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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas Trade was not Illogical

The following article was written by Dean and published in the September 3, 2010 issue of Sports Collectors Digest.

The Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas trade seemed like the correct move for the Reds in 1966

As a Reds fan, I have heard the Frank Robinson trade debacle discussed my whole life.  In hindsight, the Orioles definitely got the better end of the trade – but it was a very logical and aggressive move by the Reds in 1965.

In the 1960’s, the Reds had some very good teams and one of the best minor league systems. In 1961, the Reds came out of nowhere to win the NL pennant. The 1961 Reds roster consisted of mostly veterans and two young superstars – Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. Since there were no playoffs in those days, only two teams could make it to the post-season. The Reds almost won the pennant again in 1962 and lost out on the last day
of 1964.

During the 1960’s, the Reds continued to replace the aging veterans with exciting young players from their incredible farm system. The Red’s youth movement would culminate five years later, with the creation of the big Red Machine – the dominant team of the 1970’s.

The 1965 season set the stage for the Frank Robinson trade. The 1965 Reds led the NL in every offensive category - except Stolen Bases. They also had the highest fielding percentage. The problem was pitching.

Seven of the eight 1965 Reds starters would eventually appear in an All-Star Game. The only exception was Deron Johnson, who had a break out year in 1965, leading the league in RBI’s and finished 4th in the MVP voting. Johnson was only 26 and seemed to be on the rise. His power was a prefect fit for Crosley Field’s short left field wall.

The problem with Johnson was that he was a butcher at 3B and the Reds Brass felt that Deron would even hit better at less demanding position. With future Hall-of-Famer Tony Perez at 1B and future All-Star Lee May right behind him in the minors, that position was well stocked. Johnson would be moved to LF.

The Reds also had to find a place for top prospect and slick fielding Tommy Helms to play. This move turned out to be a good one. Helms won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1966 and went on to become an All-Star. The Reds also had a promising slugging prospect in Art Shamsky, who would serve as a reserve.

Everyone felt that the Reds were one player away from the World Series in 1966, so that “doing nothing” was not really an option. The Reds badly needed pitching. So, who should of the Reds traded in the winter of 1965?

The options were limited.

  1. Vada Pinson was the CF and was the only left-handed hitter in the line-up besides light hitting Johnny Edwards. He could not be traded.
  2. Trading either Tommy Harper or Tony Perez would have less impact on the Reds in 1966, but it is doubtful that the Reds could have gotten a premier starter (not to mention a closer) for either of them. Besides, both were younger, cheaper and seemed like potential stars. Perez is now in Cooperstown.
  3. That left Frank Robinson and Deron Johnson as only real trade options to acquire  a front line starter.
  4. Johnson was three years younger than Robinson and had improved the last two years. He had his career year in 1965 and had also played for new manager Don Heffner in the minors.
  5. Robinson was involved in another contract squabble with the Reds at the time.
  6. Robinson made the most money on the team.
  7. Robinson a history of problems off the field.
  8. Robinson was the leader and star of the team. It was widely thought that one of the reasons the Reds could not win was because of “team chemistry” and needed a  shake-up.
That said, the Robinson trade never would have happened if the Orioles didn’t set the stage, by making two trades and assembling a package that the Reds could not refuse. Milt Pappas was only 27 and considered one of the best pitchers in the AL, Jack Baldshun was proven reliever and Dick Simpson was a promising prospect. Everyone in the Reds front office voted and was in favor of the trade.

Giving Perez and Helms a chance to play was a solid move. They became an important part of the Big Red Machine. The problem (and fun thing for fans) with trades is that you never know what the future holds.

The real problem was that Reds were very unlucky. Here is how it played out:

  1. Robinson had a career year in 1966 and won the MVP. Frank benefited from a change in scenery and had something to prove and did so. Robinson probably  would not have put up those numbers in Cincinnati.
  2. The Orioles won the World Series.
  3. Robinson was the missing piece for the Orioles and would lead them to the World Series again in 1969, 1970, & 1971.
  4. The Reds finished in 7th place in the NL in 1966.
  5. Pappas had his worst year and highest ERA in his career.
  6. Jack Baldschun hurt his arm and would never have another good year.
  7. Dick Simpson never became a starter and was eventually traded for Alex Johnson.
  8. Deron Johnson declined steadily from his career year in 1965 and never lived up  to his potential.

In hindsight, the Orioles definitely got the better end of the trade – but if the first four items listed above never took place, this trade would have never been discussed as much as it has been. Milt Pappas was actually a very good pitcher who won 209 career games.  If Baltimore would have traded another pitcher for Robinson instead of Pappas, Milt would have pitched in four World Series, won a couple dozen more games in his career and quite possibly ended up in Cooperstown along side Frank Robinson.

As a Reds fan, it would have been nice to have Frank Robinson on the Reds for another five years. It is even possible that Frank Robinson might have even led the Reds to the World Series in 1967 and in 1969. It is also very possible that Robinson would have still been traded a year or two later. The Reds consistently produced good OF prospects and always seemed to need pitching.

For decades, I have studied the rosters as an armchair GM and tried to come up with another trade option for the 1966 Reds. Of course, Deron Johnson was the one that should have been traded to the Orioles instead of Frank Robinson, but it is just not practical to expect a team to trade a young star with 130 RBI’s. In the days before free agency, it simply never happened.

The Red’s Owner and General Manager, Bill Dewitt was a long time base baseball man and made some great trades in his day. When DeWitt was with the Tigers, he acquired (or stole) Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn. DeWitt also made a couple of key trades to acquire Gene Freese and Joey Jay to enable the Reds in get to the 1961 World Series. DeWitt signed most of the players that would become the “Big Red Machine”, but will go down in history for making the worst trade of all time.

Bill DeWitt’s options were very limited. If the Reds were not so close to having a World Series caliber team, DeWitt probably would have taken the safe course of action and not traded the team’s star. Sluggers are more exciting than good pitchers and less likely to get hurt - but the situation in the winter of 1965 called for an aggressive move and DeWitt went for it.

Sometimes, life is just not fair.

- Dean Hanley
Owner of DeansCards.com

(Dean’s Cards is located in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has over 800,000 individual vintage sports cards listed online. Dean is a long-time collector, an authority on vintage cards and hobby history.)