This day in baseball history: Cepeda for Torre

The deal that brought Orlando Cepeda from San Francisco to St. Louis in 1966 was probably the second most consequential baseball trade of the 1960s, behind only the one that brought the late Frank Robinson to Baltimore. The Cardinals won the World Series in 1967 and Cepeda was NL MVP. In 1968, St. Louis repeated as NL champs.

But on March 17, 1969, St. Louis dealt Cepeda to the Atlanta Braves for Joe Torre.

The trade caught the baseball world by surprise. In the days leading up March 17, there was no mention in the St. Louis Post Dispatch of the possibility of this deal or, indeed, of the Cardinals trading Cepeda.

Torre had been on the trading block for a while. The three-time all star (at this point in his career) had fallen completely out of favor with Paul Richards, general manager of the Braves. Torre had experienced a down year in 1968 (even after taking into account baseball’s depressed offensive stats that season). Richards reportedly wanted to cut his salary by the maximum amount allowable. Torre refused to report to spring training. The two were fighting it out in the press.

Torre was the Braves player representative, and a very active one. This might well have been a major point against him as far as Richards was concerned.

It was also said that Richards disapproved of Torre because of his reluctance (as Richards saw it) to catch the knuckleball. “The Wizard of Waxahachie” had been a big league catcher and he fancied knuckleball pitchers. It was Richards who gave Hoyt Wilhelm, the ultimate knuckleballer, his big chance.

In any event, Richards was peddling his all-star catcher in the Spring of 1969. The New York Mets were a natural landing spot, as Torre was from New York. However, negotiations between the Braves and Mets eventually broke down.

According to the SABR biography of Torre, Richards got close to a deal with the Washington Senators. He wanted Mike Epstein, one of the best hitting prospects in the game, and Paul Casanova, a light-hitting catcher with a bazooka arm. Bob Short, the Senators owner, turned down this deal.

St. Louis didn’t figure to be in the market. They already had one of the best catchers in the league — Tim McCarver. Torre could also play first base, but the Cards had Cepeda there.

Nonetheless, St. Louis was interested. Torre was three years younger than Cepeda, and more versatile.

The Cardinals had no proven backup catcher for McCarver. If they added Torre, he could take over first base from Cepeda and catch on McCarver’s days off. On those days, Joe Hague, a rookie whom management liked, could play first. (Unfortunately for Hague, McCarver would likely get his days off against left-handed pitching, which would mean that the left-handed hitting Hague would be getting his rookie starts against southpaws).

The Cardinals may also have been mildly unhappy with Cepeda. He had reported late to spring training and been fined for it. However, my research revealed no indication that St. Louis would have traded the popular slugger for less than what they considered full value and maybe a little more.

Reportedly, the Cards and Braves consummated the deal a few hours after they began talking about it. St. Louis quickly signed Torre, reportedly with a slight raise that brought his salary somewhere between $65,000-$70,000. This was another plus for St. Louis, as things were viewed back then. Cepeda was making $80,000.

When Torre learned of the deal, he was over-the-moon. He told reporters that, yes, the Mets had been his first choice, but only because he never dreamed he might go to St. Louis, the best team in baseball over the past two years.

Cepeda was less enthusiastic. He said: “I hate to go, everyone’s been so nice to me here, but that’s life.” Cepeda reportedly was sufficiently distraught that he didn’t go to Al Lang field, the Cardinals spring training venue, to pick up his equipment. He was afraid of “losing it” emotionally.

As far as I can tell, the baseball world viewed the trade as an even one. The consensus was that Cepeda would put up big home run totals in Atlanta because of the dimensions of the park there.

Pundits also expected an offensive revival for Torre in St. Louis. Frank “Trader” Lane, the former GM of the Cardinals and other teams, told Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post Dispatch that “every time Torre bats, he’ll see Richards’ face on the ball.” Broeg speculated that Torre might carry the same kind of chip on his shoulder that Frank Robinson had profited from after Cincinnati dealt him. Robinson won the Triple Crown the next season for Baltimore.

There was speculation that Cepeda’s absence would hurt Julian Javier, who played next to him in the infield. Cepeda was said to be a steadying influence on “Joolie.”

I don’t know whether this was a valid point or a case of ethnic stereotyping. However, Javier had a better year at the plate in 1969 than in 1968, even adjusting for the improved hitting league wide in ’69.

How did the deal work out for the two clubs?

Better for St. Louis than for Atlanta. Torre drove in 338 runs over the next three years. In 1971, playing third base full time, he led the league in batting average and RBIs, and was named league MVP.

Cepeda never took full advantage of Atlanta’s friendly confines. He hit 56 home runs during the two years he played regularly for the Braves. His 1970 stats were impressive, though — .305 BA, 34 HRs, 111 RBI, .908 OPS.

Actually, Mike Epstein, the player Bob Short wouldn’t trade for Torre, had the best 1969 of the three. Under the tutelage of the Senators’ new manager Ted Williams, Epstein belted 30 home runs with an OPS of .965.

Neither Torre nor Cepeda ever went to the World Series with their new club, though Atlanta made it to baseball’s newly instituted playoffs in 1969. (Epstein made it to the World Series with the Oakland As).

In fact, unlike his older brother Frank, Joe Torre never played in the World Series. However, he would manage in six of them as skipper of the New York Yankees, winning four time.

Cepeda made the Hall of Fame in 1999. Torre made it 15 years later.

Thus, on this day in baseball history one future Hall of Famer was traded for another, with no one else in the deal. It’s the only such straight-up swap I can think of.

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