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July 18, 2003
Cross Your Fingers
Cautionary Tales From the Second Base Trade Logs, Part II
In part one of this review inspired by the Mets' excision of Roberto Alomar from their midst--call it a celebration if you must--we stumbled over the desiccated remains of transactions involving Frankie Frisch, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins and others on the way to a subjective ranking of the most misguided second baseman swaps in history. Part two revisits the five most self-destructive acts of abnegation by teams that had the goods but let them get away.
5. 2B Rogers Hornsby Giants to Braves for C Shanty Hogan, OF Jimmy Welsh. (January 10, 1928)
Throughout 1927, Giants manager John McGraw burbled happy noises in the direction of Rogers Hornsby. Not only did the second baseman hit .361 and lead the league in runs scored (133), but he had come only at the cost of Frankie Frisch, who was going to have to be traded anyway after jumping the team (see part one). Plus, Hornsby stepped in as manager pro tem whenever McGraw needed a day off--and he needed them with increasing frequency. McGraw had been left holding the bag when the Florida real estate bubble, a 1920s version of Tulip-mania, collapsed; plans to build McGrawland (actually "Pennant Park") near Bradenton collapsed, forever consigning Christy Mathewson Park, Bresnahan Boulevard, Merkle's Boner Avenue, and Rue de la Bugs Raymond to the Dark Realm of the Unbuilt along with Buckminster Fuller's 4D house, Albert Speer's Germania, and Disney's America and leaving he that had dreamed them deeply in debt.
McGraw was away frequently, trying to salvage his personal finances, settle with creditors, and avoid being prosecuted for fraud. As such, the club often found itself in the hands of Hornsby. The team played well for him, going 22-10 (.688). The increasingly tired McGraw ("He was the oldest fifty-nine-year-old I ever knew," said Fred Lindstrom a few years later. "He was tired and he was angry.") hinted publicly that Hornsby would manage the team in 1928. McGraw could make statements like that on behalf of ownership because he was ownership. As a shareholder and New York institution, it was taken for granted, at least by McGraw, that the team on the field was his to dispose of as he pleased.
Suddenly, though, Hornsby was gone. Simultaneously, McGraw left town and no one remaining would comment on the motivation for the deal. Quoth Hornsby, "I hit .361, played second base, and managed the club on two western trips. What does a fellow have to do to stay in New York?" (Frank Graham, The New York Giants, 175).
The Rajah never did figure out that it's very, very hard to keep your job when your boss hates your guts. Forget performance--even if you hit .401, no one is so objective as to value your performance over your personality if you've just urinated on their leg (as manager Hornsby once did to one of his players). In this case, when Giants owner Charles Stoneham approached Hornsby in a hotel lobby after one game and gently questioned one of his moves, the second baseman snapped, "Are you trying to tell me how to run this ball club?" (Graham, 176) Embarrassed, the owner backed down. Privately, Hornsby's name was pricked (William Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar," Act IV, Scene I).
The deal hurt the Giants on several levels. New York was left with Andy Cohen playing second base. Cohen had the correct last name for McGraw's fan base, but lacked the skills. With Cohen at second instead of Hornsby in 1928, the Giants fell just short of winning the pennant, yielding to Bill McKechnie's Frisch-led Cardinals by just two games. McGraw's team would not be even that close to a pennant during the short, fussy, remainder of his reign. That was the other problem--the instinct leading McGraw to quit was correct. The years until 1933 would be consumed by McGraw's cantankerousness and his inability to relate to his young players. It was only after he was gone that the Giants would get back in touch with their winning tradition, winning pennants in 1933, 1936, and 1937. By then McGraw had long been in the ground.
While Hornsby had already proved himself to be an even worse communicator than McGraw at his most irascible, in the short term he might have been more functional. Certainly his bat would have made up for many ill-considered words; in 1928, Hornsby had a 1.130 OPS playing half his games at Braves Field. With distant fences (the park had been designed to encourage triples and inside-the-park homers) and an ever-present cold win blowing in off of the Charles River, Braves Field was the anti-Coors. Hornsby's .387 with 21 home runs of 1928 hint at a considerably more productive season at the Polo Grounds.
