This month in baseball history — Tigers deal Bunning to Phillies

I missed the anniversary date (December 5), but 50 years ago this month, the Detroit Tigers dealt Jim Bunning (future Hall of Famer and future U.S. Senator) to the Philadelphia Phillies. Already a five-time All Star, Bunning had won 110 games for the Tigers in seven full years as a starting pitcher. In his four seasons with the Phillies, Bunning would win 71 games.

In exchange for Bunning (age 32), Detroit received Don Demeter, an outfielder who would give them two seasons as an average starting player. For Philadelphia, he had batted .258 with 22 homers and 83 RBIs in 1963. The season before, in what proved to be a career year, he had hit .307 with 29 homers and 107 RBIs.

To round out the deal, Detroit also traded catcher Gus Triandos, a former All Star who had hit 14 home runs in 1963, and Philadelphia threw in Jack Hamilton. In two seasons, Hamilton had failed to produce an ERA below 5.00 and had walked as many batters as he struck out. During his short stay in Detroit, he would give up more than one earned run per inning pitched.

Clearly, this was one of the worst trades of the 1960s. Why did Detroit make it?

To understand the deal, we must see it in the context of the trade Detroit made a month before when they sent Rocky Colavito to Kansas City for second baseman Jerry Lumpe and pitchers Dave Wickersham and Ed Rakow.

Like Bunning, Colavito (age 30) was an established star. But he had experienced a major falling out with management, and the Tigers were determined to part company with him.

The falling out stemmed from Colavito’s 1963 contract. The Tigers paid him $54,000 that year, a raise of $2,000. Colavito’s production had fallen considerably from the previous season (1961), so the Tigers felt they had been generous to give him any raise. But Colavito, who had belted 37 home runs and batted in 112 runs in 1962, didn’t see it that way.

He battled with management throughout the 1963 season, balking, for example, at public appearances on behalf of the team. Colavito continued to be a fierce competitor on the field but even his competitiveness resulted in friction. Reportedly, he insisted on playing every game, even late in the season when management wanted to give starts to youngsters Gates Brown and Willie Horton.

On one occasion, Colavito supposedly stormed into manager Charlie Dressen’s office to demand that he start. When Dressen complied, management felt Colavito was undermining his authority, and concluded that Rocky had to go.

Rumor had it that Detroit offered Rocky to the Yankees in exchange for Roger Maris. The Yankees reportedly rejected this blockbuster deal (which would have been even more spectacular than the one that brought Colavito to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn) on the theory that Maris, a pull-hitting left-hander, was better suited for Yankee stadium.

Thus, the Tigers turned to Charlie Finley, who brought Colavito to Kansas city in exchange for an average starting second-baseman and two average starting pitchers.

The word was that, with Colavito gone, Detroit would turn left field over to young Willie Horton. But management wanted to give him another year in the minor leagues, and also wanted a potential replacement for aging Bill Bruton in center field. Thus, the Tigers decided to search for a starting outfielder, preferably a center fielder.

Having added Wickersham and Rakow, the Tigers felt that Bunning, age 32 and coming off of a mediocre season, was the man to bring them a quality outfielder. Indeed, they basically announced this to the world when baseball’s winter meeting commenced.

The Tigers’ main target was Felipe Alou of San Francisco. Alou was an every day player of close to All Star quality and still in his prime. Thus, the Giants understandably rejected a Bunning for Alou trade. Less understandable, perhaps, was their decision to trade Alou (along with Ed Bailey and Billy Hoeft) for Bob Shaw, Bob Hendley, and Del Crandall.

The Tigers also dangled Bunning in front of the Minnesota Twins, offering him for Bob Allison. Allison was coming off of a fine 1963 season (35 home runs and 91 RBIs), so Calvin Griffith understandably rejected the deal, proclaiming that Bunning “isn’t good enough.”

The Tigers then turned to the Phillies. They were a natural partner because they were willing to part with Demeter, a true centerfielder, and because they were in need of a top quality starting pitcher to pair with ace Chris Short.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, their highly publicized efforts to deal Bunning had cost them leverage. Philadelphia refused to make a straight up Bunning for Demeter deal, demanding that the Tigers throw in Triandos. Since management was convinced that Bill Freehan was ready to catch everyday, the Tigers didn’t object. However, they asked that Philadelphia throw in Jack Baldschun, a good reliever.

Baldschun was more valuable than the aging Triandos, so the Phillies balked and the clubs settled on Hamilton as the fourth player in the deal. Two off-seasons later Baldschun, now with Baltimore, would be thrown into the deal that brought Frank Robinson to the Orioles.

When the dust cleared, the Tigers had traded their second and third best players (behind Al Kaline) for four essentially average starters. Nowadays, they would have insisted on top prospects as part of such dealing (Kansas City and Philadelphia had a number of them), but no prospects were received. Other than Hamilton (who was more suspect than prospect), all of the players obtained by Detroit were 28 or older.

None would be with the Tigers when they won the World Series in 1968.

However, the Tigers were an improved team in 1964, finishing 85-77 after going 79-83 the previous year. Wickersham was a key element in the improvement. His record, 19-12 3.44 ERA, was considerably better than Bunning’s 1963 record, though not nearly as good as Bunning’s 1964 numbers — 19-8, 2.63.

With Bunning on board, along with rookie-of-the-year Richie Allen, the 1964 Phillies were significantly improved in 1964 until their famous last-season collapse that cost them the pennant. In the end, they won five games more than the previous season.

Kansas City regressed by 16 games, but you can’t blame Colavito. He pounded out 34 homers and drove in 104 runs for the last-place Athletics.

To me, the most interesting question about the Bunning trade is whether it cost Detroit the pennant in 1967. One is tempted to say that it did. After all, Detroit finished one game out of first place and Bunning pitched 302 innings to a 2.29 ERA with Philadelphia.

On the other hand, Earl Wilson, acquired by Detroit for Demeter, went 22-11 for the Tigers, albeit with a 3.22 ERA. My guess is that Bunning, arguably the best pitcher in baseball that year despite winning only 17 games, would have carried the Tigers to the pennant in 1967.

Wilson definitely outpitched Bunning (now with Pittsburgh) the following year, when Detroit when the World Series. But the Tigers won the pennant by 12 games in 1968, and likely would have won it with Bunning (or someone else) pitching in place of Wilson.

In any event, the Bunning deal remains one of the worst the Tigers have ever made.

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