Last month in baseball history — the most important trade of the ’60s? [UPDATED]

On May 8, 1966, the St. Louis Cardinals obtained slugging first baseman Orlando Cepeda from the San Francisco Giants in exchange for left-handed pitcher Ray Sadecki. I was out of the country on the anniversary of the deal, but don’t want to miss the opportunity to commemorate what was arguably the most consequential baseball trade of the decade.

To understand the deal, we need to look back to 1964 when the Cardinals surged to the National League pennant after being 11 games behind Philadelphia on August 23, and went on to defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series. The Cardinals accomplished this with a lineup that included three older stars.

League MVP Ken Boyer, the third baseman, was 33. Shortstop Dick Groat was almost 35. First baseman Bill White was 30.

General manager Bob Howsam, who took over in August 1964 when the Cards seemed to be out of contention, knew that within a couple of years he would have to replace Boyer, Groat, and possibly White — and that two of the replacements would need to be sluggers (as Boyer and White were). He probably understood that St. Louis had two plausible replacements for Groat in the farm system — Jerry Buchek and Dal Maxvil — but that the system’s third basemen — Phil Gagliano and Ed Spezio — were better suited for utility roles than for replacing Ken Boyer. He probably also thought that the top first baseman in the minors, George Kernek, as much “suspect” as he was prospect.

On the plus side, St. Louis had three great pitching prospects — Steve Carlton (19), Nelson Briles (21), and Larry Jaster (20). Together with Bob Gibson (almost 29), Ray Washburn (26), and Sadecki (only 23), they gave the Cards a small surplus in the starting pitching department (Curt Simmons, outstanding in 1964, was 35 and couldn’t be counted on for much longer). Perhaps the surplus could be used to trade for an everyday player to fill one of the impending holes.

Howsam decided to let things ride in 1965. St. Louis finished in seventh place, 16.5 games out of first.

That fall, Howsam traded all three of his aging everyday playing ex-stars. On October 20, 1965, the Cards traded Ken Boyer, a mainstay for them since 1955, to the New York Mets for third baseman Charlie Smith and lefty pitcher Al Jackson.

From the Mets point of view, the deal was a head-scratcher. Why would a team this bad (50-112) trade two decent players, both under 30 (in Jackson’s case just barely), for a 34 year old player coming off of a fairly bad year? Even a straight swap of Boyer for Smith would have been odd. Their 1965 numbers were comparable and Smith was six years younger.

The trade advanced St. Louis’ interest, but not that much. Smith was okay, but more of a stopgap than the kind of player to win a pennant with.

Next, on October 27, Groat and White were shipped to Philadelphia (along with catcher Bob Uecker) for outfielder Alex Johnson, pitcher Art Mahaffey, and catcher Pat Corales.

The Phillies, having “pholded” in 1964 and finished sixth in 1965, were determined to “win now” in 1966. That’s why they were willing to trade for Groat and White, both of whom, despite their age, represented upgrades at their positions.

From the Cardinals’ point of view, the key to the trade was Alex Johnson. Just 22 at the time of the trade, he had batted .294 in 1965. Although an outfielder, and thus not a true replacement for White, he possessed the slugging potential to replace White’s bat.

Mahaffey, though coming off of a terrible year, had been successful in the past and was just 27. Along with Jackson, he would add to the Cardinals starting pitcher surplus.

Meanwhile, the Giants, having fallen two games short of the 1965 pennant, were trying to figure out how to handle the fact that two of their three best hitters — Cepeda and Willie McCovey — both played first base. In the past, the solution had been to have one of the two play left field (both played there at various times).

But McCovey was too lumbering and Cepeda was coming off of serious knee surgery that caused him to miss most of the 1965 season. The sense was that he still could play first base, his natural position, but not the outfield.

The Giants were a powerhouse and chronic contenders (who had won the 1962 pennant). If they had a weakness, it was left-handed starting pitching.

During the off-season, they acquired capable lefty Joe Gibbon from Pittsburgh in exchange for Matty Alou. But at this point in his career, Gibbon was more of a relief pitcher than a starter. In 1965, he had started only 15 games.

The Giants got off to a fine start in 1966. In early May, they were vying for first place with the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Cepeda was hitting pretty well, but making it known he wasn’t happy. The Giants were looking to deal him, but didn’t want to send a stud to a rival contender. They discussed with the last place Chicago Cubs the possibility of trading the star first baseman for Dick Ellsworth, a 26 year-old southpaw who had won 22 games in 1963. (The Cubs had moved the great Ernie Banks to first base, but at this point Mr. Cub was nowhere near the player a healthy Cepeda was).

The Cardinals got off to a poor start in 1966. The hitting, in particular, was poor. George Kernek and Alex Johnson were awful. In early May, St. Louis was in the unaccustomed position of eighth place.

When the Giants came to St. Louis for a weekend series beginning on May 5, the Cepeda for Ellsworth deal had fallen through and rumors of an impending Cepeda for Sadecki trade were widespread. On Saturday, Cepeda hit a grand slam home run in a 15-2 victory (en route to a three game sweep). After the game, he asked the press, “why don’t the Cardinals get me.”

