The 1961 Cincinnati Reds are remembered as one of the great turnaround stories in baseball history. After finishing sixth in 1960, with only 67 wins, the Reds won the pennant in 1961. Their win total that year was 93, an improvement of 26 games.
The Reds accomplished this turnaround in large part through a series of trades engineered by General Manager Bill DeWitt. Bill James described DeWitt’s strategy this way: “he simply kept everyone who hit better than .265 and had an ERA under 4.00, and got rid of everybody who didn’t.” It also mattered who DeWitt obtained. The key acquisitions were pitcher Joey Jay, who won 21 games, and third baseman Gene Freese, who hit 26 homers.
But there was another great turnaround season in 1961. The Detroit Tigers, who had finished sixth in 1960 with 71 wins, climbed to second with 101 victories. Since the American League added eight games in 1961, the Tigers’ turnaround is fractionally less impressive than Cincinnati’s, but the two are of the same order of magnitude.
The Tigers’ turnaround was triggered by a single trade – one that sent Frank Bolling and Neil Chrisley to Milwaukee for Bill Bruton, Terry Fox, Dick Brown, and Chuck Cottier. That trade was made on this day, 50 years ago.
The acquisition of Bruton improved Detroit’s outfield defense at all three positions. Following the famous Harvey Kuenn for Rocky Colavito trade, the 1959 Tigers had moved Al Kaline to centerfield to replace Kuenn. Colavito took over in right and Charlie Maxwell, an aging slugger, remained in left.
In 1960, Bruton, a fine natural centerfielder was a defensive upgrade over the out-of-position Kaline in center; Kaline a huge upgrade over Colavito in right; and Colavito an upgrade over Maxwell in left. Kaline and Colavito also boosted their offensive production and Bruton added speed (22 steals) while batting .257 with 17 home runs (Maxwell had batted .237 with 24 home runs in 1960 and was declining quickly).
Dick Brown proved to be a major upgrade at catcher. In 1960 Lou Berberet (.194 batting average) and Red Wilson (.216) did most of the Tigers’ catching. They combined for six home runs and 37 RBIs in 120 games. In 1961, Brown batted .266 with 16 homers and 45 RBIs in 93 games. An injury prevented him from playing more.
Terry Fox lifted the Tigers’ bullpen with a terrific 1961 season. He led the team in saves and pitched to an ERA of 1.42 in 57 innings. Combining with left-hander Hank Aguirre, the Tigers’ bullpen ace in 1960, Fox gave the Tigers a formidable lefty-righty duo.
How were the Tigers able to pull off this trade? They accomplished it because Milwaukee was in desperate need of a second baseman. As I have noted before, the Braves failed to win the 1959 pennant because they couldn’t find a second baseman to replace Red Schoendienst. The problem lingered through the 1960 season, when Chuck Cottier, who saw most of the action at second, batted only .227.
This made Detroit a perfect trading partner. Veteran Frank Bolling, a solid second baseman, had become expendable because Jake Wood, a star of the farm system, was ready to take over the position. In 1961, Bolling would bat .262 with 15 home runs, 56 RBIs, and 86 runs scored for the Braves. Wood hit .258 with 11 homers. 69 RBIs, and 96 runs. Wood also stole 30 bases. The 52 steals he and Bruton combined for nearly matched the team’s 1960 total.
The Braves must have considered the exchange of Bruton (34 years old) for Bolling (29) slightly to their advantage, particularly they since they had Lee Maye, Al Spangler, and Mack Jones available to play the outfield (alongside Hank Aaron). And they probably considered Dick Brown a meaningless throw-in. Brown had managed to play only 16 games in an injury-filled 1960, batting .163. The Braves had purchased him only two weeks earlier and must have rated him no better than their third catcher, behind Joe Torre, 0el Crandall, and maybe even Charlie Lau.
It’s strange that the Braves were willing to add Terry Fox to the trade, though. Only 24 years old, Fox had excelled as a reliever for two years in the Pacific Coast League, and the Braves bullpen had struggled in 1960.
Bruton, Brown, and Fox also played well in 1962, but the Tigers won only 85 games, in part because Jake Wood had a terrible year. After ’62, Bruton, Brown, and Fox each contributed much less. But the trade that brought them to Detroit 50 years ago today must rank among the best short-term fix deals ever.
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