When all is said and done, property is property.
While that concept may harbor uncomfortable undertones where humans are involved, its all-encompassing nature remains a fact of life in the professional sports world.
Baseball players were the first to organize in an effort to raise their status above that of chattels, albeit in many cases, rich ones. Rights such as no-trade clauses were earned, which gave the elite among them a measure of say in the direction of their careers.
Here are a few other rules that have been instituted over the years in the name of player equity:
- Waivers … If a team wishes to move a player, there are times when he must be placed on waivers, which gives other teams an opportunity to claim his services first. There are sets of classifications and circumstances governing this process, some of which are limiting the unilateral trading period (up to 31 July), designating players for assignment, and option rules.
- Options … A player on an MLB roster can only be excluded from the 25-man roster – ie- returned to the minors – in each of three years, a rule that prevents a team from endlessly ‘burying’ him in their system. If a player is out of options, other teams can claim him for free on the waiver wire.
- Salary arbitration … Players whose contracts have expired who have at least three years of MLB service time – and the so-called Super 2’s, who are among the top 22% of players with at least 86 days logged for a third year – can present a case for an increase in pay to an independent authority. The team will also present its case. The arbiter must choose one figure or another. There is no middle ground.
- Free agency … Players with six or more years of MLB service and no contract can negotiate their own deal with whomever they prefer, starting five days after the end of the World Series. There are conditions, of course. He must have spent a full season with his team, which can present a qualifying offer, which is a guaranteed one-year contract at a salary determined by the average of baseball’s top 125 players. The free agent has seven days to accept or decline. If he does the latter, any team signing him will surrender two draft picks to his former club.
And yet, just because baseball now has an enlightened set of parameters, doesn’t mean silly swaps have stopped. They never have, and they never will. Not in this sport.
Then and now, someone always finds a way. Here are ten of the game’s crazier deals:
10. Cy Young Was Traded For A Suit
Before the Cleveland Spiders were plundered by their owners in favor of another team they had just purchased in St Louis – soon to become the Cardinals – a young right-handed pitcher known as Cy Young was obtained from a minor league club, the Canton Nadjys – branding was clearly an inexact science back then – in exchange for a men’s suit.
The cost? $300.
Adjust that for inflation, and the total becomes $7692.31 at current rates. How many clubs today would jump at that price for a fireballing iron man who averaged 35.7 complete games a season? OK, the game has changed, but so have suits. Savile Row in London might custom tailor a few at that price, but the Men’s Warehouse could set up a haggard old-school manager for a season or two on such a budget.
And that’s who got the cloth in the Spiders’ deal for Young.
Obviously, no one at the time realized Young would go on to establish the most unbreakable of baseball records by ringing up 511 wins, a total that put his team’s owners in fine suits for 21 years.
9. Dave Winfield Was Dealt For A Steak Dinner
One would have thought this Hall of Famer’s ultimate trivia fact would have been his being drafted by four teams in three major sports:
- Atlanta Hawks (NBA)
- Utah Stars (ABA)
- Minnesota Vikings (NFL)
- San Diego Padres (MLB)
However, careers don’t always end with the same level of pizzazz. In Winfield’s case, he left in exchange for a restaurant tab.
This distinguished member of the 3,000-hit club was a hometown Minnesota Twin in 1994 and surely intended to hang up his cleats there. But he was most likely heartened when the Cleveland Indians felt they could still use him in a bigger role. The Twins sent him there for a player to be named later.
However, baseball went on strike two weeks later, and that was it for the season.
Knowing Winfield was going to retire, Minnesota and Cleveland settled up. It turned out that the ‘player’ to be named later was Angus, who definitely gave his all to the cause. In a medium rare sort of way.
8. Mike Cisco Was Traded For Nobody and Nothing
Philadelphia Phillies fans have their own opinions about GM Ruben Amaro Jr’s labyrinthine ways, and he may have topped himself with this transaction.
Galen Cisco compiled a solid major league career, followed by a long stint as a pitching coach for three teams, including the Phils. So he must have been bursting with pride when his son Mike wound up as a hurler in his own right for the City of Brotherly Love, drafted out of the University of South Carolina in the 36th round.