Strangely, there wasn’t great enthusiasm in St. Louis (at least in the press) about “getting” Cepeda. At a press event, a local comedian conducted a mock interview with “Cepeda” in Spanish. Broadcaster Jack Buck then “translated” as follows: “The Cards should make the deal because Mr. Busch has a lot of money and can afford to make a mistake.”

At the same event, Howsam urged patience. “We’re planning for the future, not wishing for it,” he said. Word was that he wanted another player from the Giants in exchange for taking “damaged goods” in the form of Cepeda.

The focus in St. Louis wasn’t on a trade, but rather on the last days of the old Busch Stadium (previously known as Sportsman’s Park). The Giants series was to be the last played there. A new, state of the art facility was about to open.

The St. Louis papers were filled with trips down memory lane at the old stadium; descriptions of the wonders of the new one; and claims that its opening would revitalize St. Louis. Civic pride was manifest. Back then, as far as I can tell, a new stadium was considered an unalloyed good.

The Cards and Giants completed the Cepeda for Sadecki trade after Sunday’s game. The two general managers, Howsam and Chub Feeney (a Dartmouth man), announced it a joint press conference. The two players sat together and answered questions.

Sadecki showed a good sense of humor. He told Cepeda, “hey, Orlando, we just swept a series from you.” Turning serious, he said he expected the deal: “Where there’s so much smoke, there had to be some fire.”

Cepeda was tearful with joy. He said that playing in the wind of Candlestick Park had deprived him of many hits and home runs, and that the warm weather in St. Louis would be good for his knee.

He criticized Giants manager Herman Franks for riding him. He did not criticize upper management, but was obviously unhappy to have taken a $10,000 pay cut after the 1965 season (with the chance to recoup the money if he played in 130 games in ’66).

The cut was from $53,000 to $43,000. This for a player who, until he missed most of the ’65 season, had averaged .308 with 32 home runs and 108 RBIs over seven seasons.

Sadecki had nothing like these credentials. His record with the Cards was barely better than .500 (67-64 in six seasons). Yes, he won 20 games in 1964 (but with a so-so ERA of 3.68). However, in 1965 he was awful — 6-15 with a 5.21 ERA. He had been sharp so far in 1966 — 2.22 ERA — but this was in only 24 innings of work.

I suspect the Cards knew they had made themselves a stellar deal. However, manager Red Schoendienst was matter of fact. He said:

Well, we needed a big guy to hit the ball. Cepeda should take the some of the pressure off other hitters like Curt Flood, Charley Smith, and Tim McCarver.

Among the Cardinals staff, only hitting coach Dick Sisler was willing to gush publicly. He opined that St. Louis had become “a contender in one move.”

He was wrong. It would take another move — a trade after the 1966 seasons for an even bigger name player than Cepeda.

The St. Louis press took the view that this was a deal the Cardinals “had to make.” A new stadium was about to open and the Cards had only about half filled the old one that weekend, even with all the ceremonies surrounding the closing.

I submit, however, that this was not only a trade the Cardinals wanted to make, but one that Howsam had been building towards. Why else would he trade for two starting pitchers during the off season when he needed position players, not hurlers? Howsam very likely had in mind swapping a pitcher for a power hitting first baseman, and must have known that Cepeda was the first baseman who probably would be available.

The acquisition of Cepeda helped the Cardinals immediately. He homered in his first game with St. Louis and belted five during May. Six games below .500 when the trade was made, the Cardinals reached that mark in mid-June, and finished 83-79.

Cepeda batted .303 for the Cards that year, but didn’t quite fulfill his prediction of a post-Candlestick Park power surge. His 17 home runs in 452 at-bats failed to match his San Francisco output. Still, it was the most by any Cardinal.

The real payoff occurred in 1967. That year, Cepeda was the National League’s MVP and led St. Louis to the pennant.

Sadecki wasn’t the lefty the Giants were looking for in 1966. He went 3-7 with a 5.40 ERA. Al Jackson, who took Sadecki’s place in the Cardinal rotation, pitched considerably better.

The Giants finished in second place, 1.5 games behind the Dodgers.

Sadecki got himself back on track the following year, but never again won more than 12 games in a season.

Bob Howsam left the Cardinals in 1967 having made the deals that would enable St. Louis to win the pennant that years. He became the general manager in Cincinnati, where he helped build the Big Red Machine.

In 1969, St. Louis traded Cepeda to Atlanta for Joe Torre. In 1974, St. Louis traded Torre to the New York Mets for Sadecki. Thus, we have the following case: a is traded for b; b is traded for c; c is traded for a.

Today, “b” (Cepeda) and “c” (Torre) are both in the Hall of Fame. Howsam is not, but arguably should be.

UPDATE: A friend wonders where I would rank the Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas (and others) in the list of 1960s trades. I think it was more consequential than the Cepeda deal, and thus have revised the post slightly. The Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio trade, another steal for St. Louis, also ranks up there with the Cepeda deal.

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