November 29, 1971: Joe Morgan is traded by the Houston Astros with Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo and Denis Menke to the Cincinnati Reds for Tommy Helms, Lee May and Jimmy Stewart.

This is the most famous trade in Cincinnati Reds history, bar none, and the one trade that made the biggest impact in Reds major league success.

But, before we analyze this deal, let’s say it’s not the 1971 Reds, but the 2009 Reds. Our favorite team has a losing record, and many of the starters are playing below expectations and some are fan favorites, yet there’s someone who’s playing well. Let’s say Joey Votto is the guy who’s playing well and the guy recognized as a defensive stalwart, say Alex Gonzalez….and the 2009 Reds decide to trade them. And, why not, let’s throw in a part-time fan favorite, a player such as Jerry Hairston, Jr.. Most on this blog would be aghast at trading Votto, and there would be mixed emotions about Gonzalez, but to “Joe Fan” trading both would paramount to treason and team ownership would be questioned about their competency.

Well, that’s what happened in 1971. The Big Red Machine had rolled over teams in 1970 on their way to the National League championship, and thought they would be even better in 1971 with the maturation of Dave Concepcion, Johnny Bench, Bernie Carbo, Hal McRae, Don Gullett, Wayne Simpson, and Gary Nolan. All these players were under 25 years sold. However, that “maturation” and performance level didn’t happen. The offense dropped to just 3.5 runs per game as Bobby Tolan missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon, Bernie Carbo slumped to .219, Johnny Bench batted .238, Hal McRae .264, Dave Concepcion .205, and Wayne Simpson finished 4-7. Nolan (12-15, 3.16) and Gullett (16-6, 2.65) had good years but the other Young Reds did not.

Lee May was the star of the 1971 offense, batting a .279 with 39 homers and 98 rbi. Helms won a Gold Glove and batted .258, while supersub Jimmy Stewart batted .232 in 80 games. They were all big crowd favorites, popular in the clubhouse, and dedicated to their play.

So, the Reds traded them.

Reds fans went crazy. What more, they viewed Helms as Morgan’s equal, so they wondered who they were getting for Lee May? A journeyman starter (Billingham), an aging infielder (Menke), and two reserve/minor league outfielders (Armbrister and Geronimo)? In fact, one reporter even asked if they meant Cesar “Cedeno” not “Geronimo.”

What most Reds fans don’t know is that the Reds won this trade even without Joe Morgan’s totals. Using the Win Shares method, Billingham, Menke, Geronimo, and Armbrister totaled 207 Win Shares, while May, Helms, and Stewart totaled 175. Joe Morgan himself earned 357 Win Shares, almost as many as all of the other players in the trade combined. Essentially, the trade was even plus Morgan…

Reds General Manager Bob Howsam guessed right again. May was coming up on his 29th birthday and essentially played the position as Tony Perez, first base. Perez was also 28, but could do more offensively and defensively than May. Helms was 30, and with the loss of Tolan, the Reds needed speed and Morgan could help this area plus the Reds were aware that Morgan scored runs in bunches and drew lots of walks. Morgan would be a plus over Helms in the offensive area where the Reds lagged in 1971.

May had hit over thirty homers three years running for the Reds. He never hit 30 again, though some of that may have been impacted by his home parks. Helms was a starter for three more years, hitting less than average and fielding well before playing out the string. Stewart was a role player for two years before retiiring.

Meanwhile, Joe Morgan became possibly the best player in baseball. He won back to back MVP awards in 1975 and 1976 and was inducted in baseball’s Hall of Fame. In 1972, Morgan’s first year with the Reds, he led the league in walks, runs scored, and OBP. In 1975, he led the league in walks, OBP, and OPS, and in 1976, Little Joe led in OBP, slugging percentage, and OPS. He batted .320 with 27 homers, 111 rbi, and OPS of 1.020…while winning his fourth consecutive Gold Glove.

