It was designed to be the perfect trade, a rare transaction that would benefit both teams, returning one to previously attained heights and lifting the other from the dreaded doldrums of consistent contender — the perennial bridesmaid without a ring.
It didn’t quite turn out that way.
Instead, it became a lightning rod of controversy, labeled as either one of the “best” or “worst” baseball transactions of all time, depending on your viewpoint, with dramatically different effects on the two principals involved.
For one, it became the exclamation point for a Hall of Fame career already in the works. For the other, it was a drastic interruption to an otherwise splendid resume — a dramatic change that would ultimately transform a rising star into arguably the most unappreciated, and underrated, 200-game winner in baseball history.
It was 50 years ago, Dec. 9, 1965, that the Baltimore Orioles made a deal with the Cincinnati Reds that, to this day, is still simply referred to as “The Trade.” It brought outfielder Frank Robinson to the Orioles in exchange for pitcher Milt Pappas and two other players who are best known as the answer to a trivia question today, but were significant pieces to the puzzle when the deal was made.
Dick Simpson, a 22-year-old power hitting outfield prospect the Orioles had obtained from the Angels in exchange for Norm Siebern, a steady but unspectacular hitting first baseman/outfielder, and relief pitcher Jack Baldschun, obtained from the Phillies for veteran outfielder Jackie Brandt and then-unknown left-handed reliever Darold Knowles, were the “extras” needed for the O’s to complete the deal.
A half-century later, it’s easy for observers to look back and say this was as much a brain cramp for the Reds as it was a “no-brainer” for the Orioles. In fact, it was much more complicated than that, so much so, in fact, that, depending on your source, three different people have been credited with making the deal for the Orioles. For the Reds, however, general manager turned owner Bill DeWitt was the culprit who made a trade that made perfect sense to him at the time, but the short-term return proved so bad that it may have influenced his sale of the team a little more than a year later.
In retrospect, it was the Reds, not the Orioles, who were more in need of a makeover after the 1965 season — contrary to general perception. Four years removed from losing to the New York Yankees in the World Series, they finished fourth in the then-10-team National League, despite winning 89 games.
Cincinnati led the NL in virtually every offensive category that year — runs, hits, doubles, triples, total bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage. There wasn’t even a statistic not yet invented that the Reds didn’t lead. But pitching was another matter, as the woeful NL expansion Mets were the only team with a worse ERA, and DeWitt determined it was imperative he improve a dilapidated pitching staff.
Meanwhile, the Orioles had been on a relatively consistent run since 1960, when they first broke through as a legitimate contender. Only once in the next six years did they win fewer than 86 games, peaking with 97 wins in 1964 (when they still finished third in the American League, two games back), but could never escape the shadow of the dominant Yankees.
Then, an alarming thing happened in 1965, when the Orioles won “only” 94 games — attendance dropped from 1,116,215, then-second highest in team history, to 781,649. It was a startling decline that raised what might now be called the “Reds Flag.” It did not go unnoticed by the regime of new majority owner Jerry Hoffberger, who had installed Frank Cashen as executive vice president and his personal liaison with general manager Lee MacPhail.
It was MacPhail, who would soon leave to join the commissioner’s office, who put the team’s signature trade together. But not before both the Reds and Orioles had other potential trades fall through. Houston had rejected an offer from the Reds of Robinson for outfielder Jimmy Wynn and pitcher Larry Dierker, and the Orioles had turned down the Giants, who proposed a deal of outfielder Jesus Alou for Pappas.
It wasn’t until after the Winter Meetings, during which MacPhail completed the trade for Simpson, that talks between the Orioles and Reds began to heat up. The irony now is that the player who made the least impact — Baldschun — ended up being the final, and perhaps most important, piece of the trade puzzle.
“After they got Baldschun, the deal fell into place from our standpoint,” DeWitt told The Baltimore News-American’s Neal Eskridge the day after the trade was announced.
