One of my favorite parts of Ken Burns' The Tenth Inning was the reminder of just how talented Bobby Bonds was. The 461 stolen bases and 332 home runs are really only part of the story. Bonds was also a three-time Gold Glove winner who posted a career OPS+ of 129; his era and ballparks depressed his raw hitting stats significantly.
But Bonds' abrasive personality and personal problems led to six trades in five years. Despite this propensity for getting dealt, Bonds brought back interesting talent in return each of the six times. Let's take a closer look at just who won each of these trades.
The San Francisco Giants signed Bonds as an amateur free agent in 1964, one year before the institution of the amateur draft. He quickly climbed the organizational ladder, and in 349 plate appearances as a rookie in 1968, hit .254/.336/.407. Not impressive, right? Wrong. This was 1968; those totals meant Bonds posed an OPS+ of 122. He wouldn't drop below an OPS+ of 116 until 1980.
But despite seven seasons, 186 home runs, and an OPS+ of 131 over those seven years, the Giants decided to trade Bonds following his age-28 season. The New York Yankees acquired him on October 22, 1974 in a challenge trade for Bobby Murcer. It is hard to determine who won this trade. Bonds certainly outperformed Murcer on the field in 1975, with an OPS+ edge of 151 to 127, and a home run edge of 32 to 11. But Bonds spent just the year in New York, while Murcer played two with the Giants.
By December 11, 1975, the Yankees were ready to unload Bonds, so they sent him to the California Angels for Ed Figueroa and Mickey Rivers. This time, the return for Bonds was even greater than from the first trade. Bonds played in just 99 games in 1976, then rallied for 37 home runs in a dominant 1977. But the Yankees got terrific work out of Figueroa and Rivers, with the former providing 749 innings of 115 ERA+ pitching in 1976-1978 alone, and Rivers posting a solid 110 OPS+ in three-plus years in pinstripes.
Again, from numbers alone, it is startling that Bonds was on the move again following the 1977 season. But the Angels shipped him on December 5, 1977, along with Thad Bosley and Richard Dotson, to the Chicago White Sox for Brian Downing, Dave Frost and Chris Knapp. Though few would have predicted it, Bonds was an afterthought in this trade in retrospect. He lasted just a few months with his new team, with Dotson providing 1,603 innings at 103 ERA+ over the next decade and Bosley setttling in for a long career as a reserve outfielder. As for the return, both Frost and Knapp provided one strong season as a starting pitcher. Meanwhile, Downing became a dominant catcher/outfielder, posting a 126 OPS+ over the next 13 seasons for California.
Bonds, as previously stated, wore out his welcome with the White Sox by mid-May. One would think he'd be dealt for pennies on the dollar, but the May 16, 1978 trade with the Texas Rangers netted Chicago Rusty Torres and Claudell Washington. Torres was a valuable reserve outfielder, while Washington, just 23, had another dozen years at 108 OPS+ ahead of him. Bonds had started slowly in Chicago, but his .265/.356/.497 mark in Texas made for a solid 138 OPS+ in 1978.
Despite his big season, Bonds wasn't in Texas for long. You guessed it, he was promptly traded on October 3, 1978, along with starting pitcher Len Barker, for Cleveland's Larvell Blanks and Jim Kern. Cleveland got pretty decent return on this deal, with Bonds providing his final Bonds-like season at age-33: .275/.367/.463 in that cavernous Municipal Stadium, good for an OPS+ of 122. Barker also pitched reasonably well, giving Cleveland 932.1 innings of 95 ERA+ pitching over five seasons. (He then netted them Brett Butler and Brook Jacoby in a deal with Atlanta). Blanks performed as usual, a middling middle infielder, and Kern had one of the great one-year wonder seasons in 1979: 13 wins, 29 saves and a 1.57 ERA.
Perhaps stung by precious Jim Kern memories, the Indians decided to trade Bobby Bonds as well, sending him to St. Louis on December 7, 1979 for John Denny and Jerry Mumphrey. By now, the magic around Bonds-based trades had worn off. Bonds was terrible in St. Louis, hitting .203/.305/.316. Denny won an ERA title in 1976 for the Cardinals, and the Cy Young Award in 1983 for the Phillies, but he posted three decidedly mediocre seasons for Cleveland in between. And Mumphrey never even played for the Indians (the Padres acquired him two months later).
There's almost a visceral sadness in reading the career numbers and journey of Bobby Bonds. Clearly one of the best players not in the Hall of Fame, it is easy to imagine a happier Bonds easily reaching that honor. Saddest of all, he's doomed to be largely forgotten by history as well, overshadowed by his son.