The Trade Deadline 1976 – A Day That Changed Everything And Didn’t…
by Paul Semendinger
NOTE - I penned this piece a few years ago. I'm re-running it today in memory of Vida Blue. I wish he had been a Yankee...
On June 16, 1976, the Yankees made a trade that turned out to be terrible. One of the worst ever. I never understood it…
Today I finally had the chance to look back at the New York Daily News from June 17, 1976 (the day after the trade) and I learned that this trade was part of a bigger picture.
The Yankees made the blockbuster with the Orioles only after they had purchased a player who would have vastly improved their team.
The Orioles trade only came next…
First, let me summarize the trade with the Orioles:
THE TRADE: (from Baseball-Reference)
June 15, 1976: Traded by the New York Yankees with Tippy Martinez, Rudy May, Scott McGregor and Dave Pagan to the Baltimore Orioles for Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Freeman, Elrod Hendricks, Ken Holtzman and Grant Jackson.
This was not the best day in Yankees’ history…
The Yankees traded away top talent and did not receive much in return. The top talent the Yankees traded helped the Orioles become winners for quite some time – at the expense of the Yankees!
For the Orioles, Tippy Martinez became a top-notch closer, Scott McGregor became a top-of-the-rotation starter, and Rick Dempsey became their solid starting catcher. These three players formed a strong core on Orioles teams that went to the World Series in 1979 (losing to the Pirates) and 1983 (defeating the Phillies).
Let’s take a deep-dive into bWAR to see how lopsided this trade really was:
Individual Player Value for the Orioles in bWAR:
Rick Dempsey = 21.2
Tippy Martinez = 7.7
Scott McGregor = 20.2
Dave Pagan = -1.2
Rudy May = -.2 (this is as an Oriole after the trade. May was later traded to the Expos in a package that brought the Orioles Don Stanhouse and Gary Roenicke. He would, in 1980, return to the Yankees.)
Total Value For Orioles = 47.7
Individual Player Value for the Yankees:
Doyle Alexander = 1.0 (He left the Yankees as a Free Agent after the 1976 season. He would return to NY in 1983 and would go 0-2, 6.35 in 8 games)
Jimmy Freeman = 0 (He never pitched in the Major Leagues after the trade)
Elrod Hendricks = .2 (He was a Yankee for all of 36 games between 1976 and 1977. In 1978, he returned to the Orioles.
Ken Holtzman = -1.9 (He was traded to the Cubs for Ron Davis in 1978. Ron Davis was a solid relief pitcher for the Yankees, but for this exercise, there are no bonus points for the players these guys were traded for.)
Grant Jackson = 1.9
Total Value for the Yankees = 1.2
All of this begs the question – Why did the Yankees make this trade?
The reason was simple, this was only one of two deals the Yankees made that day. They made one other, a huge blockbuster… only that deal was not permitted to stand.
In addition to making the trade with the Orioles, the Yankees also purchased the contract of ace starting pitcher Vida Blue from the Oakland A’s (for $1.5M) who were conducting a fire sale. (In addition to selling Vida Blue to the Yankees, the A’s also sold Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox for $1M each.)
Bowie Kuhn, the Commissioner of Baseball in 1976, soon nullified the Yankees and the Red Sox deals with the A’s and returned those players to Oakland.
The Yankees had Vida Blue for just a moment. He never had a chance to pitch for them. And by losing Blue, the Yankees lost having another ace.
Let’s look at who Vida Blue was in 1976…
On the day of the trade, June 16, 1976, the Oakland A’s were an under .500 club sporting a record of 29-32. Pitching for that team, Vida Blue was 6-6 with a 3.09 ERA. He was, without question, the ace of that staff. Vida Blue was at the top of his game in this period.
In 1976, he was coming off a season in which he won 22 games. He was a three time 20-game winner at that point. He was one of the best. In 1971, he was the league’s Most Valuable Player.
From the Yankees’ standpoint, if they were getting Vida Blue, they probably didn’t need some of the players they sent to Baltimore. Taken in context, acquiring Vida Blue makes it easier to understand the trade with the Orioles.
It is essential, critical, to understand that the trade with the Orioles was made AFTER the Yankees had acquired Vida Blue.
And, in the trade with the Orioles, the Yankees acquired Ken Holtzman who had been teammates with Blue and current Yankee Catfish Hunter. The Orioles trade would have reunited the three pitchers who helped bring the A’s their three championships.
As the NY Daily News reported:
“Yankee president Gabe Paul… warmed up for the multi-player exchange by purchasing Vida Blue from the A’s earlier in the night.”
The Daily News also reported that the Yankees players “unanimously favored Blue’s acquisition.”
But, within two days, the commissioner vetoed the deal and Blue was returned to the A’s.
The commissioner vetoed the Yankees first deal, but then allowed the deal they had made after that deal, and because of that deal, to stand.
The Yankees were obviously incensed.
Looking back, it is amazing that the commissioner did this in such a fashion. If he nixed the acquisition of Blue, he should have also cancelled the trade with the Orioles that came only because of the Vida Blue deal.
As Billy Martin (the Yankees manager) stated (as reported in the June 19, 1976 NY Daily News):
“We made the Oriole deal contingent on having gotten Blue.”
All these years later, that disastrous trade with the Orioles finally makes sense.
At the time of that trade, in 1976, I was seven years old and cared more about toy cars than baseball. I had not yet fallen in love with baseball and the New York Yankees. I knew nothing about any of this and wouldn’t have cared.
Over the years, I learned about the trade with the Orioles and the vetoed purchase of Vida Blue, I just never knew, until I did this research, that the Orioles trade came only because of the Vida Blue deal. In this context, it makes more sense. A lot more sense.
The Orioles deal allowed the Yankees to build a pitching staff that consisted of the great A’s pitchers.
Of course, without Vida Blue, the Yankees still won the American League pennant in 1976 and then (with the acquisition of another of those former A’s, Reggie Jackson) they won World Series in 1977 and 1978.
So, somehow it still all worked out for the Yankees.
But still, one has to wonder what might have been…