November 30, 1932: The Reds trade hitter Babe Herman to the Chicago Cubs for catcher Rollie Helmsley, pitcher Bob Smith and outfielders Lance Richbourg and Johnny Moore.

The results of the trade? Helmsley batted .190 with seven rbi in 122 plate appearances and was traded; Smith was 4-4 in 16 games (six starts, 2.20 ERA) and was lost on waivers during the season; Moore batted .263 (.631 OPS) and then was traded to the other bad team of the 1930’s (the Phillies); Richbourg was sold two months later and never played in the majors again. Meanwhile, in 1933, Herman batted .289 with 64 extra base hits and 93 rbi (.855 OPS), batted .304 in 1934, and the Reds reacquired him in 1935 and he played two more seasons for the Reds (batting .335 and .279).

It really wasn’t a very good deal and it was made by a very bad Reds baseball team.

Herman had been their best player in 1932, batting .326 with 63 extra base hits (league leading 19 triples), 87 rbi, and a .930 OPS (151 OPS+). The Reds had acquired him following the 1931 season along with future Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi in a six player trade that saw young star second baseman Tony Cuccinello dealt to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Herman was a tremendous hitter (he hit for the cycle a record-tying three times), but he was an absolute adventure on the basepaths and in the outfield. In fact, he once doubled into a double play. From baseball-reference.com’s bullpen:

Three Men on Third

“Babe Herman did not triple into a triple play, but he doubled into a double play, which is the next best thing.” – John Lardner

Herman was involved in one of the most absurd plays in baseball history when he doubled into a double play. With the bases loaded, he hit a long hit and began racing around the bases. As he rounded second, the third base coach yelled at him to go back because the runner from first, Chick Fewster, hadn’t yet rounded third. The runner from second, pitcher Dazzy Vance, misunderstood and headed back to third, even though he could have scored easily. Herman ignored the coach and headed for third himself, so that all three players wound up there. The third baseman tagged all three runners, putting out Fewster and Herman but not Vance, who was entitled to the base according to the rules as the lead runner there (and not forced to advance from there).

In addition to the quote from Lardner above, the three men on third story led to a standard joke in which a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, on being told that his team had three men on base, demanded to know which base.

Even his obituary remembered his baserunning and fielding challenges:

“Though he was an outstanding hitter, he was perhaps best remembered for what were viewed as his misadventures in the field and on the basepaths.” – from Babe Herman’s obituary in the New York Times

The 1932 Reds were dreadful, finishing 60-94 and in last place in the league. Herman and Lombardi were their two best hitters and Red Lucas (13-17, 2.94 ERA, 131 ERA+) and Si Johnson (13-15, 3.27 ERA, 118 ERA+) were essentially their pitching staff. The previous season, the Dodgers (changing their nickname from Robins) had grown tired of Herman’s misuse of defensive equipment and decided to deal him to the Reds along with extra catcher Lombardi. The Reds decided they would trade a known player for a group of guys that netted them a net loss of 79 runs scored or almost exactly a half-run per game.

For the record, Helmsley had a very good career at catcher, just not as a Red. He was just entering his prime (age 26) and had batted .309 in a part-time role for the Cubs. He would go on to play 19 major league seasons (batted .262 in 1593 games), and would even come back to the Reds in 1942 (batted .113 in 36 games), but the Reds already had Lombardi and I guess they wanted two quality catchers. Moore hit over .300 everywhere he played except Cincinnati (lifetime .307 in 10 seasons), but he started his major league career late and wasn’t a regular until he was 30 (he was 32 when Reds traded him for him). Richbourg wasn’t a player and Smith had had some good years as a starter but was transitioning to relief and would pitch four more seasons (career 106-139, 3.94 ERA, 100 ERA+).

To use another metric, Wins above Replacement (WAR), Reds positional players had a total WAR of 6.0 in 1932. Herman accumulated 5.5 of those 6. Herman’s 5.5 WAR was second on the team to pitcher Lucas (6.0 total, a good hitting pitcher, he achieved 4.9 on mound and 1.1 at bat). One could say, Herman was kind of like a modern day “Adam Dunn” in that all his value was on offense with poor defensive, even his defensive WAR was 1.1 for 1932 (only year it was above 0.1 so a possible anomaly).

Either way, it was a strange deal. In three years with the Reds, Herman batted .315 with an .889 OPS (142 OPS+). For his career, Herman batted .324 with a .915 OPS (141 OPS+).

2 Responses

  1. Baseball_Minutia

    Herman also netted the Reds 80 K in cash in that deal, at the time Sidney Weil was the owner and he was in deep with the banks, he eventually lost the team to them and quite a few good players in hope of using them to raise the capital. Herman’s second Reds campaign came when Chick Hafey jumped the team for no reason, Herman had cooled down since he was a Red and his reputation was that he was a sleepy player, thus his new deal involved a back room deal that McPhail cut with Herman, promising $250 every 2 weeks if Herman would hustle. In late August McPahail failed to pay it out and Herman jumped the club, declaring that he didn’t need to play the game for money (He was making 9K during the depression)he took his case to Chicago to plead his position to Judge Landis. Eventually they worked it out, oddly enough a few weeks later McPhail resigned.

  2. RickFebles

    … Unfortunately, the only “Babe” Herman ever to play for the Cubs. If the other one had gone to Chicago rather than New York, maybe the legacies of the two franchises would have been reversed.