The Orioles had acquired Baldschun, a durable 29-year-old relief pitcher who had averaged 65 appearances during the previous five years, only three days earlier, and DeWitt called MacPhail the next day.
The call came less than an hour before a press conference that would announce Harry Dalton as MacPhail’s replacement as the Orioles’ general manager.
“As soon as the press conference was over, I called Harry and Hank (manager Hank Bauer) aside and said ‘OK, here’s your first decision,'” MacPhail told reporters two days later, after the deal with the Reds had been finalized.
One interesting sidelight to the negotiations is that both sides cited outfielder Curt Blefary, the 1965 American League Rookie of the Year, as a potential stumbling block to the trade.
“I asked for Blefary and a pitcher, and they said no,” DeWitt said, and MacPhail acknowledged as much to Eskridge.
“They always wanted Blefary, but we said forget it. When we got Simpson and Baldschun, both of whom we liked, they came back to us,” MacPhail said.
Although there wasn’t any apparent disagreement, or criticism, about the trade, it was not met with the overwhelming acceptance it would later command. “Oriole Trade Called Gamble” was the News American headline the next day, a declaration that wasn’t denied by Dalton, who originally asked for a second (unnamed) player before accepting the proposal DeWitt had made to MacPhail.
“It is a gamble, but it’s a protected gamble,” said Dalton, who, as farm director (the old term for minor league director), was well versed in the team’s young players. He believed the risk was worth taking in order for the Orioles to establish “Cannons at the Corners,” a term he used to describe the benefits of the trade, a lineup that would include Blefary and Robinson in left and right field.
“We still have four solid starters in [Steve] Barber, [Dave] McNally, [Wally] Bunker and [John] Miller, plus seven other youngsters who will be candidates for the staff,” Dalton told Eskridge.
He rattled off the names of Dave Leonhard, Frank Bertaina, Tom Phoebus, Eddie Watt, Bill Short, Ed Barnowski and the one who may have been the most unlikely at the time — Jim Palmer, who would lead the 1966 Orioles with 15 wins.
Dan Duquette, the Orioles’ current executive vice president of baseball operations, broke in as an executive under Dalton with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1980, and while he never had any conversation with him about the trade, he does offer up some insight.
“Knowing Harry, I’d bet he knew he had a lot of young pitchers,” Duquette said. “I know he was proud of that trade, but he would never boast about a deal, and I’m sure he was involved, because he was in charge of the minor leagues and knew his young players.”
Still, the fact remained that the Orioles weren’t in need of a drastic makeover, and there was an underlying belief that there were other reasons why the trade was made. The headline on a column by Doug Brown in the Evening Sun Dec. 15, 1965 hinted strongly at an important secondary reason behind the trade. It said: “Birds Needed Robinson Deal To Stir Interest” and revealed a vital aspect of the trade.
“The prime reason [for the trade] was because it gives us strength where we need it most — hitting in the outfield,” Cashen told Brown. He then added: “It’s no secret we’re trying to change our image, be a more exciting club and make friends in the Negro Community.” That expression was more acceptable then than now, but the sentiment stands that the Orioles were hoping Robinson would help them gain better acceptance in the African-American community.
Andy MacPhail was only 12 years old when his father engineered the trade with the Reds, but he has vivid recollections of the trade and conversations he would have later.
“I do know that he put that trade in place,” said Andy MacPhail, who would become the Orioles’ president of baseball operations 42 years after Lee MacPhail left the same job with a different title. “I think Harry might’ve tried to tweak it a little, but it stayed the way it had been presented.
“He (Lee MacPhail) felt that Frank had a lot left in him,” said Andy MacPhail, the Phillies’ new president. “But he never talked about any other aspect of the trade — just that he felt he was the right guy for that time. One funny anecdote was that Pappas was my brother, Bruce’s, favorite player, and he wouldn’t talk to dad for weeks.”
