This day in baseball history: A coup for the Cardinals

On December 8, 1966, the St. Louis Cardinals obtained home run king Roger Maris from the New York Yankees in exchange for Charlie Smith. The trade completed a nifty two-step. First, as discussed here, St. Louis acquired Orlando Cepeda to fill the void (and then some) that Bill White had left at first base. Then, by getting Maris, they filled the void at third base left by Ken Boyer, moving right fielder Mike Shannon to third and replacing him with Maris in right field.

The deal set itself up the previous month when the Yankees, who had finished dead last in the AL, went into rebuilding mode. On November 29, they dealt their long time third baseman Clete Boyer to the Atlanta Braves for right field prospect Bill Robinson.

This left the Yanks with two right fielders and no established third baseman. Thus, the natural move was to trade the aging Maris for a third baseman, if they could.

Maris had been aging badly. Since his historic 1961 season, in which he belted 61 home runs, his home run totals had declined as follows: 33, 23, 26, 8, 13. In 1966, he batted .233 with an on-base percentage of .307 and a .382 slugging percentage.

Injuries were partly to blame. In 1965, a broken hand, which was misdiagnosed, limited him to 46 games. The next year, he played in 119 games, but rarely, if ever, was healthy.

The Yankees thus counted themselves lucky to be able to find a taker for Maris. At one point, they had sought to waive him, but no team made a claim.

One of the problems was Maris’ salary of $72,000. Rules prohibited salary cuts of more than 25 percent, and teams were not ready to pay $54,000 to a player in steep decline.

Yankee fans had long been hostile to Maris. In the latter half of the 1960s, he was seen as a symbol of the team’s rapid descent. The combination of fan contempt, playing hurt and unproductively, and losing had the 32 year-old Maris seriously contemplating retirement from baseball.

The trade to St. Louis was thus a godsend for Maris. A Midwesterner (he was born in Minnesota, raised in Fargo, North Dakota, and lived in Independence, Missouri), Maris had never felt comfortable in New York. Cardinal fans were (and still are) among the very best in baseball. Supportive and knowledgeable, they seemed likely to appreciate and embrace Maris who was a consummate professional and team player — one who did “the little things” and was willing to play hurt.

Nonetheless, Maris had to be persuaded not to retire. Stan Musial, who became St. Louis’ general manager shortly after the trade, developed a good relationship with the team’s new acquisition. The fact that the Cards, rather than cutting Maris’ salary, offered him a small raise didn’t hurt.

As the 1967 season approached, the trade looked like one that might help both teams. Bill Robinson, age 23, had batted .312 and slugged .505 for Triple A Richmond. He seemed like an immediate upgrade over Maris and a potential star.

Charlie Smith was an established major league third baseman. His 1966 numbers were comparable to Clete Boyer’s. They were about the same age.

From the Cardinals’ perspective, the merit of the trade depended on (1) whether Maris stayed healthy and benefited from the change in scenery and (2) whether Shannon could make the transition to third base. The latter consideration was crucial. The Cardinals had alternatives to Maris in right field in Bobby Tolan and Alex Johnson, both of whom would later have success, though not with St. Louis. But at third base the alternatives to Shannon — Phil Gagliano and Ed Spiezio — were not attractive.

It’s a rare trade that helps both teams, though, and the Maris for Smith deal wasn’t one of them. Robinson was a total bust for the Yankees. I still can picture him on Opening Day (the first one I ever attended) at RFK Stadium jogging in the outfield before the game against the Washington Senators. God, he looked like a ball player.

In the third inning, Robinson smashed a two-run home run off of Pete Richert. But it was all downhill from there. In three seasons with the Yankees, he batted under .200 twice and never had more than 7 home runs and 40 RBIs.

Much later, Robinson found success in the National League with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He went on to become one of the best hitting coaches in baseball.

Baseball writer Marty Appel has said, “it would forever be a mystery as to what went wrong with Bill Robinson in New York, and why that promise was never fulfilled.” Robinson offered a plausible explanation when he said:

I was pressing too hard. Every time I came up, I wanted to hit a home run to impress people. Finally it got to the point where I was holding the bat so tightly I couldn’t even hit the ball.

Playing in New York isn’t easy.

Charlie Smith was also a bust. He batted only .224 in 1967 and .229 the next year, during which he lost his job to a weak hitting third baseman named Bobby Cox, who also hit .229. Cox is now in the Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as a manager.

The Yankees should have stuck with Boyer. He hit 26 home runs and drove in 96 runs for Atlanta in 1967.

As for Maris, he did experience a revival in St. Louis. His numbers weren’t overwhelming. In 1967, he hit only 9 home runs, knocked in 55 runs, and batted .261.

However, he was a great fit. According to one Cardinals beat writer, during Spring Training, Maris “meshed well with his new teammates, joining them in barbecues and chatting and joking often with them at the club’s motel.” He also added know-how and the experience with pressure that came from having played on multiple pennant winning and World Series winning teams — and breaking Babe Ruth’s record.

With Maris and Shannon both providing solid production, and no other major changes in the regular lineup other than a full year of Cepeda, the Cardinals increased their run total from the previous season by more than 100. In 1966, they ranked last in the NL in runs scored. In 1967, they ranked second.

Moreover, in the World Series Maris batted .385 and knocked in a Series high 7 runs, as the Cardinals beat the Boston Red Sox in seven games.

In 1968, injuries limited Maris to 100 games and his production fell a bit. He also had a poor World Series. However, Maris was still a decent contributor on a team that won the NL pennant by nine games.

Maris retired after the World Series which St. Louis lost in seven games to Detroit. He had played on seven pennant winners in nine years. The final two were the result of a one-sided trade that occurred on this day in baseball history.

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