This day in baseball history — the Phillies double down on age

When we last visited the Philadelphia Phillies, they had blown a huge lead in the 1964 National League pennant race. However, Phillies fans had reason to believe that if their team could overcome the psychological impact of their fold, the future held good things in store.

The team’s two best hitters, Johnny Callison and Richie Allen, were 25 and 22. Their quality center fielder Tony Gonzales was 27. Solid second baseman Tony Taylor was 28. Versatile Cookie Rojas was 25.

Jim Bunning, one of the pitching staff’s two aces, was 32. However the other ace, Chris Short was only 26. The other three starters, Art Mahaffey, Dennis Bennett, and Ray Culp, were 26, 24, and 22. Relief ace Jack Baldschun was 27.

Moreover, the Phillies farm system was producing plenty of outstanding prospects. They included Alex Johnson (21), Adolfo Phillips (22), Johnny Briggs (21), Gary Kroll (22), Grant Jackson (21), Ferguson Jenkins (20), and Rick Wise (20).

In 1965, Philadelpia fell to sixth place in an extremely competitive National League. They won seven fewer games than in 1964 and finished 12 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Apparently believing they could make a strong run at the 1966 pennant if they shored up first base and shortstop, two very weak positions, the Phils traded for Bill White and Dick Groat during the off-season. They also received catcher/comedian Bob Uecker and sent catcher Pat Corrales and pitcher Mahaffey to the St. Louis Cardinals.

White and Groat had been stars of the Cardinals team that overtook them in 1964. However, they would be 32 and 35, respectively, during the 1966 season. White was only a slightly better than average player; Groat was by now average at best.

In exchange for the pair, the Phillies sent Alex Johnson to St. Louis. In 1965, he had hit .296 with 8 home runs in about half a season’s worth of at-bats. He was one of top young hitting prospects in baseball.

The deal with St. Louis seemed like a bad one for the Phillies at the time they made it. Trading a top prospect for average (albeit big name) veterans is a bad way to go unless, perhaps, you truly are a strong pennant contender. The Phillies didn’t have the pitching to contend, and trading Mahaffey wasn’t going to help.

So on this day in baseball history, April 21, 1966, the Phillies made a deal with the Chicago Cubs for two veteran pitchers, Bob Buhl, age 37, and Larry Jackson, age 34. In exchange, they gave up top prospects Fergie Jenkins and Adolfo Phillips (along with John Hernstein).

Buhl had nothing left. He went 6-8 with a 4.77 ERA for the Phils in 1966. By the following May, his major league career was over.

Jackson gave the Phillies a good year in 1966 (15-13, 2.99) and two pretty good years thereafter. However, even with the addition of Jackson, White, and Groat, Philadelphia only increased its win total in 1966 by two.

It was all downhill after that.

The Cubs, by contrast, took their lumps big time in 1966. However, they jumped from 59 to 87 wins in 1967, and made a run at the pennant in 1969, when they won 92 games.

Jenkins and Phillips were a big part of the Cubs turnaround. Jenkins won 20 games with a 2.80 ERA in 1967. It was the first of six consecutive 20 win seasons for the big Canadian. The winner of 284 major league games, he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.

Phillips batted .268 with 17 home runs as the Cubs starting center fielder in 1967. Unfortunately, an injury and a conflict with manager Leo Durocher derailed his career in Chicago after the 1968 season.

The Johnson for Groat and While deal didn’t help the Cardinals. Johnson had a terrible year in 1966 and was dealt away for very little. However beginning in 1968, he had three consecutive .300 plus seasons at the plate — the first two for Cincinnati; the last, in which he won the American League batting crown, for the California Angels.

In sum, both of the deals in which the Phillies traded top prospects for 30-something vets in order to improve their chances in 1966 were big mistakes. However, Philadelphia made out great when, years later, they traded Rick Wise who, as noted, was a 20 year-old pitching prospect in 1966.

But here’s the thing: the Phillies traded Wise (in early 1972) for a pitcher who was only a year older. Fellow by the name of Carlton; first name of Steve. This was not a prospect for old veteran deal. It was one well-established young veteran for another.

I think there’s a lesson in this saga. In fact, the Phillies seemed to learn it. Before the 1968 season, they traded Bunning to the Pirates for prospects, one of whom, Don Money, had a very successful big league career.

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