Let’s begin this look back at perhaps the most famous (or infamous) age-related trade in baseball history with a simple point: the decline phase is real. Both analytical data and just plain common sense dictates that players become less productive as they get older, and this logic has been the backbone of countless transactions over the decades. We see several examples every year of teams being willing to invest in younger free agents, or being willing to give up more in a trade for a younger player (who, in most cases, also comes with more years of team control), while also being less willing to surrender trade assets or big free agent dollars for players in their 30’s, out of a fear that those players might quickly hit the wall.
So in this sense, Reds owner/GM Bill DeWitt wasn’t entirely off the mark by deciding to trade Frank Robinson to the Orioles for a three-player package back on December 9, 1965. It’s always better to move a player a year too early than a year too late, and since Baltimore was willing to give up a promising 26-year-old right-hander in Milt Pappas as the headliner of the trade return, DeWitt felt it was a swap worth making.
Pappas was coming off an All-Star season in 1965, the second time the Detroit native had been named to the Midsummer Classic in a four-season span. Despite his still-young age, Pappas was already a veteran of nine MLB seasons, with an impressive 3.24 ERA (113 ERA+) to show for his 1632 career innings. He was the type of arm that seemingly promised an immediate rotation upgrade, and the inclusion of veteran righty reliever Jack Baldschun only made the deal more tempting for the Reds. Cincinnati pitchers had a cumulative 3.88 ERA in 1965, ranking the Reds 16th out of the 20 Major League teams.
And thus, the O’s sent Pappas, Baldschun, and 21-year-old outfielder Dick Simpson to Cincinnati for Robinson. It was a classic pitching-for-hitting type of swap that saw both teams deal from a surplus in order to address a need, and on paper, the trade made some sense.
In practice, no discussion of baseball’s most lopsided deals is complete without mention of this trade, which ended up sparking a golden age of Orioles baseball. The thing about baseball’s aging curve is that those who can defy it tend to defy it in a very big way — great players are defined, after all, by sustaining that greatness over an extended period of time. Any player can have one big season or even several big seasons, but those who can keep that production up across the decades are the ones that truly stand out as all-time legends.
Case in point, Frank Robinson, who was a superstar from essentially day one. Robinson won NL Rookie Of The Year honors in 1956 and also finished seventh in NL MVP voting in his first season, kicking off a dominant ten-year run in Cincinnati. Over 1502 games and 6408 plate appearances from 1956-65, Robinson hit .303/.389/.554 with 324 home runs, making eight All-Star appearances and winning the NL MVP Award in 1961 (a year that saw the Reds win the NL pennant).
There wasn’t much evidence that Robinson was slowing down in 1965, though the slugger did turn 30 years old that August. This detail is maybe the key factor in why this trade is so memorable over 54 years later. Asked why he dealt one of baseball’s best hitters, DeWitt described Robinson as either “an old 30” or “not a young 30,” depending on the source.
Naturally, trading Frank Robinson for any reason wouldn’t have been a fond memory for Reds fans regardless of the specific details. But DeWitt’s mention of Robinson’s age created an easy hook for both the media and maybe even for Robinson himself, who by all accounts was very motivated to prove that the Reds erred in trading him.
That motivation led to Robinson’s 1966 campaign, one of more wall-to-wall dominant seasons any player has ever enjoyed. Robinson won the Triple Crown (49 homers, 122 RBI, .316 average) while also leading the AL in runs (122), OBP (.410) and slugging percentage (.637) for good measure. He proceeded to post a 1.232 OPS in the World Series, leading to Series MVP honors as the Orioles won the first World Series championship in franchise history. As you might expect, Robinson was named AL MVP, making him the first and still only player to ever win MVP honors in both the American and National Leagues.
Robinson hit .301/.401/.543 with 179 homers over his six seasons in Baltimore. This was good for a 169 OPS+, which topped his 150 OPS+ during his previous decade in a Reds uniform. The Orioles reached the World Series four times in Robinson’s six years on the roster, winning another championship in 1970. Ultimately, Robinson didn’t start to slow down at the plate until 1976, his 21st and final season.
As any Reds fan can sadly recount, Cincinnati’s end of the trade didn’t work out nearly as well. Baldschun and Simpson didn’t contribute much over two seasons with the Reds and both didn’t play in the majors after 1970. While Pappas only posted a 4.04 ERA over 490 innings for the Reds before being dealt to the Braves in June 1968, it’s unfair to label him as a bust — it’s just that anything short of Cy Young-level performance would have paled in comparison to Robinson’s Orioles dominance. Pappas went on to pitch eight more seasons in the big leagues, with a 3.57 ERA that represented only a relatively minor step back from his heyday in Baltimore.
The Reds struggled to a 76-84 record in 1966, and DeWitt both stepped down from the GM role and sold the club during the offseason. Though DeWitt had a long career as an executive that included two pennant winners (the 1961 Reds and the 1944 St. Louis Browns — ironically, the franchise that would later become the Orioles), the Robinson trade is the move that DeWitt is most remembered for today, in large part because of his “not a young 30” quote.
The deal has become maybe the all-time cautionary tale for any team thinking about moving an aging but still-productive star. Though there are far more examples of teams either correctly parting ways with a player before their eventual decline, or (by contrast) hanging onto a star player too long and watching him decline on their watch, no GM wants to be the one responsible for trading away a legend. Father Time may not undefeated, as the saying goes, though Robinson put up as good of a battle against the aging curve as any just about any player in any sport.