December 9, 1965: Reds trade Robinson

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders" by Rob Neyer. Copyright (c) 2006 by Rob Neyer. Reprinted by permission of Fireside Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

"I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe. And pretty. Of course what I give them lasts a lifetime. What they give me lasts a hundred and forty-two games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are a part of baseball. I mean, who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God's sake?"
-- Annie Savoy in "Bull Durham"

First, let's be very clear about something: this deal was not Robinson for Pappas. It was Robinson for Pappas and Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson.
So who were all those guys?

Over the three previous seasons, Pappas had won forty-five games, lost twenty-five, and posted ERAs significantly better than league average while averaging 230 innings per season. Oh, and he was twenty-six. By almost any measure, Pappas ranked as one of the best young pitchers in the game.

Jack Baldschun -- acquired by the Orioles three days before they traded him to the Reds -- was no star, but from 1961 through '65 he'd been one of the better relief pitchers in the National League.

Dick Simpson, little more than a footnote now, was a pretty hot prospect in 1965. Despite not turning twenty-two until midway through the season, Simpson, a speedy center fielder, had batted .301, hit twenty-four home runs, and led the Pacific Coast League with twelve triples. (Like Baldschun, Simpson had just joined the Orioles a few days earlier, coming over in a trade that sent Norm Siebern to the Angels.)

In fact, initially the Orioles balked at trading three players for one. According to then-Orioles general manager Harry Dalton -- who had just been promoted, and handed the prospective trade by outgoing GM Lee MacPhail -- he tried to get a minor-league pitcher from the Reds, was offered Roger Craig, said no thanks, and eventually accepted "just" Robinson.

Purely in terms of performance, the trade was a disaster for Cincinnati.

Simpson spent all of 1966 and '67 with the Reds, but apparently got most of his action as a late-innings defensive replacement for Tommy Harper. Simpson did get a pretty good shot with the Astros in '68, but batted .197 and struck out in nearly a third of his plate appearances. After brief stints with the Yankees and Pilots in '69, Simpson's career in the majors was over. He was still only twenty-six, but faded from professional baseball two years later.

Baldschun was awful in the season after the trade, going 1–5 with a 5.49 ERA in forty-two games, and he spent nearly all of '67 and '68 in the minors.

There's a famous quote of Reds owner-operator Bill DeWitt saying he'd made the deal because Robinson was "an old thirty," but that's not precisely what DeWitt said. What he said, in the spring of '66, was this: "Nothing personal at all. Robinson is not a young thirty. If he had been twenty-six, we might not have traded him." To which Robinson quickly responded, "I can't argue with DeWitt if he says he traded me to strengthen his ball club, but that comment about me being an old thirty is hitting below the belt. It was uncalled for."1

Later that season, Dewitt said, "We had Robinson here ten years. We won one pennant with him. But to follow the Branch Rickey theory, we'd rather trade a player too soon than a year too late. And Pappas is winning for us now."2

On June 13 -- the date of the Sports Illustrated article in which DeWitt was quoted -- Pappas was 4–5 with a 4.04 ERA; Robinson was hitting .344 with a .682 slugging percentage.

Pappas finished the season with twelve wins. Robinson was the American League's Most Valuable Player, and the Orioles won the World Series. DeWitt took the wrong lesson from Rickey. You certainly don't want to trade a player a year too late; but when you're talking about a player like Frank Robinson, you don't start worrying about that until he's closer to forty than thirty. And when the Reds traded Robinson, he was still a long ways from forty.

Then again, all that stuff about Branch Rickey might have been a smokescreen. This was the 1960s, Robinson was black, and a few years earlier he'd been busted for carrying a concealed, unlicensed pistol. According to DeWitt's obituary in The Sporting News, whatever he might (or might not) have said about Robinson's age, "It was more likely that growing differences between Robinson, whom DeWitt regarded as a troublemaker, and the owner led to the trade."3

Obviously, the trade worked out well for the Orioles, who won four pennants in Robinson's six seasons in Baltimore.

But how badly did it hurt the Reds?

There are two ways to approach this question. Obviously, knowing what we now know, the Reds could have done a lot better than they did. The deal essentially wound up being Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas (for God's sake), and that's nothing like a fair deal. The bottom line is the standings, though. Here's how the Reds fared, relative to first place, in the eight more seasons in which Robinson was a premier player:

1966 -- -18
1967 -- -14½
1968 -- -14
1969 -- -4
1970 -- +14½
1971 -- -11
1972 -- +10½
1973 -- +3½

As much as the Reds missed him, Robinson wouldn't have made any difference from 1966 through '68, or in 1971. The Reds won their division in 1970, '72, and '73; they lost the '70 World Series to Robinson and the Orioles; they lost the '72 World Series to the A's; and they lost the '73 National League Championship Series to the Mets. The '72 World Series was exceptionally close, and perhaps Robinson would have made a difference for the Reds. But by then he was thirty-seven, and didn't play particularly well (for the Dodgers) during the regular season.

So let's focus on 1969, when the Reds finished four games behind the first-place Braves in the shiny new National League West. Robinson wasn't at his best that season . . . but he wasn't far off, and finished third in the MVP balloting.

If Robinson were with the Reds in the '69 season, he could have played either of the outfield corner spots, and first base. Here are the Reds at each of those positions, and one other guy:

Here's where things get tricky. You know how the Reds got Alex Johnson? They traded Dick Simpson to the Cardinals. What happened to Milt Pappas? In June 1968, the Reds traded Pappas and a couple of scrubs to the Braves for shortstop Woody Woodward and pitchers Clay Carroll and Tony Cloninger.

In 1969, Woodward split time at shortstop with Darrel Chaney. Woodward was a poor hitter, Chaney much poorer. Carroll went 12–7, pitching mostly out of the bullpen. Cloninger, though, killed the Reds. He started thirty-four games, and went 11–13 with a 5.03 ERA.

If the Reds hadn't traded Frank Robinson, in 1969 he probably would have been in the outfield instead of Alex Johnson, and Tony Cloninger almost certainly would not have been in the rotation. We don't know who would have been in Cloninger's place, but considering how poorly Cloninger pitched that season, we can guess this unknown starter would have been at least somewhat better. And this combination -- Robinson instead of Johnson, somebody instead of Cloninger -- would quite likely have been worth at least four games. Perhaps five or six.

Ah, but that's only part of the equation. Woodward was the best shortstop the Reds had in 1969, and Carroll was exceptionally useful. Those two must have been worth, what, two or three games?

Yes, all this is something of a fool's game. We're talking about more than a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world. This was a big trade, and if you erase it from the record, who knows what other things would have happened? Based on the evidence we've got and just a reasonable measure of speculation, though, I think we can say two things.

One: trading Frank Robinson might have cost the Reds a division title in 1969 and perhaps the World Series in 1972 (though by then, Robinson wasn't much of an outfielder, and the Reds had Tony Perez at first base).

Two: this trade deserves to be remembered for the uneven swap that it was, but the negative impact on Cincinnati's fortunes wasn't nearly as great as we might have guessed.

1. "Robbie, DeWitt Feuding," San Francisco Chronicle, April 4, 1966.
2. Robert H. Boyle, "Cincinnati's Brain-Picker," Sports Illustrated, June 13, 1966, p. 40.
3. Sporting News, March 20, 1982, p. 34.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes for Insider two or three times per week. To offer criticism, praise or anything in between, send an e-mail to rob.neyer@dig.com.