On the Genealogy of Trades, Part I

Back in the day, minor-league teams used to make their own trades. (via Jason Prickett)

Back in the day, minor-league teams used to make their own trades. (via Jason Prickett)

Remember the old joke about the Unitarian who dies and on the way to heaven comes to a fork in the road? Pointing to the left, a sign says, “Heaven.” Pointing to the right, another sign says, “A Discussion about Heaven.” Merrily, he turns right.

I feel the same way about baseball. I would happily attend a game, and if pressed would watch one on television or listen to one on the radio, but my baseball heaven is a discussion of baseball. In particular, I like to sit around the hot stove that is the Internet and discuss trades. Who got the better of the Oakland-Toronto deal this past offseason? Did the Braves get enough out of the Cardinals for Jason Heyward? Do the Padres regret that Matt Kemp trade yet? Who won in the short run? Who in the long run?

I bring a similar fascination to baseball history. In 1926, should the St. Louis Cardinals have traded Rogers Hornsby to the New York Giants for Frankie Frisch? In 1965, should the Cincinnati Reds have swapped Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas and some spare parts? If they had it to do over, would the Tigers send a young John Smoltz to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for veteran Doyle Alexander, even though without Alexander they may not have won their division that year?

As fascinating as such discussions are, they take for granted that teams can trade players, more or less whenever they like, and to whichever team they like. It was not always so. In the coming weeks, I propose to examine the history of trades in major league baseball, mostly as an excuse to ask and answer the sorts of questions I pose above, but also to sketch an anatomy of trades. Do trades clump together into certain types? If so, what kinds of trades have occurred most often? Do certain kinds of trades tend to favor one side over the other?

Before we try to find a structure of trades, though, it pays to pause and consider something like the structure of the structure of trades. In other words, how do rules and rule changes affect the sorts of trades that teams have made? What are the rules of the game? Happily enough for us baseball Unitarians, that question about the relationship between trades and rules can be answered by discussing trades. In this installment, I discuss how it came to pass that while my dean cannot trade me to another university for a more accomplished scholar, perhaps one who does not spend his free time writing about baseball trades, baseball teams can swap players like horses. That peculiarity of labor relations has a history. We start with a humble toad.

Trade No. 1: Aug. 29, 1885. Louisville Colonels traded John Connor and $750 to Chattanooga (Southern) in exchange for Toad Ramsey.

According to the Retrosheet database, starting pitcher Thomas “Toad” Ramsey was involved in the first trade in baseball history, which occurred on Aug. 29, 1885 between the Louisville Colonels of the American Association, then a rival major league to the more established National League, and the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern League, a minor league. In the trade, the Chattanooga Lookouts sent 20-year-old Ramsey to the Louisville Colonels for 23-year-old pitcher John Connor.

The Colonels’ John Connor did not have a distinguished career. (This was before he saved mankind from the rise of the machines.) Connor had broken in with the Boston Beaneaters of the National League in 1884. He did not really impress anyone in his seven starts that year, and he drifted to the Buffalo Bisons of the National League for the 1885 season. He  appeared in only one game with the Bisons before signing with the Colonels of the American Association and making four starts for them. In late August of 1885, the Colonels welcomed him to town by shipping him to Chattanooga, where he made three starts. The next year, 1886, he found himself in another minor league, the New England League, playing for the Brockton Shoemakers. After a lackluster year with the Shoemakers, he walks out of recorded baseball history.

Belying his nickname, “Toad” Ramsey had a more noteworthy, albeit still brief, career. In his first season of professional baseball in 1885, Ramsey pitched well for the Chattanooga Lookouts. After joining the Colonels in the August trade for Connor, he made nine starts and impressed manager Jim Hart enough to become the Colonels ace in 1886. That year, Ramsey started—no kidding—67 times and pitched 588.2 innings. (Back then, pitchers stood from 45 to 50 feet from home plate instead of 60 feet, but I think we can agree that 588 innings is a lot from any distance.)

The next year, Ramsey’s workload was lightened: he started only 64 games and pitched just 561 innings. By WAR, Ramsey was the best pitcher in the American Association in 1886, and the fourth best in 1887. In 1888, he pitched about the same as he had the previous two years, but because offense declined overall by over a run, his performance looked worse relative to the rest of the league. It was the beginning of the end.

Stop for a moment, though, to think about this 1885 trade. It may seem unusual that the first trade in major league baseball history did not involve two major league teams but one major league team and a minor league one. Given the state of the game, though, it makes perfect sense. On the one hand, until the 1930s or so, minor league teams were not affiliates of major league teams but independent, autonomous teams unto themselves. They too could trade players. After all, in many cases, they had signed them. On the other hand, in the years before the reserve clause, trades between major league teams were complicated, risky, and, therefore, extremely rare. By comparison, trades between a major and a minor league team faced a smoother path.

