Sports Extra with Dave Ross: 1971: The trade that almost wasn’t

Sports Extra - With Dave Ross

Nearly a half-century ago the Cincinnati Reds were coming off a disastrous 1971 season and General Manager Bob Howsam was looking to “re-tune” the Big Red Machine for 1972 and beyond.

Howsam reached tentative agreement with the Houston Astros on a blockbuster trade. The proposal called for the Reds to part with first baseman Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms, and utilityman Jim Stewart in exchange for starting pitcher Jack Billingham, second baseman Joe Morgan, third baseman Denis Menke, and outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister.

The GM liked the deal but wanted further input from his front office baseball staff along with manager Sparky Anderson and his coaches, which was customary for the highly regarded executive. A meeting was held in late 1971 in the team offices at Riverfront Stadium.

Among those in the room was former first baseman Gordy Coleman who remembered that day well. “Bob always welcomed our input. He was a great listener but the final decision was his. The opinion in the room was split. I was against it. Bob said he’d sleep on it before making a final decision.”

Howsam was reluctant to trade May who hit 38 homers in 1971 but if the “Big Bopper” departed , Tony Perez could be moved from third to first base. He also considered that May’s value would likely never be higher. The GM coveted the speedy Morgan who had played in the 1970 All Star Game in Cincinnati.

There were other reasons. Menke would help shore up the Reds defense. Billingham would pitch many quality innings. Geronimo provided center field insurance in case Bobby Tolan couldn’t come back from achilles surgery, and was great defensively. Armbrister was a good prospect.

The pros outweighed the cons and Howsam did the deal. Armbrister began 1972 at “AAA” Indianapolis but the other four all started opening day against the Dodgers.

During the ensuing eight seasons the Reds won five division crowns, three league championships, and back-to-back World Series titles in 1975-76. Menke and Armbrister were marginal short term contributors but the other three were indispensable especially Morgan who was named league Most Valuable Player with both world championships.

Next week: Gerry Faust comes to Sidney

Sports Extra

With Dave Ross

Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave Ross has followed the Reds since 1961 and annually covers spring training.

Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave Ross has followed the Reds since 1961 and annually covers spring training.