In the old days, baseball winters were warmed by big trades, not free agent signings which didn’t yet exist. Several huge trades heated up the winter of 1971-72.
One of them — the most infamous — was consummated on this day in baseball history. On December 10, 1971, the New York Mets dealt Nolan Ryan to the California Angels for Jim Fregosi. The Mets also threw in Leroy Stanton, Don Rose, and Frank Estrada.
Stanton alone would produce more for the Angels (and thereafter) than Fregosi did for the Mets (and thereafter). But the trade is infamous because Ryan became one of the most dominant pitchers of the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, he was still going strong in 1991 (12-6 with a 2.91 ERA and 203 strikeouts in only 173 innings). By then, Fregosi was 13 years removed from playing.
The Mets, of course, did not know in 1971 that Ryan would have such an outstanding career. In his four full seasons with the club, he had flattered to deceive, as the British say. His win-loss record was an unimpressive 29-38.
However, Ryan had posted sub-4.00 ERAs in all four seasons and was striking out nearly a batter per inning back when that ratio was elite, if not historic. In addition, Ryan’s development had been hampered by his just-completed Army Reserve commitment, which disrupted each season, sometimes causing him to go more than a week between starts.
Most important of all, Ryan had not quite yet turned 25 when the Mets traded him. Thus, Ryan was very likely to become a quality starting pitcher for a decade, with a realistic chance of becoming a star.
What were the Mets getting in Jim Fregosi? An all-star caliber shortstop, but one who was showing signs of becoming merely average.
Fregosi was elite from 1964-67. He struggled in 1968, but bounced back in 1969 and 1970. In 1971, however, he struggled again, batting only .233 with an on-base percentage of .317 and a slugging average of just .326.
Fregosi was still only 29 when the Angels traded him to the Mets. However, he had a lot of mileage on him, having already played ten full seasons and around 1,550 games, nearly all of them at the physically demanding position of shortstop. In addition, as Fregosi later admitted, he was enjoying “the good life” rather than staying in good shape.
The Mets already had Bud Harrelson at shortstop. Their plan was to move Fregosi to third base, where the team had a hole. In theory, it was a good plan, but not good enough to justify trading a pitcher with a great arm and decent accomplishments who was about to reach his prime.
In practice, the trade was a disaster. Fregosi’s 1972 key stats were nearly identical to the poor ones he posted the year before — this time at a position where more offensive production is expected. The next year, when he was able only to provide more of the same, the Mets sold Fregosi to the Texas Rangers in mid-season.
In the same two years — 1972 and 73 — Ryan won a total of 40 games for the Angels, a sub-.500 club in both years. He won 22 the next season, just under a third of the Angels’ total wins. In all three years, he posted an ERA of under 3.00. In all three, he led the league in strikeouts (but also walks).
The trade could easily have worked out better for New York than it did. Fregosi might well have given the Mets a few productive years. But there’s no defending the trade, and wasn’t at the time it occurred. As things did work out, the deal stands as one of the worst in baseball history.
Nolan Ryan was just one of several Hall of Fame caliber players traded in the 1971-72 off-season. Earlier in December, the Baltimore Orioles dealt Frank Robinson (along with Pete Richert) to the LA Dodgers for Doyle Alexander and three other prospects, none of whom made it.
Robinson gave the Dodgers one mediocre season before moving to the Angels for whom he had two good years. Alexander was a so-so starting pitcher in Baltimore for four and a half seasons, but went on to have a long and successful career. Eventually, he would be traded for another future Hall of Famer, John Smoltz.
On the same day as the Frank Robinson trade, the Dodgers made what proved to be a more significant trade. They sent Dick Allen to the Chicago White Sox for Tommy John. (I suspect the Robinson acquisition was an effort to replace Allen’s bat.)
Neither Allen nor John is in the Hall of Fame. But Allen arguably deserves to be. I understand he fell one vote short in this year’s balloting. And John won 288 major league games.
This was a deal that helped both teams, but at different times. Allen was the American League MVP in 1972. Almost single-handedly, he kept the White Sox in the AL West race.
John pitched well in 1972, but really hit stride in the Dodgers’ pennant winning seasons of 1977 and 1978. He went a combined 37-17 in those season. He would be even better, 43-18, the next two seasons with the New York Yankees.
On November 29, two future Hall of Famers were traded in separate deals. One of the trades was momentous. The Houston Astros traded Joe Morgan, Denis Menke, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, and Ed Armbrister to the Cincinnati Reds for Tommy Helms, Lee May, and Jimmy Stewart.
Helms and May were good players in Cincinnati and would continue to be good after the trade. Indeed, May averaged 27 home runs and 96 RBIs during his three years with the Astros.
But Morgan was already a star in Houston — stardom obscured by the crude ways in which performance was measured at the time — and he would take things to another level in Cincinnati. In fact, he was major league baseball player of the year in 1975 and 1976, Cincinnati’s championship seasons.
In those championship seasons, Cesar Geronimo was a Gold Glove center fielder and Jack Billingham was part of the starting rotation.
The other big November 29 deal was a swap of top-notch starting pitchers. The San Francisco Giants sent spit-balling future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry to Cleveland in exchange for fire-balling “Sudden” Sam McDowell.
At 33, Perry was four years older than McDowell. However, Perry had much more left in the tank. He won the AL Cy Young award in 1972 with 24 wins and a 1.92 ERA, and continued to be a reasonably effective starting pitcher until the early 1980s.
McDowell won only 10 games in 1972, and only 15 during the next three seasons. He was finished by 1976.
To summarize, in a period of about two weeks in 1971, the White Sox acquired the 1972 AL MVP and the Indians obtained the 1972 AL Cy Young winner. The Reds acquired the 1975 and 1975 player of the year, while the Angels picked up the 1977 Sporting News AL pitcher of the year and baseball’s all-time leader in strikeouts (by nearly 900 whiffs). And the Dodgers picked up a player who had won two MVPs, one in each league.
Modern free agency is fun for fans, at least for those whose teams make a splash. However, trades are more interesting because unlike free agent signings, they are often a zero-sum affair.
Fans can get over a bad free agent signing. However, it probably took a decade for Giants fans to get over the Perry-McDowell deal and even longer for Mets fans to put the Fregosi-Ryan trade behind them.
There may still be Mets fans of a certain age who consider December 10, 1971 a day of infamy.