Unlike some of our contemporary vet-for-kids dumps, the Giants received an actual prospect in the deal. It wasn't Welsh, a 25-year-old outfielder who had regressed since a promising rookie campaign in 1925. Hogan, though, was just 22 and possessed a very potent bat for a catcher of the time. Unfortunately, he led the league in food. James Francis Hogan became Shanty when someone noticed that he was the size of a small house. As McGraw's days dwindled down to a precious few, a good many of his remaining hours were devoted to scanning Hogan's meal vouchers for signs that he had conned the kitchen into slipping him an extra sausage link at breakfast.
4. 2B Eddie Stanky and SS Alvin Dark from the Braves to the Giants for 3B Sid Gordon, SS Buddy Kerr, OF Willard Marshall, and P Red Webb. (December 14, 1949)
The trade that killed a franchise: the Braves had been a very good team in the 19th Century. By 1948, that was a very long time ago. Septuagenarian Braves fans may have been warmed by memories of Herman Long, King Kelly, and Sliding Billy Hamilton, but anyone younger had had a long road with few rewards. The Braves won the World Series in 1914, and remained competitive through 1916. By 1948 even fans of those Braves were getting pretty long in the tooth. They weren't as gray as the remaining King Kelly rooters, but they were getting there.
Since 1916, newly-minted Braves fans had been hard to come by. From 1917 through the end of World War II, the Braves had finished in the first division only three times, always fourth, never higher. They had lost 100 games five times, including 1935's .248 winning percentage-115 loss debacle, a season so bad it drove Babe Ruth, the Braves owner, and the name Braves itself out of baseball. The Braves failed with Bill McKechnie. They failed with Casey Stengel. They failed with Ernie Lombardi and Paul Waner and Al Simmons. They failed with Lefty Gomez and Wes Ferrell. Worse, with their ballpark turning sluggers into sissies, they weren't even interesting. The biggest, and only, offensive explosion by a Boston Brave came in 1941 when Jim Tobin, a pitcher, hit three home runs in a game.
Then something strange and miraculous happened. The Braves revived under new ownership. In 1948, manager Billy Southworth whistled the popular refrain "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" all the way to the World Series. They didn't win, but this was the Braves, a team that once blew its budget on laundry bills after they had the seats at Braves Field painted about two minutes before opening the gates on opening day. Just showing up in the post-season was a major accomplishment.
After starting pitchers Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain, the Braves were propelled by their double-play combination. Alvin Dark was the most exciting young player since Max West or Eddie Miller, the 1948 Rookie of the Year. The veteran Eddie Stanky, known as "The Brat" was a player who built his career on his willingness to do anything to win. As a hitter, his chief asset was his willingness to walk 140 times a year. Branch Rickey was supposed to have said of him, "He can't hit, he can't run, he can't field, he can't throw. He can't do a damn thing but beat you." The two were immensely popular.
Unfortunately, they didn't get along with Southworth, and, as often happens, when the team struggled in 1949 what had been merely subtext became a real distraction. Placid where Stanky was impetuous, the manager had won multiple pennants with the Cardinals. A heavy drinker, whatever intensity Southworth possessed had deserted him when his son was killed in a plane crash during World War II. As with President Franklin Pierce before him and Yankees manager Bob Lemon after, both of whom were confronted by similar tragedies, his heart was no longer in his job because he no longer had a heart. Grief had destroyed him.
Stanky was perhaps incapable of taking this into consideration. Southworth had cautioned his players not to let any one out upset them. "Just say, 'I'll go get 'em next time.' Don't get mad." The next day Stanky led off the game with a pop-out. Dark told the story in his memoir, "When In Doubt, Fire the Manager."
When I get to the plate I can hear the Boston players laughing and carrying on, and when I look back the first face I see is Southworth's. He looks like he's been hit with a fish. Stanky is rolling on the dugout floor, squealing, "I made an out! I made an out! Oh, goodie, I made an out! Whoopee! Hooray!"