In 1885, the reserve clause was less like a clause in every player contract and more like a conspiracy between every team owner. Unless a player was one of the most talented (that is “reserved”) players in the league, he could move between teams and leagues more or less at will. (In 1879, teams could reserve five of their players; in 1883, 1886, and 1887, that number went up to 11, 12 and 14, respectively; shortly thereafter, the reserve clause appeared in every contract a player signed.)  (That is why John Connor could “drift” from Boston to Buffalo in time for the 1885 season and then on to Louisville after that.)

The lack of a fully functional reserve clause also meant that a player could not be traded unless he wanted to be traded. Or, he could be traded, but, as we shall see in a moment, he did not have to report to the team he was traded to. If he wanted to sign elsewhere, so be it. In effect, this meant that players had de facto no-trade clauses. As a result, at least until 1890 or so, the only players who could be traded were players who agreed to be traded.

Although we cannot know for sure, in the case of Ramsey and Connor, both players evidently agreed to the trade because it was in their interest to be traded. Based on his performance in Chattanooga in the first half of 1885, Ramsey had talent, and since minor league teams did not have any reserve rights over their players whatsoever, it would not have been long before a major league team swooped in and signed him away from the Lookouts. Ramsey agreed to the trade because it put him in the major leagues with a team that he knew wanted him.

Connor, on the other hand, did not have talent, or much talent, and he was not long for the major leagues. In all likelihood, he accepted the trade because he knew he would wind up in the minors sooner or later and Chattanooga was as good a place as any. (By the way, trades like Ramsey for Connor, in which a young player headed for the major leagues was swapped for major-league players who probably belonged in the minor leagues, continued to happen for several decades. As late as 1934, the Yankees sent Doc Farrell, Floyd Newkirk, two young players whom they had signed as amateurs, and $5,000 to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League for Joe DiMaggio. The Yankees kept DiMaggio in San Francisco for another year, during which he hit .398 with 34 home runs, before bringing him to New York in 1935.)

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Trade No. 2: Nov. 12, 1886. Cincinnati Reds traded Jack Boyle and $350 to St. Louis Browns in exchange for Hugh Nicol.

By contrast, consider the first trade between two major league teams, which occurred 15 months after the Ramsey-Connor trade, just after the 1886 season. In that trade, the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the American Association traded catcher “Honest” Jack Boyle to the St. Louis Browns, also of the American Association, for outfielder Hugh Nicol.

At the time of the trade, Boyle was just starting his career, while Nicol feared he could see the end of his. In 1886, Boyle broke into the big leagues with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, although broke in does not quite describe his role with the Red Stockings since he played exactly one game for them. After the season, he was too new to be considered broken in. Even so, Boyle had promise, even if, for the moment, the Reds liked another  young catcher, Kid Baldwin, better.

Nicol, meanwhile, had had two passable years with the Browns ever since the Chicago Cubs (then, confusingly, the White Stockings) had sold him to St. Louis before the 1883 season. In 1885, though, Nicol, entering his prime, was terrible, and in 1886 he lost his starting job to two pitchers—Dave Foutz and Bob Carouthers—who played the field on their days off the mound.

After the 1886 season, the Browns sold low on Nicol, bringing back Boyle. As with the first trade in major league baseball history, Ramsey for Connor, this trade occurred because both players stood to gain from it. Boyle took over the starting job at catcher for the powerhouse Browns, the dominant team of the American Association in the latter half of the 1880s, and Nicol started in the outfield for Cincinnati, where he continued to suck, but at least he could suck more often.

Even though both players stood to gain from the trade, the intrigues required to pull it off still astound. In his invaluable book A Game of Inches, Peter Morris describes some of them:

Cincinnati manager Gus Schmelz explained that he gave St. Louis owner Chris Von der Ahe a document reading, “I hereby agree to pay $350 and Catcher Boyle for the release of Hugh Nicol, conditional on Nicol’s signing with the Cincinnati B.B. Club. Von der Ahe gave him a similar document, and both were then presented to league president Wheeler C. Wikoff, who agreed not to approve the two players’ releases until they had been signed by their new clubs. Schmelz then instructed Cincinnati president Aaron Stern not to mention the arrangement until he had secured Nicol’s signature, before rushing to the player’s hometown of Rockford to sign him.

