The 1970s Baseball March 2019 Newsletter examines 17 of the most impactful trades of the decade. The following in an excerpt from the Newsletter.
It was an active off-season around the major leagues with many players switching teams via trade or free agency. In some cases a new face or two can have a great impact on a franchise.
Looking back into the 1970s, we examine some of the biggest deals of the decade. No trade was more impactful than when the Cincinnati Reds sent first baseman Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms, and outfielder Jim Stewart to the Houston Astros in exchange for second baseman Joe Morgan, pitcher Jack Billingham, outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister, and infielder Denis Menke on November 29, 1971.
The Big Red Machine dominated the National League in 1970, only to slump to fourth place the following year. Many Reds players had down years, including defending NL stolen base champ Bobby Tolan, who missed the entire season after tearing his Achilles playing basketball in the off-season.
The trade was a gamble for Cincinnati.
May had hit 111 home runs in the past three years, and was the club’s leading home run hitter in three of the past four seasons. Houston was gaining Cincinnati’s best power hitter, plus a two-time Gold Glove second baseman in Helms.
Morgan was coming off a .256 season and Billingham had gone 10-16 for the Astros in 1971. Reds’ fans howled in disgust at the swap, some hoping maybe the ‘Cesar’ they also acquired was Cedeno instead of the unknown Geronimo.
Morgan supplied badly needed team speed at the top of the lineup for the Reds, stealing 58 bases while leading the league with 122 runs scored, 115 walks, and a .417 on-base % to go with a .292 batting average. Moving May opened up first base for Tony Perez, while Menke took over for Perez at third. Cincinnati won another pennant in 1972.
May brought a consistent power bat to Houston, helping the club to 84 wins in 1972, the most in team history, and led the team in homers in both ’72 and ’73. In his three years in Houston he batted .274 with 81 home runs and 81 doubles, outstanding figures for anyone playing half their games in the cavernous Astrodome. Helms also gave Houston three solid seasons, hitting as high as .287 in 1973.
In the long run though, the deal was a landslide win for the Reds.
After going 12-12 in 1972, Billingham became Cincinnati’s ace. He won 19 games the next two seasons, while leading the National League with 7 shutouts in 1973, and was 87-63 in six years, not counting a 2-1 mark with a save and a 1.93 ERA over 10 post-season outings.
Geronimo eventually took over for Tolan in center field, and developed into a four-time Gold Glover. He batted .281 in 1974 and .307 in 1976 as the Reds’ 8th place hitter.
Menke, a former two-time All-Star, was at the end of his career with the Reds and never filled the void at third base. He held the position along with Dan Driessen until Cincinnati eventually moved Pete Rose in from left field, opening up a lineup spot for George Foster.
The key to the deal for the Reds was of course Morgan, who was an All-Star in all of his eight seasons in Cincinnati, batting .288 in that time with 406 stolen bases, 816 runs scored and four on-base percentage titles. Joe proved to be far more than a speedster, eventually moving to the third spot in the batting order, hitting 152 homers and 220 doubles over that time. He drove in 94 and then 111 runs and won NL MVP awards in both of the Reds’ World Championship years of 1975 and 1976, plus five Gold Gloves, cementing his status as the decade’s best second basemen, and eventual Hall of Fame enshrinement.
To read about all of the 17 most impactful trades of the decade, plus a look back on the decade’s top free agents, greatest rivalries, Tom Seaver memories, and more, you can order the 1970s Baseball March 2019 Newsletter, in pdf format, for just $2.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His most recent book, 1970s All-Star Baseball: A History of the Decade’s All-Star Games can be found on Amazon:
His bestselling 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: