By Arnold Bailey
The recent sale at auction of a baseball player’s contract almost a century old can serve as a reminder that sometimes the best trades are the ones you didn’t make.
The reminder comes at a time in a new baseball season when many of the big league teams are still developing their rosters before the trade deadline in July.
The four-page contract, for the 1918 season, was between the St. Louis Cardinals and a young first baseman named Phil Todt. Signed by Todt and Cards’ President Branch Rickey, the agreement provided a salary of $125 per month. (It sold for $400 at auction.)
No matter that the contract was later voided because Todt was only 15 years old at the time it was signed. The document’s appearance in Robert Edward Auctions’ Spring 2015 sale was a reminder that, seven years after the abortive signing, Todt was the subject of spectacular trade rumors.
The year was 1925, and Todt was then with the Boston Red Sox. Rumors persisted that the Yankees had offered to trade a young prospect named Lou Gehrig to Boston to bring Todt to New York. Some maintain the Yankees proposed the trade to help repay the Sox for the sale five years earlier of Babe Ruth by Harry Frazee, the cash-shy owner of the Boston team. Under the bright light of history, that appears unlikely. Even back in the 1920s, baseball was a business. And the Boston-New York rivalry was already building.
To the good fortune of the Yankees and its fans, Bob Quinn, then the owner of the Red Sox, turned down the Gehrig-for-Todt proposed deal.
Current general managers might do well to re-read the Yankees’ version of that chapter in baseball history, as this season’s July 31 trade deadline nears.
There aren’t any players comparable to Gehrig on the trade rumor lists this season. As devoted fans know well, not many players like Gehrig even exist. But that doesn’t stop sportswriters, broadcasters and fans from predicting which teams will be “buyers” and which will be “sellers” in the trade market. Most think the “buyers” will be the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, Royals and Astros, with the Phillies, Brewers, Rangers, Rockies and A’s the leading “sellers” candidates. And the roster of players most likely to find themselves on new teams in different cities includes names like Cole Hamels, Troy Tulowitzki, Johnny Cueto, Scott Kazmir, Ryan Howard, Aaron Harang and Matt Garza.
When the Gehrig deal rumors were flying, Todt was Boston’s regular first baseman, after playing a handful of games as a rookie behind Joe Harris in 1924. Todt’s 1925 season turned out to be the best of his eight-year big league career; he batted .278, scored 62 runs and knocked in 75. That same year began a string of last-place finishes by Boston that continued through 1930.
Slow starts to careers
It was a belated start to Todt’s career that brought him to Boston in the first place. His original contract with the Cardinals (the one sold at auction) went into limbo because Todt’s father refused to co-sign it, demanding instead that his son finish high school.
Rickey was persistent, though, and two years later he signed Todt again, though he was only 17 and still a minor. Rickey tried to bury the youngster in the low minors until he was of age, but the cross-town St. Louis Browns went after Todt, which got commissioner Kenesaw Landis involved. He ruled against Rickey, and the Browns signed Todt. Three years later the Red Sox purchased his contract.
Gehrig was still an untested youngster as the 1925 season opened. He had signed with the Yankees in 1923 during his junior year at Columbia University and got into just 23 games that year and the next while veteran Wally Pip held down first base. Gehrig didn’t even make the Yankees’ postseason World Series roster in ’23. However, he replaced Pipp in the lineup during the 1925 season and began his historic consecutive games streak on June 1 of that year. Gehrig’s impact? The Yankees finished atop the league standings from 1926-28, after a woeful seventh-place showing in 1925.
Sharing a bond
Though Todt and Gehrig didn’t switch teams, 233 players have worn the uniforms of both Boston and New York over the years, a roster that runs the gamut from “A” (pitcher Dave Aardsma) to “Z” (outfielder Bill Zuber). Some switched jerseys through trades, while others moved as free agents.
The key deals indicate that Boston has most often came out on the short end. The shortest end has to be the 1920 sale of Ruth, but the Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater deal before the 1972 season also rates high on the blunder scale. Also, the frequently pitching-poor Sox sent future Hall of Fame hurlers to the Yanks in 1923 and 1930; Herb Pennock who would win 162 games for the Yankees, and Red Ruffing 231. In return, Boston received a pitcher who would win only nine games while losing 20, an infielder who batted .253 and two outfielders who “hit” .245 and .231. Even the two cash sweeteners of $50,000 each don’t make those deals look any better for Boston.
In recent years, several players have switched uniforms via free agency, and most represent Yankee gains and Sox losses, including Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury. About the only switches that give an edge to Boston were trades that brought Elston Howard and Don Baylor from New York, though both were nearing the end of their careers at the time.
All that has just added to the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, a competition that began in 1903 when the Yankees were still known as the Highlanders, and the Red Sox went by the name of Pilgrims.
It’s an arch rivalry that has resulted in some classic battles, on the field and off. Sox center fielder Jim Piersall and Yankees’ second baseman Billy Martin went at it with fists flying in a battle under the stands in 1952. En route to his Hall of Fame induction this summer, Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez drew some criticism by tossing Yankees’ coach Don Zimmer to the ground during the league playoffs in 2003. New York’s Alex Rodriguez got a face-full of Boston catcher Jason Varitek’s mitt in 2004. And those are but the tip of a red-hot rivalry iceberg.
There also have been classic and historic games. When the Red Sox opened Fenway Park in 1912, the Yankees were the opposition (Boston won 7-6 in 11 innings). Babe Ruth’s first major league home run was hit in 1915 when he was a Red Sox pitcher-outfielder and the Yankees, again, were the opposition. Roger Maris hit his 61st home run to break Ruth’s record in the final game of the 1961 season, against pitcher Tracy Stallard and the Red Sox. The Yankees beat the Sox in a one-game playoff for the league pennant in 1978 on a Bucky Dent home run over Fenway’s left-field wall. Aaron Boone’s homer gave the Yankees another pennant over the Red Sox in 2003.
And the Gehrig-for-Todt rumor isn’t the only one that has spiced the Boston-New York rivalry. It was in the late 1940s when word spread that the two teams were about to exchange superstars – rumors of a Ted Williams for Joe DiMaggio trade. The New York Times reported that owners Tom Yawkey of the Sox and Dan Topping of the Yanks had talked about such a deal over a drink or two (or three . . .) at Toots Shor’s New York City saloon. They decided not to put anything in writing but to talk again in the morning after the affects of their mutual imbibing wore off. That’s when Yawkey said he wouldn’t trade Williams unless the Yankees added a young prospect to the deal. That youngster was named Lawrence Peter Berra. Topping refused and, for the Yankees at least, the result was once again an example of the best trades sometimes being the ones you don’t make.
Arnold Bailey is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.