But after five years in the Phillies farm system, Cisco the Younger wasn’t going anywhere. Perhaps as a favor, Amaro swung a deal with the Angels. He was theirs for the simple act of assuming his contract.
Why? A favor for a favor, maybe, if Amaro needed a sweetheart deal in the future. Or possibly a favor to Cisco the Elder, as releasing a player is as good as firing him, which is embarrassing no matter what the profession.
7. Players Were Traded For Themselves
The ‘player to be named later’ in a deal is designed for leeway. Among other things, it allows a transaction to be struck swiftly and allows the team shifting the player to have an opportunity to study its alternatives as to its compensation.
On at least four occasions, the best choice was a familiar one.
In 1962, catcher Harry Chiti was dealt by Cleveland to the expansion New York Mets, who were so bad in their first season – 40-120 ultimately – they didn’t have much in the way of talent to offer in return. This became painfully obvious by June, so the Indians acted quickly and made the best of a bad situation. They chose Chiti as the player to be named later.
Dickie Noles is best remembered for knocking George Brett down in the 1980 World Series when he pitched for the Phillies, but he ultimately wound up with the Chicago Cubs in 1983, who traded him to Detroit after he got too friendly with the bottle and hit a cop. That landed him in jail for 16 days, but he cleaned himself up and the Tigers took a chance on him. He did well enough that, four years later, he became the player to be named in the original deal that sent him to Detroit.
John McDonald was a serviceable backup shortstop for Toronto in 2005 when he was dealt to Detroit in mid-season for future considerations. While he wound up hitting .260 for the Tigers the rest of the year, they thought they could do better. The Blue Jays must have thought he’d found himself at the plate, so during the off-season, they requested him as the player to be named.
Brad Gulden is the last member of the full-circle club. Best known as the catcher who stood in for Jerry Narron with the Yankees, who was attending Thurmon Munson’s funeral, Gulden found himself being shipped to Seattle a year later. That appeared to be his shelf life, as he became his own player to be named later by heading back to New York the following season.
Gulden saw the writing on the wall soon after that, and became a car salesman. If anyone was qualified to make unique deals, he’d be one of them.
6. Keith Comstock Was Traded For A Bag Of Balls
Cynics will often say a player who outlived his usefulness with an organization was traded for a bag of baseballs, but Comstock actually was.
Toiling away in the Oakland farm system but not getting anywhere after 14 years in the minors, the southpaw reliever finally benefitted from the fact that he was a southpaw reliever. MLB organizations are always willing to see if someone of that persuasion will develop late, and if anyone qualified for possibly developing late, it was definitely Comstock.
In 1983, he showed up as a blip on Detroit’s radar screen, but not much more. The Athletics jumped at the Tigers’ offer to take him off their books, but $100 in cash wasn’t enough. When a bag of balls was tossed in, it was. No word as to whether they were new.
Comstock ultimately got to The Show off and on for six years, which prompted Sports Illustrated to write that he “had more cups of coffee than Juan Valdez.”
5. Cliff Dapper Was Traded For A Hall Of Fame Broadcaster
A career Dodger farmhand whose only shot at the majors was during World War II when available talent was thin, Dapper should have seen the writing on the wall when Mickey Owen returned as Brooklyn’s everyday catcher. However, his role as a Branch Rickey pawn wound up pleasing fans in Detroit for decades.
When Dodger announcer Red Barber was felled by a bleeding ulcer in 1948, Rickey’s keen awareness of the baseball world had brought Atlanta Cracker play-by-play man Ernie Harwell to his attention. The problem was how to get him out of his contract with the minor league Crackers.
The solution was Dapper. Rickey convinced Atlanta that he was an excellent handler of pitchers who would ultimately be managerial stock. It worked, and Harwell was off to the Bums.
However, Harwell lasted only one season with Brooklyn and shuffled off to Detroit, where he became a broadcasting legend. His replacement? Vin Scully. Rickey always had a down card.
Meanwhile, Dapper did wind up managing the Crackers. After a military stint, he then took the helm of numerous Pirates minor league clubs. And fittingly, after he left the game, he neighbored with Duke Snider in southern California, growing avocados, trading one form of farming for another.