Southworth was hanging on by a thread--the team actually sent him home to recover his nerves two-thirds of the way through the season--but the Braves offered both Stanky and Dark, now "problem" players, to the Giants anyway. Giants' manager Leo Durocher was desperate to transform the club from a slow, power-oriented team into something more scrappy and was desperate to make the deal. The only hold-up was that owner Horace Stoneham hated Stanky. Durocher haggled with his boss. Finally, Stoneham offered what he felt was a generous compromise. "All right, you can have Stanky," he said, "but you can't play him." (Leo Durocher, Nice Guys Finish Last, 260) Durocher crossed his fingers and made the deal.
The Dark-Stanky combo would help boost the Giants to the 1951 pennant. Stanky would retire to manage shortly thereafter, but Dark would remain with the team and hit 20 home runs as the shortstop on the 1954 world champions. As for Braves fans, they were no longer waiting. Whatever faith they retained vanished with the trade of the two popular infielders. Attendance plummeted. By 1953, the team would be in the land of Selig. The moment when franchise relocation became a realistic possibility coincided with the moment the fans walked out on the franchise.
3. SS Larry Bowa and 2B-3B Ryne Sandberg from the Phillies to the Cubs in exchange for shortstop Ivan DeJesus.
At the end of the 1981 season, the Phillies had three projectable middle infielders coming up through the system: Ryne Sandberg, Julio Franco, and Juan Samuel. As such, when team management grew tired of coexisting with the aging, super scrappy, two-time Gold Glove shortstop Larry Bowa, they didn't think it imprudent to dangle one of the three as the sweetener in a deal for Bowa's replacement.
Along came Cubs GM Dallas Greene, even then a man who liked his veterans. He was offering his own starting shortstop, Ivan DeJesus, a 27 year-old with no particularly above-average skills who was coming off of a .194 season (.233 slugging, .276 OBP). In return he would get a 36 year-old singles hitter who didn't walk, didn't hit for power (.324 slugging/.301 OBP to that point in his career), and was better known for his emotional range than his range afield.
It all sounds pretty silly today, but this was this pre-Cal Ripken Jr., never mind Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Alex Rodriguez. A good number of shortstops anticipated Neifi Perez more than they echoed Ernie Banks. In 1980, the typical National League shortstop hit .252, slugged .320, and had an on-base percentage a hair below .300. In the American League the percentages were .256/.348/.305. If you weren't going to swing a trade for Alan Trammell, Robin Yount, or even Garry Templeton, and were dead-set on a vet, Bowa and DeJesus looked as good as anybody else in the group.
Had the Phillies been less insistent on an experienced player, there were plenty of good prospects around the majors. The Cubs had Scott Fletcher up for a cup of coffee that year. Cal Ripken, not yet a shortstop in anyone's eyes but Earl Weaver's, played his first games for the Orioles. The Astros were still figuring out what to do with Dickie Thon. The Yankees and the Mets were experimenting with Andre Robertston and Ron Gardenhire, respectively. There was also Wayne Tolleson, Onix Concepcion, Vance Law, Rafael Ramirez, and many, many others who might have proved to be as or more valuable. That many would not prove to be more valuable was something unknown to the Phillies at the time, and given the relative infancy of Sabermetrics at the time, probably unknown to most everyone else. The point is that the Phillies had more than one option to pursue.
Once the Phillies knew who to pursue, they had to decide which of their up and coming middle infielders they were willing to part with. This is how the three players stacked up at the end of 1981:
Name Age Level AB R 2B 3B HR BB SO SB AVG ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Sandberg 21 AA 519 78 17 5 9 48 94 32 .293 Franco 20* A 532 70 17 3 8 52 60 27 .301 Samuel 20 A 512 88 22 8 11 36 132 53 .248 *SortaIn 1983, Franco was included as part of the Phillies' trade for Von Hayes, so the ultimate choice was Samuel. As it turned out, they were guaranteed to get an All-Star, no matter who they chose. Still, they missed the MVP and future Hall of Famer. Of course, there was one thing they did not know and could not have known--that Cubs manager Jim Frey would tell Sandberg to pull the ball, transforming him into a power hitter.