While Lee MacPhail was confident in Robinson having a lot left in the tank, DeWitt got tagged with the “old 30” expression that not only proved erroneous, but was never said. Some had also alluded to off-the-field problems Robinson had as a young player — primarily a concealed weapon charge — but that was old news long before the trade, and the “old 30” reference that was a misrepresentation of what was actually said.
“It was nothing personal at all,” DeWitt told Eskridge before the start of the 1966 season. “Robinson is not a young 30 (thus the “old” line). If he had been 26, we might not have traded him.”
Longtime baseball writer Earl Lawson, writing in the Cincinnati Post, added another perspective. “Perhaps DeWitt was guided by an old saying of the late Branch Rickey ‘the time to trade a star player is when you feel he has reached the twilight of his career.’ Robby, now 30, is approaching that stage. He was at his peak in 1961 and ‘62.” DeWitt was an avowed disciple of Rickey, who, by the strangest of coincidences, died the day the trade was announced.
Orioles players at that time were not unaware of the position that seemed to have the club on a treadmill that didn’t run as high as first place — or push the fan barometer to the then-unimaginable heights it would reach in the next two decades.
“I really think they just wanted to shake things up a little bit,” Brooks Robinson said, looking back at the trade that helped get the Orioles to the next level. “We were a good team, but couldn’t quite get over the hump. It’s tough to give up your best pitcher, and I think Milt has gotten the short end of the stick because of the success Frank had, which really isn’t fair. We knew [Frank Robinson] was a great hitter and a marvelous player. He had a great resume. He liked us. We liked him, and it all worked out great. But Milt had a great career, too, and it’s unfortunate it got overshadowed by something out of his control.”
First baseman Boog Powell, like the Robinsons, a middle-of-the-lineup fixture through the glory years, echoed Brooks Robinson’s comments.
“Milt was a good friend and teammate and a great competitor, and I’ll be honest, I had some questions at the time,” Powell said. “It’s not like we were some ragtag amateur outfit. We were damn good. And hey, who knows? We might’ve won without the trade. I even told Frank that — ‘I’m glad we got you, but you never know — we might’ve won without you, too.’ But there’s no doubt we were a better team with him here.”
In retrospect, in the “Google Age” we live in, you will find the trade of Milt Pappas and friends for Frank Robinson among the 10 “Best” or “Worst” trades of all time, and in some cases, it will be at the top of both. Robinson went on to win a Triple Crown and a Most Valuable Player award right out of the box. The Orioles won four pennants and two World Series (and one more MVP for Frank Robinson) with him in the lineup.
With Pappas going 12-11 in 1966 and 16-13 in 1967, the Reds went 76-84 and 87-75 those two years, respectively. Meanwhile, Frank Robinson’s departure eventually opened spots in the lineup for first baseman/third baseman Tony Perez, who would end up in the Hall of Fame, and first baseman/outfielder Lee May, who would later go to Houston in a deal that produced Joe Morgan (probably the best trade in Reds history) and eventually to the Orioles, where he became a member of the club’s Hall Of Fame.
Midway through the 1968 season, the Reds traded Pappas to Atlanta in a deal that included pitchers Clay Carroll and Tony Cloninger and shortstop Woody Woodward, all of whom played key roles in the reign of “The Big Red Machine” in the mid-1970s.
Pappas would finish with a 99-90 record in the NL, one win shy of becoming only the second pitcher to win 100 games in each league, and one pitch away from a perfect game while pitching a no-hitter for the Chicago Cubs Sept. 2, 1972. He finished with a 209-164 career record, tarnished only by the fact it would always be compared to that of Frank Robinson, unjust though it may be.
So who were the winners and losers in that big trade that took place 50 years ago this month? The Orioles and Frank Robinson obviously fared best. The Reds? They actually didn’t make out so bad after all — thanks at least in part to what has been deemed the worst trade in Cincinnati history. Milt Pappas? Fate has not been kind to him, but please — don’t ever call him a loser. Baseball, like life, isn’t always fair.
(Art by John Pennisi)
Issue 216: December 2015