Part 12 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building. See introduction, and up-to-date list.
In December 1958 major league owners agreed to the first interleague trading period. Prior to this, teams could trade with clubs in the other league only if the players involved first cleared waivers in their own league, a non-starter for dealing any front-line talent. For all practical purposes, prior to 1959 a big league GM only had only seven teams he could trade with.
One of the instigators of the new rule was Frank “Trader” Lane, GM of the Cleveland Indians and famous for swapping players, often just for the thrill of the deal. The AL approved the new rule 7-1, the NL by a narrower 5-3 vote.
In a trade today, which league a player is moving to or from barely registers, but at the time it was revolutionary enough that the new trading window would only be open for a very short interval, November 21 to December 15. It’s important to remember that the two leagues were distinct and occasionally hostile entities. Though they recognized each other’s territorial rights and reserve lists, they were very competitive and parochial. In addition, the leagues were fighting off the upstart Continental League and beginning to jockey for possible expansion cities. To many, agreeing to trade with the hated “other league” seemed heresy.
Those believing that an interleague trading window was bad for the game included baseball’s leadership: Commissioner Ford Frick, NL President Bill Giles, and AL President Joe Cronin. Giles, in particular, was afraid of losing some his league’s stars to weaker AL. Frick hoped to get the owners to rescind the rule, scheduled take effect after the 1959 season, at the meetings around the All-Star break. He was unsuccessful, and in November 1959 baseball’s GMs could finally start swapping with the other league. Over the first few years, though there were several significant interleague trades, none of baseball’s recognized superstars switched leagues. That all changed during the 1965 interleague trading period.
Cincinnati President Bill DeWitt wanted more pitching. His team had finished fourth in 1965, leading the league in runs but coming in ninth in ERA (in the 10 team NL). DeWitt felt he could bolster his squad by relinquishing his best player, right fielder Frank Robinson, in return for pitching. Robinson wasn’t only the Reds best player, he was one of the best in baseball. Over the previous five years in the highly competitive NL, he had finished in the top four in the MVP voting three times, winning the award in 1961. Nevertheless, DeWitt, believing it was better to trade a man a year too early than too late and that Robinson was “not a young 30”, began shopping his superstar.
The offers were not overwhelming. The Astros would not part with more than third baseman Bob Aspromonte and pitcher Dick Farrell; DeWitt wanted at least outfielder Jim Wynn and reliever Claude Raymond. He wanted pitcher Sam McDowell included in any trade with the Indians, but GM Gabe Paul was unwilling to surrender his young fireballer. According to DeWitt, the White Sox offered pitcher John Buzhardt and right fielder Floyd Robinson (no relation).
Orioles GM Lee MacPhail was also highly interested in Robinson. DeWitt initially wanted Milt Pappas, a 27-year-old pitcher who had gone 13-9 with a 2.60 ERA in 1965, and right fielder Curt Blefary. Baltimore was unwilling to surrender Blefary, but also unwilling to give up their pursuit of Robinson. MacPhail made a couple of lesser trades and soon had a couple of other pieces that would satisfy DeWitt: reliever Jack Baldschun and 22-year-old outfield prospect Dick Simpson.
Before he could finalize any trade, however, MacPhail accepted a new position with MLB as special assistant to the commissioner, and the Orioles promoted Harry Dalton to take over. As his final act as the Orioles GM, MacPhail attended the 1965 winter meetings where he struck the deal with DeWitt that would bring Robinson to Baltimore in exchange for Pappas, Baldschun and Simpson. “I told [Reds GM Bill] Dewitt that I was leaving and would have to clear it with Harry Dalton, the general manager-to-be.” Three days into his tenure, Dalton approved the deal.
The trade could not have turned out any more lopsided. For Baltimore, the arrival of Frank Robinson transformed the Orioles from a consistent contender into a great team. Robinson was a superb all-around player who led the Orioles to the world championship in 1966 while winning the Triple Crown and the MVP. Brooks Robinson, the Orioles top star at the time, enthusiastically welcomed his new teammate, and the rest of the team came on board. “You talk about teams that hoped they could win,” remembered pitcher Jim Palmer. “That was the Orioles before Frank. After he got here, we expected to win.”
In Cincinnati the Reds fell to seventh, Pappas struggled, and DeWitt’s legacy was forever tarnished. A solid baseball man, DeWitt had led the St Louis Browns to their only pennant in 1944, made a couple great trades for the Tigers around 1960, and several more with the Reds after taking over in Cincinnati at the end of that year, leading them to the pennant as well. His son, Bill DeWitt Jr., currently the owner of the Cardinals, has built one of baseball’s best organizations. DeWitt Sr., however, will always be remembered for the Frank Robinson trade.
The lopsidedness of the trade infuriated NL president Giles. What he had feared back in 1959 appeared to be coming to pass. In December 1966, MacPhail, now GM of the Yankees, negotiated a deal to acquire Maury Wills, the Dodger’ star shortstop. Giles stepped in and “used the weight of his office and also his personal powers of persuasion” to block this and potentially other trades of National League stars to the American League. “I heard the Yankees and the White Sox were especially eager to get Wills,” Giles said. “This was during the winter meetings. So I went to Buzzie [Bavasi] and asked him not to rush into such a deal, because he had until December 15 [the trading deadline] . . . As a matter of fact, [Yankees President] Mike Burke and Lee MacPhail could have killed me when they lost out on Wills. Burke told me, ‘Thanks for sabotaging our deal.’” Bavasi instead swapped Wills to the Pirates.
Players are traded between leagues without a second thought today. With eight-team leagues and no interleague trading, a GMs options were severely limited until 1959. Without new innovations, such as the farm system, or new sources of talent, such as through the elimination of the color line, baseball could become ossified. The 1950s AL, with their mostly embarrassingly slow integration of African Americans, highlights what can happen in this type of environment: the lessening of competition and the accompanying loss of fan interest. The introduction of interleague trading was only a small part of rectifying this condition, but it opened up a few more options for creative dealing.