2. 2B Willie Randolph, P Ken Brett, P Dock Ellis from Pirates to Yankees for P Doc Medich (December 11, 1975)
This was a simple matter of the Pirates doing what the Twins should be doing--dealing off perceived surplus - and guessing wrong. It's hard to believe in 2003, but the Pirates were one of the dominant teams of the National League at the time, marking up five division titles and a World Series title from 1970 to 1975. Their second baseman, Rennie Stennett, was only 24 and looked like he might evolve into something useful. He hit for good averages, made contact, and ran well, which was what people wanted from their second basemen in those days. Stennett had limited power and walked about half as often as his average contemporary, but those weren't areas that drew a lot of attention in 1975.
Stennett's 1976 was terrible, especially compared to the rookie Willie Randolph's:
Name AB 2B 3B HR BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG ----------------------------------------------------------------- Stennett (25) 654 31 9 2 19 32 18 6 .257 .277 .341 Randolph (21) 430 15 4 1 58 39 37 12 .267 .356 .328
In 1977 Stennett appeared to have turned a corner, compiling a .336 average through August 21. On that date, Stennett broke his leg sliding into second base in the eighth inning of a game against the Giants. His career never recovered, Phil Garner taking advantage of the opening created by his injury to push him aside. As for Randolph, he would compile a .373 on-base percentage (league average .328) and play on six division champions (two World Series winners) in a career that lasted until 1992.
1. 2B Joe Morgan, OF Cesar Geronimo, 3B Dennis Menke, P Jack Billingham, OF Ed Armbrister from Astros to Reds for 2B Tommy Helms, 1B Lee May, OF Jimmy Stewart (November 29, 1971)
The reason why Houston GM Spec Richardson traded Joe Morgan, 27 and an All-Star, remains obscure. Morgan didn't like manager Harry Walker, but that was true of the entire club. Morgan was outspoken and opinionated, but trading him for the reason seems so primitivist as to be unbelievable. On the other hand, Walker was a 55-year-old Mississippian...
Thirty years old at the time of the trade, Tommy Helms had a long history of being a deadly threat to his own team at the plate. Lee May was a good home run hitter, albeit one whose central skill was going to be largely diminished by moving to the Astrodome. Stewart was a throw-in. In short, the Astros got: a non-hitting second baseman, a reasonably young righty power-hitter who did not walk, and the guy who starred in "Harvey" for a Gold Glove center fielder (Cesar Geronimo), a third baseman one season removed from his best year with the bat (Menke, though as it turned out he was finished), a durable starting pitcher, a serviceable pinch-hitter (Armbrister), and the greatest second baseman of all time.
More, they got the Big Red Machine its engine.
If there is one lesson the Morgan trade drives home, it is something stated in part one of this article: no manager is as valuable as a star player.
Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino from the Mets to the Indians for Carlos Baerga and Alvaro Espinoza (July 29, 1996)
Two of the best-hitting second basemen of their times changed hands here, but Kent wasn't what he would become, while Carlos Baerga wasn't what he had been.
Manny Trillo, Darold Knowles, and Bob Locker from the Athletics to the Cubs for LF Billy Williams. (October 23, 1974)
Trillo was a 24 year-old glove man with limited bat potential. Williams was one of the great sluggers. Unfortunately, he was 37 and making the impossible transition from Wrigley Field to the Oakland Coliseum. Trillo would last until 1989, earning a ring as the keystone starter for the 1980 Phillies.
2B Del Pratt, P Eddie Plank, and $15,000 from the Browns to the Yankees for C Les Nunamaker, IF Fritz Maisel, P Nick Cullop, P Urban Shocker, 2B Joe Gedeon. (January 22, 1918)
Browns owner Phil Ball had accused Pratt of lying down on the team. When your second baseman sues you for slander it's probably a good idea to cut ties. On the other hand, the Yankees gave up an excellent pitcher in Urban Shocker. Miller Huggins had been told he was a bad character and later would have to ante up to get him back.
Steven Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for www.yesnetwork.com, and writes historical commentary for the Baseball Prospectus in the same sense that Stone Boy occasionally got to go to war with the Legion of Super-Heroes. Your compliments, complaints, bouquets, brickbats, and warm remembrances of Jim Frey welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.