Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Cincinnati Reds for Trading Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas

December 9, 1965, 50 years ago today: On the day that Branch Rickey, baseball's greatest executive ever, dies at age 84, the Cincinnati Reds trade Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson.

Baldschun and Simpson were throw-ins, designed to make the trade a 3-for-1, so it didn't look like the Reds were trading Robinson even-up for a single pitcher.

"Bad trades are a part of baseball. I mean, who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God's sake?"
-- Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), Bull Durham

This looked like a bad trade rather quickly, as, in the very next season, 1966, Robinson led the Orioles to their 1st American League Pennant and their 1st World Championship, winning the Triple Crown and the Most Valuable Player award for himself, thus becoming the 1st man to win the MVP in both Leagues. (He's still the only one.)

As for the Reds, they wouldn't win another National League Pennant until 1970, and another World Series until 1975. To make matters worse, when the Reds did win the Pennant in 1970, who beat them in the World Series? Robinson and the Orioles, although Brooks Robinson (no relation, of course) was a bigger reason than Frank on that occasion.

So why did they trade Robinson? Because he was "an old 30."

An old 30? This guy carried the Reds on his back to win the Pennant (and the MVP for himself) just 4 years earlier. He was one of the best hitters in baseball. He would go on to hit 586 career home runs -- and Crosley Field, the Reds' home field until mid-1970, had a short left-field fence. He collected almost 3,000 career hits. He was a good fielder, too. Perhaps he didn't cover as much ground in right field as his contemporaries Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Roger Maris or Roberto Clemente; or have as good an arm as Clemente or Rocky Colavito. But he was really good.

What a bonehead trade.

Surely, there must be some justification for having made the trade...

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Cincinnati Reds for Trading Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas

5. Frank Robinson. Okay, he wasn't exactly in decline, but view him from the perspective of after the 1965 season. Here's his batting average, his on-base percentage, his slugging percentage, his OPS+, his doubles, his home runs, his RBIs and his stolen bases from 1962 (in which he actually had a better year than his MVP season of 1961) through 1965:

.342, .421, .624, 172, 51, 39, 136, 18
.259, .379, .442, 133, 19, 21, 91, 26
.306, .396, .548, 160, 38, 29, 96, 23
.296, .386, .540, 151, 33, 33, 113, 13

No, that's not a "decline." And his 1963 numbers were artificially held down by missing time due to injury.

But it did look like he'd dropped a bit from his peak. Reds owner Bill DeWitt (father of the man of the same name who now owns the St. Louis Cardinals) might have been concerned that the '63 injury hadn't fully healed. And 30, being a round number, is a harsher (if not an entirely fair) indicator than 32, or even 35.

The fairest thing you can say is that Frank went from being one of the 3 best players in the game (along with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays) to being one of the 20 best. Where trading him had once been unthinkable -- Gabe Paul, the Reds' general manager from 1951 to 1960, supposedly told Branch Rickey, then running the Pittsburgh Pirates, "I wouldn't give you Frank Robinson for your whole team," but was running the Cleveland Indians by 1965 -- it was now thinkable.

Check out Frank's numbers from 1966, though -- and Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, especially in those days, was a pitcher's park:

.316, .410, .637, 198, 34, 49, 122, 8
Yeah, his stolen base total (which actually went up, reaching a career high for him, in the injury-shortened 1963 season) continued to go down. But, as the saying goes, If you hit it far enough, you don't have to run. And that's why this is only Reason Number 5: Trading him was plausible, but still not very smart.

4. Money. Pappas was making $32,500, Baldschun $24,000, and Simpson $8,000; total, $64,500. Robinson, all by himself? $57,000. Robinson wanted $64,000 for 1966, and owner DeWitt couldn't throw that kind of money around for just 1 player.

Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger gave Frank his $64,000. He made it $100,000 after the Triple Crown/MVP/World Series season. The most he ever made? $160,000 in 1973 and '74. He actually took a pay cut in '75, to $105,000, even though he was both playing and managing. (He was the 1st black manager in Major League Baseball.)

3. The Reds needed pitching. Their 1965 starting rotation consisted of Jim Maloney, Joey Jay, and 2 out of these 4: Jim O'Toole, Joe Nuxhall, Sammy Ellis and John Tsitouris. Nuxhall then retired. O'Toole had a horrible season: 3-10, 5.92 ERA. Tsitouris wasn't much better: 6-9, 4.95. Jay, the only Reds pitcher to win a World Series game between 1940 and 1970, was 9-8, but his ERA was 4.22. Clearly, the Reds needed at least 2 more starting pitchers -- or 1, and hoped that someone out of Jay, O'Toole, Ellis and Tsitouris bounced back.

Nuxhall appeared in 32 games that season, divided evenly between 16 starts and 16 relief appearances. The Reds also had Roger Craig, once a very good starter, but, by this point, was being used exclusively in relief, and was pretty much done.

2. Milt Pappas. He was a very good pitcher. He was then 26 years old, and had already won 110 games in the major leagues, against just 74 losses. In 1965, for an Oriole team that finished a distant 2nd to the Minnesota Twins, he went 13-9, with a 2.60 ERA -- an ERA+ of 133, so he wasn't just taking advantage of a pitching-friendly period in baseball history. His WHIP was a nifty 1.102.

He had made the All-Star Team for the 2nd time in 4 seasons. He'd won 16 games in '63 and did it again in '64, and had just won 13 in '65. That's 45 wins over the preceding 3 seasons. Not great, but very good. And he was reliable: He'd never had a significant injury.
His career record turned out to be 209-164 -- by 1 win in the National League, he missed becoming one of the few pitchers ever to win at least 100 games in each League.

Does this sound like a failed pitcher to you? Hardly. The problem wasn't that the Reds acquired him. It was that they let him go too soon. He had a down year in 1966, just 12-11, 4.29. But, even then, he won just 1 fewer game than he did the season before. In 1967, he went 16-13, 3.35. Much better. And then, in 1968, they traded him to the Atlanta Braves, in a 3-for-3 deal.

The names that mattered in that trade turned out to be Pappas and Clay Carroll. Carroll did turn out to be a key cog in the Big Red Machine bullpen of the 1970s. Then again, you wouldn't trade Frank Robinson and Milt Pappas for Clay Carroll, would you?

In 1970, between the Braves and the Chicago Cubs, Pappas went 12-10, 3.34. If he'd been available for the Reds during the 1970 World Series, it might have been a very different story.

1. Unexpected declines. It wasn't Robinson that ended up declining. But the aforementioned Joey Jay did. So did center fielder Vada Pinson, costing him a genuine shot at the Hall of Fame. So did 1st baseman Gordy Coleman. So did shortstop Leo Cardenas. And, despite the addition of Pappas, the Reds' pitching didn't get much better.

Pretty much the only '65 Reds who were still around by the time they won the '70 Pennant were Pete Rose (24 years old in '65) and Tony Perez (23). Just about everybody else had to be replaced. If they'd lasted a little longer, maybe the Reds could have challenged the Los Angeles Dodgers for the '66 Pennant, the Cardinals for the '67 and '68 Pennants, and the Braves for the '69 NL Western Division title. By '70, they were ready to begin a decade that, in 10 years, saw them win 6 NL West titles, 4 Pennants and 2 World Series. But they did need to rebuild.

There may have been other reasons. There were stories that Robinson and Pinson didn't get along -- odd, since they were both graduates of McClymonds High School in Oakland, as were Curt Flood of the Cardinals and basketball superstar Bill Russell. There were also stories of cops in Southern Ohio and Kentucky giving Robinson, one of the biggest names among black baseball players, a hard time for minor issues. Certainly, Baltimore had its racial issues in the 1960s, and, being an hour's drive (with good traffic flow, not always a given) from Virginia, is almost on the South's doorstep, as Cincy is.

But the trade of Robinson for Pappas didn't have to be so bad. If the Reds had just hung onto Pappas through 1970, and Jay, Pinson, Coleman and Cardenas had lasted a little longer, it might have been a very different story.

Today, Frank Robinson is 80 years old, a special assistant to Commissioner Rob Manfred, and the honorary President of the American League.
Robinson back in Cincinnati, at the 2015 All-Star Game

Milt Pappas is 76, living in the Chicago suburbs (where he stayed after pitching for the Cubs, including a 1972 no-hitter that was a controversial walk away from a perfect game), and retired from the building trade.
Pappas honored at Wrigley Field in 2012,
on the 40th Anniversary of his no-hitter

Jack Baldschun is 79, retired from the lumber business, and living in Green Bay, Wisconsin. And Dick Simpson is 72, although I can find no recent information on him.

UPDATE: Papas died on April 19, 2016.

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