4. Lefty Grove Was Traded For A New Fence
Humble beginnings are nothing new for promising young ballplayers. Robert Moses ‘Lefty’ Grove figured anything was better than following his dad into the coal mines, so he jumped at the chance to make a few bucks – very few: $125 a month – with the local Martinsburg Mountaineers, a Class D minor league club in West Virginia.
Fortune shined on Grove when the Baltimore Orioles – still a well-heeled minor league team at the time – set their sights on him. When they asked the Mountaineer management what they’d take for the hurler, their timing couldn’t have been better.
A storm had just smashed its way through Martinsburg, damaging the stadium’s outfield fence. Thus, betraying their urgency and a breathtaking lack of expectation, the Mountaineers said if the Orioles would pay for fixing the fence, Grove was theirs.
Baltimore may have set speed records for signing that deal.
Better yet, when hometown hero Babe Ruth returned with the New York Yankees to play an exhibition against the Orioles, he couldn’t touch Grove. Major league teams noticed, and ultimately the Philadelphia Athletics struck a bargain with Baltimore for $100,600.
Not a bad investment by the Orioles for fixing a fence.
3. Johnny Jones Was Traded For A Turkey
Usually, the most creative promotions are germinated in the minor leagues. The reason is obvious: necessity. A good show or clever theme draws publicity and increases gates.
Joe Engle, a Washington Senators scout who convinced the local citizens of Chattanooga to buy the Lookouts and let him run them, became one of the best showmen in the business. His heyday was in the 1930s, and his Opening Day stunts included giving away an actual house, staging an elephant hunt with papier-mâché pachyderms, and making a comedic phone call to a faux Hitler.
Deservedly known as the Barnum of Baseball, Engle’s most famous ploy reached all the way to his roster. The Lookouts were a Senators farm club at the time, and Engle took advantage of it. He made arrangements with another Nats affiliate, the Charlotte Hornets, to trade shortstop Johnny Jones – who was that era’s Mario Mendoza, but without the glove – for a 25-pound turkey. The inference was clear.
Engle later said the Hornets got the better of the deal “because the turkey was tough.” The media was all over that quote, and they knew it was accurate. Engle had served it to them.
2. Nigel Thatch Traded For Beer
Remember Nigel Thatch?
He might be more recognizable as Leon, the character he played in Budweiser commercials during this century’s first decade. He portrayed a self-centered multi-sport jock whose trademark line was, “Leon ain’t playin’ unless someone’s payin’.”
Looks like that carried over to his short-lived baseball career, too.
Thatch decided to give the real professional life a whirl, hurling for the independent Northern League’s Schaumburg (Illinois) Flyers. However, after an 0-3 start with a 10.22 ERA – which can happen when 12 innings of action yields 24 hits and 22 runs – the actor-athlete decided if he was going to qualify for combat pay by getting shelled, he may as well do it closer to his SoCal home.
Thus, Thatch requested a trade to a team in that general vicinity and got a taker in the Fullerton Flyers of the just-as-independent Golden League. There was still the matter of a contract to resolve, so the two Flyers organizations agreed that a Budweiser spokesman with the stats of Thatch was only worth a few Buds in return.
He should have felt honored that the agreed trade was for 60 cases of brew. That’s 1440 bottles. Bud had pouring rights at the Schaumburg stadium, so they were pleased how smoothly this deal went down.
But, alas, Fullerton could not concur. Thatch never reported. The terms of the deal must have given him a bitter beer face.
1. Two Yankees Pitchers Traded Families
The Swinging 70s were much more than the Swinging A’s of Oakland and their three straight World Series titles in that decade. Much, much more. So much more that, the more you check into that era, the more you may never look at your parents in the same way again.
And so it was that Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson embodied that time much more accurately than Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue, or Catfish Hunter.
Both New York Yankee pitchers were married, and the couples were close friends. However, no one realized how close until Susan Kekich and Marilyn Peterson agreed to terms of an intimate deal – kids and pets were thrown in, incidentally – and the blockbuster trade was in the books.
Fritz and Susan wound up signing a long-term contract – a marriage certificate that is still in effect – but after a few years, both Mike and Marilyn opted for free agency.
Despite the fact this swap occurred at a time in society when anything went – and often did – it was still a shocking headline. The best response, though, came from Yankee GM Lee McPhail, a realist who noted, “We may have to call off Family Day.”