Jack Billingham was inserted into the Reds starting rotation and went 12-12 before exploding for two consecutive 19 win seasons in 1973 and 1974. Billingham led the league in shut outs and complete games in 1973, finishing fourth in the Cy Young Award voting. “Cactus Jack” finished sixth in the Cy Young voting in 1974. He set a World Series record with an incredible 0.36 ERA in 25 1/3 innings pitched.

Cesar Geronimo was acquired to relieve Bobby Tolan of defensive pressures in centerfield. Geronimo had a great arm, and a nine-foot stride that he used to patrol centerfield. Geronimo had struggled mightly in the minors with the bat, but improved enough to even bat .307 in 1976. He won four consecutive Gold Gloves for his outfield play.

Denis Menke was near the end of the line when he joined the Reds. Known as a hard hitting shortstop in his early days, he became a master of working the strike zone with the Reds. Menke had hit 20 homers in 1964 as a shortstop with the Milwaukee Braves and had been a Houston Astros all-star representative in both 1969 and 1970 because of his potent bat (.269, 10 homers, 90 rbi in 1969, and .304, 13 homers, 92 rbi in 1970). With the Reds, he played third base, but only hit .233 and .191. However, his walk totals raised his OBP to .322 and .368. After two years, he was flipped back to the Astros and the Reds picked up young pitcher Pat Darcy in return. He was out of baseball one year later.

Ed Armbrister played all or parts of five seasons for the Reds, all as a role player. In 224 games, he made 302 plate appearances, batting .245 with four homers, 19 rbi, and 15 steals. He was demoted to AAA at age 29 and left baseball from there.

This was an amazing trade for the Reds, and it filled in many missing pieces for them at the time and helped them build their team to suit Riverfront Stadium.

5 Responses

  1. doktor

    Good stuff Steve.

    For Lee May, i always felt bad for him by just missing out on a great team, even though his other “stats”, walks OBP, slugging, reveal he was not quite the player his HR/RBI numbers seemed to indicate and as a kid how I remembered him.

  2. Bill Lack

    The only thing I take issue with is “the fans went crazy”. Now, I was 14 at the time and maybe not aware, but I don’t remember anyone going “crazy”. Again, great stuff Steve.

  3. REDS1

    Very interesting. Excellent analysis!

    If this is the most famous trade in Reds history the Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas trade has to be the most infamous.

  4. Y-City Jim

    Crazy might be a strong description but I remember being ticked because I really liked Lee May, the Big Slam from Birmingham.

  5. Steve Price

    I would agree that the Robinson-Pappas trade would be most infamous, and is better known since it’s referred to in movies and popular speech. I was going from the positive side.

    I will say the Robinson-Pappas trade was NOT the worst in Reds history. Easily, that was trading Christy Mathewson for Amos Rusie, and not taking Babe Ruth for free was probably the worst potential roster move.

    As for the public outcry over May-Morgan. I was 10 at the time and lived in “Red country” (central Kentucky). I remeber the Hot Stove League buzzing over and the news media was really surprised. It may be a matter of perspective.

    Here’s what Greg Rhodes and John Erardi wrote in “Big Red Dynasty:

    Reds representative Roger Ruhl said one one sports reporter had asked if they had the wrong Cesar (meaning he thought it should have been Cedeno and not Geronimo).

    “We started calling regional papers…..We worked hard, but the initial reaction in Cincinnati was not very good Peopled tended….to say “OK, we got Morgan for Helms, both second basemen. But then what did we get for May and Stewart?….”

    also..

    Enquirer reporter Bob Hertzel, influential in the region: “For Lee May you’d expect Willie Mays, not just another guy named Joe.:

    continuing…

    Rhodes/Erardi contiue: “Reaction on the street was strongly against the deal. One fan said he was going to root for HOuston. Another said, ‘May is a good ballplayer. What they traded for–all of them put together aren’t as good as May.’ One fan imagined sabotage. ‘Somebody must have hypnotized Howsam.”