Seeds of the Big Red Machine: The Preseason Transactions of 1972


Toward the end of July last season I wrote a piece entitled “1970-1971:  A Retrospective…or is it?” drawing comparisons between the Reds teams at the germination of the Big Red Machine with the current incarnation of Redlegs.  In 1970, the Reds made it to the World Series for the first time in 9 years led by their brash young Catcher, MVP Johnny Bench.  In 2010, the Reds returned to the postseason for the first time in 15 years led by rising star MVP Joey Votto.

Both squads returned to earth in 1971 and 2011 respectively with a 79-83 record.  The parallels are painful.  After both seasons the General Manager’s Bob Howsam and Walt Jocketty decided change was needed in order to hoist a pennant.  Bob Howsam decided to shake things up a bit after the 1971 season; he authored 6 trades during the offseason.  The first trade is lauded as one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history and we will revisit that trade in a few moments but first let’s take a look at the lesser known transactions.

Trade 2:  On December 3, 1971 the Reds traded RH Relief Pitcher Wayne Granger for LH Relief Pitcher Tom Hall.  Granger, 28, earned 73 saves in his three years with the Reds including a league leading 35 in 1970.  During these years he had a 2.92 ERA but in 1971 he was supplanted as the Reds closer by Clay Carroll.  He never again completed a season with an ERA under 3.00 and only collected 31 more saves in the final 5 years of his career.  Tom Hall was 24 years of age and during his last two seasons with Minnesota he struck out 321 batters in 285 IP while allowing just 198 hits.  His 1972 season in Cincinnati saw more of the same; Hall struck out 134 batters in 124.1 IP while allowing just 77 hits.  Tom would also finish the ’72 season with a 10-1 record and 8 saves.

Grade:  B

Trade 3:  The Cincinnati Reds traded Milt Wilcox to the Cleveland Indians for Outfielder Ted Uhlaender on December 6, 1971.  Uhlaender was a Center Fielder for Cleveland and Minnesota over the past seven seasons.  He had a career .267 batting average and was a strong fielder with a .991 fielding percentage over the course of his career.  He offered a veteran presence for Sparky Anderson to use in case his young outfielders, 24 year old Bernie Carbo, 24 year old (newly acquired) Cesar Geronimo or 23 year old George Foster, faltered.  Uhlaender batted just .159 for the Reds and retired at the end of the 1972 season.   In exchange, the Reds sent 22 year old RH starting pitcher Milt Wilcox.  Milt had a career 5-3 record, winning a 6-0 shutout in 1970 against Maury Wills and the LA Dodgers.  Incidentally the box score of this game revealed two other pitchers of note making relief appearances: future Red Fred Norman and a 22 year old Charlie Hough who would go on to pitch until he was an astounding 46 years old in 1994!  Wilcox would bounce around to a couple of teams landing in Detroit where he pitched from 1977-1985.  He was the number three starter on Sparky Anderson’s 1984 World Series Champion Detroit Tigers with a record of 17-8.  He finished his career with a record of 119-113, though 11 of those losses occurred in the last two years of his career.  Bob Howsam was not perfect.

Grade:  F

Trades 4 and 5:  Decided to group these together since they involve 4 minor leaguers who never saw significant time in the majors before or after the trade and both transactions occurred on December 14, 1971.  The first trade sent switch hitting utility man Jim Qualls of the Reds to the Chicago White Sox for RH pitcher Pat Jacquez.  The second sent outfielder Danny Godby to the St. Louis Cardinals for RH reliever Carroll Sembera.  A certain number of these trades happen primarily to meet the needs of filling minor league rosters and on the slight chance a change of scenery will wake up the potential of a diamond in the rough.  These are just business as usual in MLB.

