Who bested whom in the Red Sox-Dodgers mega-trade? We’ll know in about five years

There is nothing like a trade, especially in baseball. Every kid perfects the delicate art in childhood with the wheeling and dealing of bubblegum cards. For baseball writers, conjuring deals — 99 percent of which never happen—is a cottage industry. For radio talk shows, it’s alternately their essence and lifeblood.

To be a true follower of this lovely game is to believe in your heart of hearts that on any given day you could outwit Theo Epstein, Branch Rickey, or even Frank “Trader” Lane.

So when a truly epic deal goes down like this off-the-wall opus lately concocted in a fit of manic excess by the Dodgers and Red Sox, the buzz is deafening. It is a thing of beauty that could only have been arranged in talk-show heaven. Although if that redoubtable get-a-lifer, Horace from Wakefield, had proposed such a mindless trade to The Big Show a couple of weeks ago, Glen Ordway and his WEEI sidekicks would have buried the poor fool in a landslide of mockery, scorn, and derision.

And with good reason! For such a deal is quite preposterous and there’s no way it could fly. But it did.

It tends to verify the time-honored cliché that governs the process avowing that the best trades are the ones that help both teams while the most memorable are those that make no sense. Both the Red Sox and Dodgers had a unique set of needs and circumstances unlike anything either had experienced in their long and storied histories. All of which made perfect sense out of a proposition that would otherwise have been utterly unthinkable.

So who got the best of this deal? It’s the question now burning up the air waves and searing the sports pages and it’s utterly unanswerable, at least at the moment, which does not mean a great many savants are not about to make bloody fools of themselves with rash judgments and lofty predictions.

The yahoos of Red Sox Nation chortle over the Dodgers’ seeming stupidity in being willing to absorb a staggering $265 million in dead contract money, more than half of it for that alleged has-been, Mr. Beckett, and the badly damaged goods, Mr. Crawford. But if money is no object, as the new hedge fund owners of the Dodgers airily profess, then that price is trifling. Always bear in mind that everything is relative.

But what about those wonderful prospects that Boston’s suddenly so clever brain trust weaseled out of the bird-brains of La La Land?
Of little meaning until proven otherwise, says I. Save for the star power of Hollywood ingénues and the wisdom of presidential candidates, there’s nothing harder to guarantee than the ultimate value of baseball prospects. They say the two pitching-prizes coming here throw upwards to 97 mph. “Big deal!” Every meatball in the Cleveland Indians bullpen throws 97. Moreover, one of those kids is just months removed from major nerve transplant surgery and the other has a 6-8 record in Chattanooga. Where kid hurlers are concerned, I’m from Missouri. The last “can’t-miss pitching prospect” I fell for was Ken Brett, 45 years ago.

The importance of this deal and the determination of who hornswaggled whom will not be decided until we see what the Red Sox do with the quarter of a billion bucks they have saved in the salary they believed would otherwise have been misspent. If they replace the deadwood they are jettisoning with more of the same, it will not be a wash; it will be a disaster.

In the meantime, how well the Dodgers do with said “deadwood”—very much including Mr. Gonzalez, the true-blue Californian they so long coveted—will also be a factor in the ultimate determination. We should have the final answer in about five years.

Where does this caper rank in the convoluted annals of Red Sox wheeling and dealing? Now that is the question. Because monumental trades and how they’ve been orchestrated and why they were done and what impact they’ve had form a rich sub-plot of Red Sox history. All teams make deals and those with long histories have all had many to either brag about or regret. But no team has engaged in more that have been downright transformative, even historic.

The comparisons of the latest blockbuster with the seismic sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 were inevitable though, if not unreasonable, rather too glib. The Ruth deal for a reported $125,000 (probably more) plus grossly unethical loans secured by real estate (worth more than $300,000) was in a class by itself, simply unique. It was no mere baseball trade but rather a transfer of corporate assets to fund and promote larger corporate endeavors which would never be allowed today. In fact, it would have been shot down just months later when Kenesaw Mountain Landis became commissioner. It was ridiculous.

But all of Harry Frazee’s other astounding sell-offs qualify as trades and without exception they really stunk. Departing in less than three years—mainly to the Yanks—were Carl Mays, “Sad Sam” Jones, Harry Hooper, Larry Gardner, Wally Schang, Waite Hoyt, Herbie Pennock, Roger Peckinpaugh, “Jumping Joe” Dugan, Joe Bush, Everett Scott, to name only the more distinguished. In return came a few worthy lads: a stray Stuffy McInnis, Muddy Ruel, or Howard Ehmke plus a battalion of cast-off mediocrities plus, of course, the cash; bundles of cash.

Frazee’s duplicity, however, was not unprecedented. In 1916, his predecessor, Joe Lannin, peddled an even bigger star at the time, Tris Speaker, to the Indians for 50 grand and the decent pitcher Sam Jones. As in the Ruth case, a personality clash, contract demands, and business pressures provoked the deal. Months later “Smokey Joe” Wood was also sold to Cleveland.

It’s interesting to consider that ownership’s motivation for all those deals roughly a century ago is pretty much the same as the motivation of the owners today. Times have changed. The rules are different. So are the circumstances. But then as now, the owners had varied interests complicating the scenario. Lannin was in real estate. Frazee was in show business. John Henry is a hedge fund guy also deeply into soccer. Each in his way is moved to cut losses, curb expenses, slash salary, tighten the budget; normal behavior for all corporate heavy hitters.

The rascal Frazee, of course, had no intention of rebuilding whereas Henry pledges he will. We’ll see how that works out. In the meantime, it’s interesting to note that history is to some degree repeating itself, although doubtless that mere suggestion, and with it the odious comparison to the likes of Frazee, will make John Henry blush.
Embellishing the point is the fact that through the rest of their rollicking history, save for the impoverished ownership of Bob Quinn (1923-1933), the Red Sox have always been very heavy-handed buyers and almost never sellers.

It has been a policy stunningly initiated in the ‘30s when Tom Yawkey, to whom money was no object, eagerly preyed upon Depression-ravaged franchises, mainly in Philadelphia and Washington, to snare expensive mega-stars Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Joe Cronin, Wes and Rick Ferrell, Roger Cramer, Rube Walberg, Pinky Higgins, Bobo Newsom, Ben Chapman, and Heinie Manush for large amounts of cash plus the usual cast-offs.
After WWII, Yawkey and Joe Cronin raised the tactic to new heights with the near moribund Browns as their pigeon. In two separate deals in an astounding three-day binge the week before Thanksgiving of 1947, they sent eight spare parts—not a one of them either a regular  or a promising prospect—to the poor Browns for all-stars Vern Stephens, Ellis Kinder, and Jack Kramer plus Battling Billy Hitchcock. Just how much cash also went to St. Louis was never clarified. Reputedly it was more than $300,000, but it may have been more like $600,000, a staggering sum back then.

Old Tom didn’t like to boast. Moreover, it was bad for business, only further agitating his lodge brothers many of whom no doubt thought he was nuts. They say times have changed. But may I suggest not that much!