Why all of this legalese, collusion, and rushing about? Because teams did not own their players in the sense that they do today; they could not simply transfer their contracts to another team. Indeed, players were not so much traded as they were released and then signed to the team they had been “traded” to. But if players were released, then they were free to sign with whomever they pleased. In 1886, before the reserve clause tied players to their teams, players could not be swapped like cattle, and so executives had to go flitting about the country like flies. Soon, however, as another trade involving, yes, “Toad” Ramsey shows, all that would soon end.

Trade No. 3: July 17, 1889. Louisville Colonels traded Toad Ramsey to St. Louis Browns in exchange for Nat Hudson; Nat Hudson failed to report to Louisville Colonels.

After his middling year for the Colonels in 1888, Ramsey started the 1889 season by making eight atrocious starts, and he was again traded, this time to the, relatively speaking, wheeling and dealing St. Louis Browns. Ramsey was traded for Nat Hudson, the 20-year-old pitcher who, after two decent years with the Browns, had also begun the 1889 season by pitching poorly.

This trade may have been the very first change-of-scenery trades, when teams swap players in the hopes that, like houseplants or marriages, they might thrive elsewhere. For Ramsey, the change of scenery worked, for a while anyway. He languished through the rest of the 1889 season, but in 1890 he was the Browns’ second best pitcher. Despite this performance, the Browns released him following the 1890 season, replacing him with young Clark Griffith, who eventually turned into a very good pitcher with the Chicago Cubs (then the Colts), White Sox and Yankees. Ramsey, however, dropped out of major league baseball and spent his last four years in the minors.

In Hudson’s case, the change of scenery did not work since Hudson declined to change scenes. He refused to report to Louisville. Unlike Ramsey in 1885, though, Hudson in 1889 could not sign where he pleased. In the intervening years, the reserve clause had expanded and would soon be inserted into every contract major league players signed. Thus, even though they could not produce him, the Colonels still “owned”—that is, had reserved—Hudson. A month later, they sold him to the Minneapolis Millers of the Western Association for $1,000. He played another year for Minneapolis before retiring from baseball for good at the young age of 22.

Trade No. 4: March 11, 1893. New York Giants traded Jack Boyle, Jack Sharrott and cash to Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Roger Connor.

Compare the Nat Hudson trade to another trade, one of the first involving a Hall of Famer, Roger Connor, and the bad penny of 19th century trades, “Honest” Jack Boyle. (In 1892, Boyle had jumped from the Browns of the American Association to the Giants of the National League—one of the few ways players could sidestep the reserve clause.) Connor stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 220 pounds—for the time, an absolute giant. (Hence the eventual nickname of the New York team of the National League he joined in 1883.) One of the first slugging first basemen, Connor held the career home run record for 25 years until Babe Ruth broke it in 1921.

After the 1891 season, Connor jumped from the New York Giants of the National League to the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association. Before he could swat a single home run, though, the league folded, and the 34-year-old slugger was assigned to the Philadelphia Phillies of the National League. After a year with the Phillies, he was traded back to the Giants for the forgettable Jack Sharrott and the now 27-year-old Jack Boyle, who, it was hoped, after a truly horrible year for the Giants in 1892—he was roughly two wins worse than a replacement player in 476 plate appearances—would benefit from a change of scenery. He did not.

In any case, what is unusual about this trade is just how usual it is. Two major league teams, no conniving team officials, no complicit league presidents, no rushing about the country to sign a precariously released player; and both players reporting where they should. No muss, no fuss, you go where you’re told.

Of course, players could always threaten to retire rather than report to their new team—as Clark Griffith said he would do after the 1899 season if the Chicago Cubs (then Orphans) traded him—but that was a pyrrhic victory at best. By this point in league history, especially after the experiment with a Players League in 1890 had failed, the reserve clause had taken over. Teams could now do with players what they wished, including trade them pretty much any time they wished, and to whomever they wished. It would not take long, though, for owners, like Dr. Frankenstein, to realize that they had created a monster. In subsequent decades, they sought to constrain that monster, which I will explore in Part II.

John Marsh is Associate Professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book is In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself.
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Great article. Thank you for writing and sharing. Looking forward to Part II.

gary lester
gary lester

Ditto, looking forward to more on the subject of trades

Paul G.
Paul G.

Very interesting.

Do note that minor league records from the 19th century are incomplete. It’s possible that someone like Nat Hudson could have played longer but we just don’t know. Unless you know something.

Kahuna Tuna
Kahuna Tuna

Can’t tell you how much I love Toad Ramsey’s being the subject of the first trades in baseball history! I have something of a personal historical connection with him: like Ramsey I was a left-handed pitcher (peaked in Little League, I’m afraid), and he was born exactly one century before me. Connections be hanged, though—his nickname was “Toad”!