Asterisks (*) in this case indicate that neither item turned out to be true…
December 9, 1965: Future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for prospect outfielder Dick Simpson, all-star starting pitcher Milt Pappas, and star reliever Jack Baldschun. The Reds traded former and future MVP Robinson for they thought he was an “old 30” after thinking he was in decline* (notice the asterisk again).
Reds owner Bill DeWitt worked for legendary baseball general manager Branch Rickey as an office boy at age 14 for the St. Louis Cardinals and later followed him to the St. Louis Browns. Rickey, best known for his role in developing farm systems and his leadership in the integration of baseball through Jackie Robinson, had learned an important Rickey adage, that it was better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. He took that role in trading Robinson for other talents. I described the players the Reds received in trade (Pappas, Baldschun, and Simpson) the way that I did because, in theory, it’s quite likely that DeWitt made a quality trade. He was addressing a Reds need (pitching), he was trying to make room for the Reds future (Tony Perez and Lee May) and he felt that Deron Johnson would be able to repeat his 130-rbi seasonal performance. Coupled with the fact that Robinson wasn’t playing at the same level he had from 1961-63, he thought Robinson was in decline.
DeWitt’s trade ideology missed on several points. First, it’s difficult to overstate exactly how great of a player that Robinson actually was for the Reds, both on the field and in the clubhouse. He was probably the third best player in the National League behind Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and it’s no crime to be keeping that kind of company. Secondly, as many published books have attested, Robinson was the leader of the Reds, their protector on offense, and inspirational leader on and off the field. While Robinson’s raw numbers may seem to have declined, if we check OPS+ we can see that Robinson was not in decline. In fact, he was remarkably consistent with one seemingly “down” (he was hurt) year (from 1959-65: 152, 169, 163, 172, 133, 160, 151). This consistency continued for the next ten seasons. While DeWitt recognized that the Reds needed more pitching, it seems he missed that increased role of 1960’s pitching was artificially driving down the raw numbers of production. DeWitt didn’t have OPS+ in his day; what he saw was that Robinson’s batting average, home runs, and rbi and decreased from the Reds 1961 National League championship season.
DeWitt also overrated Johnson’s ability and the context of the runs batted in statistic. Runs batted in is still one of the most important indicators in MVP balloting though largely reliant on the batting order and the ability of the players ahead of the hitter to get into scoring position. Still, someone has to drive in the runs and Johnson knocked home 130 Reds runners in 1965. Johnson drove in 81 Reds runners in 1966 and only 53 in 1967 and was traded to the Atlanta Braves.
I also don’t think a player like Robinson is replaceable. Milt Pappas was an American League all-star pitcher on a very good young Orioles pitching staff, the “baby birds.” Baldschun had appeared in more games than any other National League reliever from 1961-65, and Simpson was a “can’t miss” prospect who had been hitting for average and power in the minors. DeWitt seemingly got value for Robinson, but can be a Hall of Famer playing at a Hall of Fame level really be replaced?
Much has been written about the Robinson trade. It’s not the worst trade in Reds history (see Christy Mathewson), but it’s definitely the most infamous, possibly the most infamous in baseball history. It’s one of two outfield trades that may possibly have cost the Reds World Championship opportunities (Imagine the 1970 Reds with Robinson in the outfield, or the 1964 Reds with Curt Flood in CF). Seamheads.com has an excellent posting on the Robinson trade including details about other Robinson trade offers that DeWitt declined. I had not heard these stories before and you’ll find them fascinating. There were many offers on the table and DeWitt chose what he did because he felt the Orioles were offering too much to pass up.
December 9, 1977: The Reds acquire star left-handed starting pitcher Vida Blue from the Oakland Athletics for prospect first baseman Dave Revering and $1.75 million. Blue’s acquisition gave the Reds two of the best starting pitchers in baseball in perennial Cy Young Award candidates Blue and Tom Seaver, whom the Reds had acquired from the New York Mets in June of 1977.
No, wait…that didn’t happen. Blue never pitched for the Reds despite appearing in the Reds 1978 media guide because baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced on January 30, 1978, that he would not approve the deal for it was not in the best interest of baseball and that it would affect the competitive balance of the teams. Blue had been a three-time 20-game winner, winning the Cy Young Award in 1971 when he was 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA, 301 strikeouts, and eight shutouts. Seaver was a five-time 20-game winner who had won Cy Young Awards in 1969, 1972, and 1975. Blue would have joined the Reds’ rotation that had been decimated by injury and trades after having a promising crop of young arms in the early 1970’s.
The book “Big Red Dynasty” by Greg Rhodes and John Erardi chronicle the failings of the Blue deal. The book says that Reds GM Bob Howsam informed commissioner Kuhn of the deal of Revering and $1.75 million for Blue. Kuhn, who had blocked the sale of A’s stars Blue, Joe Rudi, and Rollie Fingers to the New York Yankees the previous season (for “violating the best interests of baseball”) told Howsam that he wanted to investigate the transaction. The Reds were following their professed mindset of not pursuing free agents and decided to spend their money on a player acquisition rather than in a bidding process. Meanwhile, A’s owner Charlie Finley had no desire to participate in the free agent process and was actively trying to sell off his players as their free agency approached.
The authors write that Howsam told Kuhn that no rules were violated, but Kuhn had suggested earlier in the year year that he felt no deal should include more than $400,000 and that minor leaguer Revering (a four year AAA power hitter stuck behind Perez and Dan Driessen in Cincinnati) was not good enough for Blue. The book quotes Howsam as saying he felt there was another factor involved: “I think Bowie had a strong dislike for Finley.”
Bowie blocked the deal. From “Big Red Dynasty”:
Howsam was livid.
“I don’t think that baseball intended the commissioner to decide which teams would be allowed to win pennants and how often.”
The acquisition of Blue most likely would have extended Big Red Machine dominance for a few more years. While the trade of Tony Perez hurt the Reds clubhouse, the Reds’ offense still manufactured runs at a championship pace. However, the pitching staff’s performance fell dramatically and led to the BRM’s downfall. Seaver gave the Reds all-star quality pitching through 1981, while Blue also continued to pitch at an all-star level…except it was for the Reds division rival San Francisco Giants. Blue had been dealt to the Giants six weeks after the Reds deal fell through for seven players and $390,000. The Reds and A’s had not been able to work out another equitable deal. The Reds had eventually traded Revering to the A’s for reliever Doug Bair in February.