in 1924. Harris also happened to be the Senators' starting second baseman. Making him go away would open up the keystone for Myer, while allowing young Reeves, who looked like a keeper, to stay at short. Plus, Washington pitching god Walter Johnson had been hanging around with nothing to do since he retired in 1927. With Harris gone and Myer at second, Griffith could make Johnson the manager. Bonus! Harris was on the next train to Detroit.
Boston's Quinn was always amenable to helping out a friend, and he and Griffith quickly hammered out a package of non-entities as the ransom for Myer. The only hang-up was the infielder the Senators would send north. Griffith wanted to send Cronin. Quinn wanted Reeves and would not budge. Griffith reluctantly acquiesced; he could always get Reeves back if he felt too lonely without him.
Myer and Cronin would be the double play combination for the American League pennant winners of 1933. The former hit .302 (.283 EqA), the latter .309 (.299 EqA). Cronin would also manage that squad for the Senators in a repeat of the Harris boy-manager experiment. Later he would move on to Boston, the American League presidency, and the Hall of Fame. Reeves had already been out of baseball for two years, while Quinn had been forced to sell out in 1932. Cronin wouldn't have made the difference by himself, but he would have given Boston fans a leg up on the rebuilding process begun under new owner Tom Yawkey the very next year. Yawkey himself acknowledged as much when he sent Lyn Lary and $225,000 to the Senators in exchange for Cronin (by then Griffith's son-in-law) in 1934.
As for Myer, he would pile up 2,131 hits in the majors. Bill James' similarity scores pegs contemporary second baseman Billy Herman as a near-exact match for Myer, but Herman is in the Hall of Fame, while Myer is not.
Next: the four worst giveaways.
Steven Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for www.yesnetwork.com. Your questions, comments, bouquets, brickbats, and modern equivalents of Dykstra and McDowell for Samuel (Eric Byrnes and Chad Bradford for Soriano?) welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.