November 27, 1962: On this day, the Reds deal prospect second baseman Cookie Rojas to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Jim Owens.
Rojas had been one of several Cuban players the Reds (or Redlegs) had been able to sign as free agents. The Reds AAA farm team was in Havana, Cuba, and the exposure gave the Reds a leg up on other organizations in signing Cuban players. Baseball had been introduced to Cuba in the early 1900’s and the game was a source of pride for the locals. The Reds had signed the first Cuban born players to play major league baseball in Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans, both of whom debuted in 1911. Marsans was the Reds opening day clean up hitter in both 1912 and 1914.
Havana born Dolf Luque became a pitching star for the Red in the 1920’s. Luque’s 1923 is arguably the greatest pitching season in Reds history as he was 27-8 with a 1.93 ERA (201 ERA+). Luque led the majors in wins, winning percentage, ERA, ERA+, and with six shutouts, with 7.8 hits per nine innings, and with 0.1 home run per nine innings. His 151 strikeouts were second in the league, 46 behind Dazzy Vance. In twelve seasons with the Reds, Luque was 154-152 with a 3.09 ERA (121 ERA+). For his career, Luque pitched twenty seasons, going 194-179 with a 3.24 ERA (118 ERA+). Unfortunately for Luque, no Most Valuable Player Awards were awarded for the 1923 season so it’s largely forgotten today (The Cy Young Award began in 1956).
The Reds Cuban connection netted them many star players, many of which were traded to other teams. Hall of Fame first baseman Tony Perez played 23 major league seasons batting .279 with 379 home runs. Perez played 16 seasons with the Reds, batting .283 with 287 homers. Shortstop Leo Cardenas became an all-star with the Reds batting .261 with 72 homers in nine Reds seasons. Overall, he played 16 years, batting .257 with 118 homers.
Outfielder Tony Gonzalez was a regular centerfielder with the Philadelphia Phillies, playing a total of 12 of major league seasons batting .286 with 103 home runs. Gonzalez played half a season with the Reds, batting .212 with three homers before being dealt to the Phillies in a multi-player deal in 1960. The Reds received power-hitting Wally Post for a second Reds tour in the deal. The Reds have several young centerfielders at the time in Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, and Cesar Tovar and decided they only needed Pinson. Gonzalez received MVP consideration in three different seasons, twice with the Phillies and once in a half-season with the Atlanta Braves.
The Reds didn’t get value or production from everyone. Pitcher Mike Cuellar , who later became a Cy Young Award winning pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, pitched only two games for the Redlegs (0-0, 15.75). The Reds lost him in an “unknown transaction” but he later resurfaced to pitch in a total of 15 seasons, going 185-130 with a 3.14 ERA. The Reds weren’t the only team to miss out on Cuellar; he also passed through the organizations of the Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, and St. Louis Cardinals before he hit his stride with the Houston Astros in 1966.
Relief pitcher Orlando Pena pitched 14 major league seasons (56-77, 3.71), but pitched only three partial seasons with the Reds (6-10, 4.27). The Reds dealt him to AAA Toronto during the 1961 season in exchange for starting pitcher Ken Johnson who gave the 1961 Reds starting staff a shot in the arm during the National League pennant stretch drive. Johnson went 6-2 with a 3.25 ERA before the Reds lost him in the expansion draft to the Houston Colt .45s that offseason. Johnson went on to pitch 13 major league seasons, going 91-106 with a 3.46 ERA. Pena eventually pitched for eight different major league teams.
Catcher Joe Azcue played eleven major league seasons, batting .252 with 50 homers and being named to the 1968 all-star team while with the Cleveland Indians. He played 14 games for the 1960 Reds, batting .097 in 33 plate appearances. His contract was sold to the Milwaukee Braves and he made it back to the majors with the Kansas City Athletics in 1962 (as did Pena). The Reds dealt away all four catchers that played for them in 1960, including Azcue, and replaced them with a new set of catchers for the 1961 season.
That brings us back to second baseman Rojas, who had been signed by the Redlegs in 1956. Rojas didn’t make the Reds squad until 1962 when he played 39 games for them at age 23, batting .221 with only two extra base hits in 97 plate appearances. The Reds second baseman was all-star Don Blasingame and they also had utility men Don Zimmer and Eddie Kasko. They also had other young second basemen in the system. Tommy Harper made his debut in 1962; and a young, future all-star Pete Rose made his debut in 1963 after having signed with the Reds in 1960. Tommy Helms had also been signed by the Reds in 1959. The Reds had excess inventory at second base and Rojas had the most experience and was showing the least with the bat at the time.
Rojas was dealt to the Phillies for pitcher Jim Owens, who only pitched 19 games for the Reds, going 0-2 with a 5.31 ERA in 42 innings. Owens was drafted from the Reds by the Houston Colt .45s in the 1963 Rule 5 draft and pitched four seasons for Houston. Overall, Owens pitched 12 seasons, going 42-68 with a 4.31 ERA. Rojas was called up to the Phillies during the 1963 season and became a multi-position starter for the Phillies in the 1964 season. He played every position on the field for the Phillies (including pitcher and catcher) and was an all-star. Joining the Kansas City Royals in 1970 at age 31, Rojas started a four-year run as an all-star second baseman. He played 16 major league seasons, batting .263 with 54 home runs, played in five all-star games and received MVP votes in three different seasons.