Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Danny O'Connell Deal

Hey, you think that dumping talent for a boatload of prospects and a little loose cash is a recent Bucco phenomena? Heck, the Pirates have been masters of the art for decades. In fact, they pulled the trigger on just such a deal 54 years ago to this day, on December 28th, 1954. Here's an excerpt from the 1954 Street and Smith Baseball Yearbook:

There's nothing but trouble ahead for the Pirates in '54. Last year, they peddled the long-time Forbes Field favorite, Ralph Kiner. Pressed for cash after a $325,000 deficit in 1953, the Pirates sent another star, Danny O'Connell, to the Milwaukee Braves for six players and financial balm estimated as high as $100,000. Though owned by wealthy people, including John Galbreath and Bing Crosby, the Pirates aren't throwing money around.

For O'Connell, Branch Rickey obtained three veterans and three rookies. The established players were Pitcher Max Surkont, Outfielder Sid Gordon, ticketed for third base, and Sam Jethroe, an outfielder Rickey originally sold to the Braves. The freshmen pitchers are Larry Lasalle, a southpaw who won 19 and lost 5 for Jacksonville; Fred Waters, 10-10 lefty at Lincoln, Neb.; and Curtis Raydon, also from Jacksonville. Rickey called it a long range deal. Fred Haney, his manager, wasn't quoted.

Another estimated $80,000 came rolling in when the tailenders dispatched 37-year-old Pitcher Murry Dickson to the Phillies, who also gave up an infielder and a pitcher in the transaction.

Sound vaguely familiar? While the deal ended up being no great shakes for either side, it sure gives some insight to the Pirate dilemma over the years, a budget that emphasized quantity over quality. Everything old is new again.

O'Connell was 26 when he was traded after hitting .292 and .294 in his first two season for the Bucs. He was speedy and flashy in the field, carving out a 10 year career in the bigs with a lifetime batting average of .260. O'Connell played until 1962, when he died in a car accident.

The Bucs thought that O'Connell was replaceable because they had Curt Roberts and Johnny O'Brien waiting in the wings. Neither would ever amount to much, though they did sign his eventual heir in 1954, a high school kid from West Virginia - Billy Mazeroski. Better to be lucky than good sometimes, hey?

The Pittsburgh return? Joe Gordon had a good year, hitting .306 in 1954, but faded badly in '55 and was out of baseball by 1956. Max Surkont pitched two season for the Pirates, going 16-32 with ERAs of 4.41 and 5.57. He outlasted Gordon by a year, retiring in 1957. Sam Jethroe saw the handwriting on the wall. After taking one at bat for his new squad, he hung 'em up for good in 1954. So much for vets filling the holes.

The prospects? Fred Waters was the first to hit the bigs. He pitched in 1955 and '56, and did OK, compiling a 2-2 record and ERAs of 3.62 and 2.82. But those would be his only years in MLB. Curt Raydon made to Forbes Field in 1958, and went 8-4 with a 3.62 ERA in his only season in the show. That beat Larry Lasalle's track record - he never made it out of the bushes.

What happened to Waters and Raydon? Hard to tell. They both pitched well in their brief stints, although Waters was a true wild child, walking 32 and only striking out 14 in 56 innings of work, so its likely his lack of command cost him a MLB slot.

Raydon was 24 when he dropped off the face of the earth, but as late as 1960 he was still considered a hot prospect. It's speculated he suffered some kind of injury, but until we hit the newspaper morgue - and don't hold your breath waiting on that - it is just that, speculation. At any rate, he left baseball to become a cop.

The Brave's thought they had their second baseman of the future. The Pirates got a couple of bucks and some young arms that didn't pan out. Such is the risk of blowing up a team by dumping the vets, a gamble taken on both sides of the divide.

The kicker? GM Branch Rickey, as related in Andrew O'Toole's book Branch Rickey In Pittsburgh, said he could have had Henry Aaron straight up for O'Connell.

Roberto Clemente and Hammerin' Hank in the same outfield, with Billy Virdon between them? We can only dream.

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