It was a quiet day at a very quiet winter meetings, this November 29, 1971, that would change the history of baseball. Writers were milling around the lobby at the Biltmore Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona, not a story in sight.
They knew not that Bob Howsam, the general manager of the Reds, had been hard at work for some time on a trade and that he had just completed it. He gathered his staff around him—manager Sparky Anderson, right-hand man Dick Wagner, scout Ray Shore, farm director Chief Bender, and public relations director Roger Ruhl.
He instructed the group to take care of whatever needed to be taken care of now, for they would be in that hotel room the rest of the day, sequestered from the world. No going out for food, no heading for the bathroom.
Howsam called a bellhop to the room and instructed him to post a note on the press room bulletin board that would read: “A major trade will be announced at 2 p.m. in the press room."
And so it was, on that afternoon, Ruhl stepped to a microphone in front of a group of news-starved baseball writers and announced that the Reds had traded first baseman Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms, and utility player Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for second baseman Joe Morgan, third baseman Denis Menke, pitcher Jack Billingham, outfielder Cesar Geronimo, and outfielder Ed Armbrister.
You could almost hear the air sucked out of the room, for at first blush no one believed what they had heard. Howsam, it seemed, had been robbed, getting a second baseman with a lot of talent but labeled a problem, a pitcher who had been 10-16, a journeyman third baseman, and two outfielders that no one had heard of.
As Ruhl remembers it, “One sportswriter tried to draw a comment from me when he asked if I had my Cesars mixed up and really meant to say Cesar Cedeno (a Houston All-Star outfielder) instead of the unknown Cesar Geronimo.”
That sportswriter was me. Over the years I have been pretty good at this sports writing game but not much of general manager.
Cincinnati was aghast over the deal. The Cincinnati Enquirer had interviewed fans, and as the beat writer for the newspaper, I was probably more outspoken than any of them.
One fan was quoted as saying, “May is a good ballplayer. What they traded for—all of them put together aren’t as good as May.”
Another had a conspiracy theory, saying "Somebody must have hypnotized Howsam.”
And then there was me, fueling the flames by writing “For Lee May, you’d expect Willie Mays, not just another guy named Joe.”
And "If the United States had traded Dwight Eisenhower to the Germans during World War II, it wouldn’t have been much different than sending May and Helms to Houston.”
OK, so I exaggerated a little, but who knew?
Sources had even said that Howsam felt he had given the Astros the 1972 pennant but that the deal was best for his team in the long run. Indeed, in May, Howsam gave up one of baseball’s premier home-run hitters and greatest leaders. He had hit 111 homers and driven in 302 runs in the three previous years. He was also something of a legend, having hit the last home run in Crosley Field, to say nothing of taking part in one of baseball’s strangest plays.
Prematurely balding, May had purchased a hairpiece and in a very important game had slid into home plate and got entangled with the catcher. As the dust cleared, he was ruled safe but just laid there. Teammate Tony Perez approached, thinking he might be hurt, asking “What’s wrong?”
May looked up at him sheepishly and simply asked “Is my hairpiece still on?”
Losing it there at home plate would have been too much embarrassment for him to take.
If May was a slugger and Helms a Gold Glove second baseman, the Reds had received the perfect fit. It isn’t every day you get to trade for a two-time MVP and Hall of Fame second baseman in Morgan, a player ready to burst into the prime of his career as the catalyst of one of baseball’s greatest teams—the Big Red Machine.
Anderson had something to do with that, for he knew that by lockering Morgan next to Pete Rose he would reach him, create a competition between the two as Rose’s good points rubbed off on Morgan. Morgan was never allowed to slip into any bad habits. After announcing one day that he was feeling ill and wouldn’t be playing, he showed up at his locker to find that Perez had set up a cot there with a pillow and blanket, a jar of aspirin, a glass of water, and some slippers. Morgan played.
While Morgan blossomed, Billingham went on to twice win 19 games and spin an 0.36 World Series earned run average in four starts. Geronimo, of course, became a Gold Glove center fielder and while not known as a hitter, managed to hit .307 one season.
Facing the Yankees in the 1976 World Series, the first fall classic in which the designated hitter was used, Anderson looked at the lineups on the scoreboard and said, “We must be pretty good if we have a .307 hitter batting ninth.”
The Reds swept the Yankees.
The best example of what the trade did for the Reds came in the historic 1975 World Series against the Red Sox, a series remembered for Carlton Fisk’s midnight home run and a classic seventh game, but a case can be made for the 10-inning 6-5 Reds' victory in Game Three at home as turning the series.
And the winning run? It started with Geronimo singling. Armbrister was sent up to pinch-hit for Rawly Eastwick, and bunted. On the play became entangled with Fisk, the catcher, who threw wildly to second. Fisk argued interference but home-plate umpire Larry Barnett would have none of it. Pete Rose was walked intentionally and Morgan won the game with a base hit… the rally consisting entirely of players acquired that November day in Arizona.
And that’s right, the wrong Cesar and another guy named Joe won it for the Reds.