Free Trade (1971)

Part 15 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

Between 1965 (the year of the first Amateur Draft) and 1976 (the first year of Free Agency), baseball general managers had more power than they had ever had and would ever have. It was the era when baseball players had the least control over their careers, and it was also the era when owner wealth or revenue meant the least. A team could not buy its way out of trouble with bonuses to amateurs or veterans. If you had a poor team, you had two reasonable methods to improve: you could draft well over a period of years and then be patient; or you could make a series of astute trades. Ideally, you would do both.

This is where the general manager came in. Other than the occasional owner who was actually going bankrupt, the rest of the teams, even those in small markets like Baltimore, Oakland, and Cincinnati, could compete on equal footing with teams in New York and Los Angeles if they had a bright general manager, scouts, and development system. In fact, all three of those teams achieved more success in this period than before or since.

CuellarIn all three cases, much of their success could be attributed to their ability to trade. The Orioles great 1969-71 run was keyed by deals for Frank Robinson, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson, while the A’s turned a good team into a great one by dealing for Ken Holtzman and Bill North.

But the greatest GM of this period, the man who built the best team, was Bob Howsam, who ran the Cincinnati Reds. Howsam was a master trader, having made impressive deals for Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris during a stint running the Cardinals before taking the Reds job in 1967. His acquisition of Bobby Tolan put the finishing touches on his 1970 pennant winner, but his master stroke came after his team slid back in 1971.

Howsam met with his brain trust, including manager Sparky Anderson, the farm director, and the team’s top scouts, in September 1971, to map out their off-season strategy. As Howsam saw it, they were too slow, too defensively challenged (especially now that they had moved to Riverfront Stadium with its artificial turf and huge power alleys), and too right-handed. Howsam and his group went over his team position by position throughout the entire organization, and then put together a position-by-position ranking of every player in the major leagues to gauge how the Reds matched up.

Howsam expected his staff to know other baseball organizations as well as the teams themselves did. When he went to talk to the Pirates about a trade, he wanted to know the Pirate players who might be blocked or who might be underappreciated. He wanted to be ready for anything his counterpart might suggest.

The man Sparky Anderson wanted was Joe Morgan, a 28-year-old second baseman with the Astros. Morgan was a left-handed hitter, a great base stealer, and had more power than most middle infielders. He also had tremendous on-base skills that were undervalued at the time. It was no secret that Morgan did not get along with Astros manager Harry Walker – which might offer the opening the Howsam needed.

Howsam asked scout Ray Shore to look into the matter further and report back. Shore spent the last few weeks of the 1971 season with Astros, scouting Morgan. Shore knew everyone, and knew how to get the information he needed. One of his sources was Harry Kalas, a radio broadcaster for the Astros at the time. Kalas liked Morgan, thought him bright and competitive, and believed that Walker mismanaged him. Shore concluded that Morgan would be a great addition to the club.

Howsam’s scouts felt that the Astros were looking for power, and the Reds had three right-handed power hitters in Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and Lee May. Bench was untouchable, and May was the one Howsam was willing to trade. He called up Astros general manager Spec Richardson and offered May for Morgan, straight up.

Richardson spent the next few weeks shopping Morgan around before getting back to the Reds. He asked to expand the deal by trading infielder Denis Menke for Tommy Helms (the Reds’ second baseman who would be displaced by Morgan).

download (14)Although Helms would be redundant, Howsam used this as an opportunity to get more players. This is where his scouts’ hard work paid off. Howsam asked for both Cesar Geronimo, a young centerfielder blocked by Cesar Cedeno, and Jack Billingham, a starting pitcher who had not broken into a deep Astros rotation. Richardson needed neither, as Howsam knew, but Spec felt he had to ask for utility man Jimmy Stewart. Realizing that the deal was just about done but always wanting one more player, Howsam said he’d agree if he could have young outfielder Ed Armbrister.

The deal was finalized at the winter meetings on November 29. 1971. May, Helms, and Stewart, for Morgan, Geronimo, Billingham, Menke, and Armbrister.

The reaction to the trade was mostly pro-Houston. May and Helms were very popular players in Cincinnati, while many observers thought of Morgan as a worse fielding version of Helms. This judgment would prove wildly incorrect. Over the next five seasons Morgan would be the best player in baseball, averaging .303 with a .431 on-base-percentage, 22 home runs, 113 runs, 62 steals, and winning four Gold Gloves. He had two spectacular MVP seasons in 1975 and 1976, capping off one of the best five-year peaks in baseball history, comparable to those of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.

Howsam later estimated that the Reds spent 3,000 man-hours working on the Astros deal, the equivalent of a single person working 40 hours a week for a year-and-a-half. The effort more than paid off for Howsam and his team.

 

What was missing in all of this strategizing and negotiating was any talk of money or salaries. Bob Howsam was a shrewd businessman on top of everything else, and would gladly exchange a veteran for an equally talented lower-cost solution. But in 1971 none of these players were making enough money to give any team pause, and the Reds likely did not increase their payroll with this deal. Forty years later, salaries and each player’s remaining years of control would be of paramount concern in any transaction, to say nothing of whether the players actually wanted to play for their new teams.

For anyone who grew up on the baseball of this time, it is easy to romanticize about how much better it might have been–to imagine your team trading their way to a pennant–without consideration for money or the people involved.

The Reds won the World Series in both 1975 and 1976, fittingly the last two years before free agency. Howsam later recalled a fleeting melancholy feeling in the winning locker room in 1976, knowing that no one would ever again be able to build a team the way he had.

 

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