Grade:  C

Trade 6:  The final preseason trade is also a case of business as usual involving two aging stars who had seen their fifteen minutes of fame come and go.  I hate this trade, less from the perspective of the Reds and more from the perspective of a fan of the beauty of the game.  The trade sent Tony Cloninger to the St. Louis Cardinals for Julian Javier.  Cloninger holds a unique place in baseball history.  The flame throwing RH starter recorded 24 wins for Milwaukee Braves in 1965 on the strength of 211 strikeouts, he was also known for his bat.  In 1966 for the now Atlanta Braves, he became the only pitcher in MLB history to hit two grand slams in a single baseball game; in fact he hit a total of 11 home runs throughout the course of his career including 5 while with the Reds.  Evaluating his numbers though draws me to the conclusion that he may have overworked by the Braves and damaged his arm.  Cloninger threw 779.1 innings in three years from 1964-1966 and only once managed to break 150 IP the rest of his career.  Tony pitched a single season in relief for St. Louis before retiring, he later had success with the Yankees as a bullpen coach for over a decade, winning 4 World Series titles.  St. Louis traded Julian Javier, a solid second baseman for the team for 12 seasons.  He played in two All Star games and was the starting second baseman for 2 World Series championship teams.  He was a close friend of Cardinals legend Stan Musial and even named his son after him former Major Leaguer Stan Javier.  The Cardinals had to know Julian’s career was almost done but instead of sending him off as a Cardinal the business side of baseball got in the way and he spent one year in Cincinnati, where he played in just 44 games taking 91 at bats, before retiring.  One note about Javier worth mentioning is his last at bat in October 1972 with the Reds resulted in a sacrifice hit, he had 90 sacrifice bunts in his career and was known as one of the best bunters in the game so it was a fitting way to say goodbye.

Grade: C, the trade was equal in value if unfortunate.

That brings as back to the beginning the first trade of the season was of course the 8 player blockbuster with the Houston Astros.  Joe Posnarski, in his retelling of the 1975 season called The Machine, wrote “Nobody in Cincinnati likes the trade, not even Sparky.”  The trade, completed on November 29, 1971, sent the Reds 1B Lee May along with 2B Tommy Helms and utility man Jimmy Stewart for minor leaguer Ed Armbrister, starter Jack Billingham, CF Cesar Geronimo, utilityman Denis Menke and 2B Joe Morgan.

Consider what Howsam surrendered.  Lee May was 28 years old, his addition to the roster forced Tony Perez to move to 3B where Tony played from 1968-1971.  During his 7 year Reds career he had already collected 147 home runs and 449 RBI.  He was a 3 time All Star and finished 9th in MVP voting in 1971.  Tommy Helms was a fan favorite in Cincinnati, he had 2 gold gloves, 2 All Star games and a Rookie of the Year award on his mantle.  These 2 stars were traded, along with Stewart for a 28 year old 2B that Sparky Anderson had heard was difficult, a 28 year old pitcher (Billingham) with a 32-32 lifetime record at a time where 30 tended to be the age a lot of pitchers careers were over, a 24 year old CF who could play defensive ball but had never found much success at the plate, and a 30 year old utility man (Menke) at the end of his career along with another whose MLB career had yet to begin.

The miracles of this trade extend far beyond the Hall of Fame career of Joe Morgan.  Who would have expected Jack Billingham would have an 87-63 record for the Reds, even if he was the cousin of Christy Mathewson?  Did anyone imagine Cesar Geronimo would be more than just a great glove?  Few remember he received MVP votes in 1976 after hitting for a .304 batting average.  Even Ed Armbrister contributed as an excellent pinch hitter and utility man in the World Series.  And the trade was not just one sided, Houston really did benefit from it.  Lee May would go on to record 207 more Home Runs and 795 more RBI in his career over the next 12 seasons.

Grade:  A

So this offseason Walt Jocketty has aggressively done what Reds fans called for last season and made serious changes to the Reds 2012 roster and affected the Reds future.  As the season progresses we will learn the effectiveness of his transactions.  We think on the questions and some will have answers this year, but when you look back at 1972, the answers did not come for 3 more years.  The Reds reached the World Series in ’72 only to fall to the Oakland A’s and didn’t find the promised land till 1975.  This incarnation of the Cincinnati roster does not have the luxury Bob Howsam had, they need to win this season or next.  The tools may be in place but to win the players must all function as expected.  Hopefully they will stand and deliver.

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Tags: Big Red Machine Bob Howsam Cesar Geronimo Denis Menke Ed Armbrister Jack Billingham Jimmy Stewart Joe Morgan Julian Javier Lee May Milt Wilcox Ted Uhlaender Tommy Helms Tony Cloninger Walt Jocketty

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