His name is Frank Robinson and he runs like a man whose feet hurt all the time. He wears uniform number 20 and has hit at least one home run in 26 different ball parks since first arriving in the major leagues during the spring of 1956. Robinson has a habit of looking over his right shoulder almost all the time, and maybe he has his reasons. Pennants, it seems, have a way of following Frank Robinson around. Last week at the major league baseball meetings in Phoenix, Ariz. Robinson's name was the biggest among the 53 moved from one team to another in the most spectacular trading explosion baseball has ever known.
To the fan the week-long meetings were a dream come true—a seemingly impossible return to those hours spent arguing with the kid down the street over bubble-gum cards. Would you trade a Gaylord Perry for a Sam McDowell? Ken Holtzman for Rick Monday? Stan Bahnsen for Rich McKinney? And would you ever, really ever, give up a Lee May if you were lucky enough to have one in the first place?
At a conservative estimate the talent traded would be worth some $40 million if there were such a thing as an open market for buying players. And the trading is not expected to end. In baseball, maneuvers beget maneuvers. There also is the publicity. So much has been generated by the trades already made that pressure is mounting on those clubs that have not yet gotten into the act to do so soon before they get left out for good. The image of dullness is one that every team in this era of competition with other sports is striving desperately to avoid. Want a Ron Santo, an Andy Messersmith, an Orlando Cepeda, a Jim Fregosi? Whatcha got to give? Whatcha got to lose?
The Great $40 Million Body Shuffle came as a result of several related factors, the most obvious of which was the near absence of pennant races in any of the four divisions last year. The only real competition—between the Dodgers and the Giants—did not come about until September, and then it was too late to make up the money that apathetic non-customers neglected to spend in June, July and August. Now money is tight again, just when the clubs must begin to sell their 1972 season tickets. The third factor, however, might be the most important of all. Following three expansions in eight years, talent is thin in both leagues. Most of the teams simply are unable to supply their needs from their own farm systems. Practically nobody has a surplus of young, able performers coming up.
Although the major announcements of trades came from the Executive House in Scottsdale and the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in nearby Phoenix, the groundwork for many of them was done a month before at the Ponte Vedra Club, a lush resort 22 miles east of Jacksonville, Fla. From Nov. 1 to 3 the major league general managers met there to go over some of the problems facing all of them: what to do about 1972 salaries vis-√†-vis the current wage-price freeze, the possible trading of draft rights (as practiced in pro football and basketball) and other administrative matters. During the discussions a curious—for baseball—subject arose almost extemporaneously, and it refused to fade away. Why not, the GMs asked themselves, use the upcoming annual meetings as a positive force?
Extraordinary. In recent years the meetings had generated either no publicity at all or bad publicity. For example, three years ago, just as everyone was getting ready to check out of the Sheraton-Palace in San Francisco, the owners decided to fire Commissioner William Eckert even though they had nobody to replace him. Result: sour taste all around. For other examples, almost every year committees have arrived at the meetings ready to pluck a franchise from one city and put it down in another. More sour tastes. For many of the game's more conservative members, the meetings had become just another place to get together and tell each other how much they liked the President—and Mrs. Lincoln, too.
At Ponte Vedra the general managers hit on a plan that for a change might actually do them good. Recognizing that they had something on the order of a volcano in all their trades—rumored, consummated or still to be dreamed up—they agreed to hold back as many of the deals as they could until they got to Arizona and perhaps could profit by intelligent management of their news.
They succeeded remarkably, missing only the big swap between the Boston Red Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers that sent Jim Lonborg, George Scott and Billy Conigliaro to the Midwest for Pitcher Marty Pattin and Tommy Harper, and that had been announced three weeks before Ponte Vedra. From that time until the Arizona meetings only minor trades and roster shifts were released.
But when the real meetings opened in Arizona things happened swiftly and—good for the little 'ol image—dramatically. At 11:45 a.m. of the first day, Chicago and Oakland announced that henceforth Pitcher Ken Holtzman would be playing for the A's and Outfielder Rick Monday for the Cubs. Although the trade certainly could not be considered earth-shattering, it was interesting because Holtzman had won 43 games for the Cubs since 1969 and had thrown two no-hitters. Monday, the first player selected in baseball's original free-agent draft back in 1965, was still an enigma after six years. He seemed capable of having big seasons, but he never did. Maybe Leo Durocher will light a fire under him.
Shortly afterward, Bob Howsam, general manager of the Reds, and Spec Richardson of the Astros revealed that they were moving eight bodies between Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium and the Houston Astrodome. And what bodies they were. The Reds gave up Lee May, a power-hitting (39 homers in 1971 after missing the first month of the season) first baseman, and Tommy Helms, the top fielding second baseman in the National League for the past two years, for Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham, Denis Menke, Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister.
"When the announcement was made," Howsam said later. "I heard one reporter say, 'Now there is a trade!' I think that when we began talking our big trade it started everybody in baseball thinking, 'Heck, if they are willing to make one like that to try and help themselves, what are we waiting for?' "
Immediately after the announcement, general managers who had not already revealed their own trades or were still wondering whether to go through with them were seen busily talking to one another and scurrying between conversations and telephones. The body shuffle was twitching in earnest, and by the end of the week so many players had been moved that not a single soul seemed to know who was with whom, or whom was with who, or even where.
Some GMs were a delight to observe. Bing Devine of the Cardinals, sometimes tagged a near-compulsive trader, moved up and down the corridor of the Arizona Biltmore attempting to get something going and apparently failing. Paul Richards of the Braves slumped deeper and deeper in his chair as he realized, with undisguised frustration, that people were not exactly jumping to take his players. Bob Scheffing of the Mets and Harry Dalton of the Angels moved around trying, trying and still not succeeding. Soon they had used up all the old clichés: "Sometimes the best trades are those you don't make"; "If their players are all that good why did they finish fifth last year?"
The deals involving the biggest names of all came, in the end, from the Los Angeles Dodgers, who got Relief Pitcher Pete Richert along with Robinson from Baltimore and sent Richie Allen to the Chicago White Sox for Pitcher Tommy John.
No sooner had the Dodgers acquired Robinson than four clubs went pounding on their door trying to spirit him away. The Dodgers were having none of that. Frank Robinson was theirs to keep, at least for a while. The mathematics of the trade explain why. Baltimore, which received some good young players from Los Angeles, has a lot of skilled young outfielders ready for the majors and Robinson's $130,000 salary was high for a franchise that has to struggle to reach a million in attendance even in winning years. The Dodgers, meanwhile, had made $50,000 when two of their minor league players were drafted, and they divested themselves of a $105,000 salary when they shunted Allen to Chicago. Also Tom Haller, sold to the Tigers for $50,000, would no longer be drawing his estimated $55,000 salary. The Dodgers, in other words, may show as high a profit as $150,000—and they still have Frank Robinson.
Almost every trade could be rationalized in similar terms, but mere dollars and cents is not the main point. Baseball is riding something almost as big as the eruption of Krakatoa, and it is laughing all the time.