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The Worst Trade in Phillies History

A week or two ago, I heard a truly idiotic radio talker on 97.5 FM characterize the Cliff Lee trade to the Mariners as the "worst trade in Phillies history." (After further review, I have tentatively concluded that the name of this idiot is Tom Byrne.)

It did get me thinking, though, of what the worst trade in the Phillies' long, difficult history really was. And I think T-Mac and Wheels answered the question for me with some of their mid-inning banter the other day.

In 1962, three years before the first amateur draft was held, Phillies' scout Tony Lucadello (the same scout who would lobby the front office to draft Mike Schmidt a few years later) signed a 19-year-old 6-foot-5 African-Canadian righthanded pitcher named Ferguson Jenkins, who had just graduated from a vocational high school in Chatham, Ontario. Jenkins was sent to "D ball" (the minor leagues were organized differently back then), where he was immediately dominant, posting a 69/19 K/BB ratio over 65.0 IP, with an ERA of 0.97. He was hit around in a couple of late-season AAA starts, but it was a very successful year nonetheless.

Over the next few seasons, he would cement his prospect status, posting a 3.41 ERA in A ball in 1963, a 149/42 K/BB and a 3.11 ERA over 139.0 IP at AA Chattanooga in the Southern League in 1964, and a 161/76 K/BB and 3.02 ERA over 179.0 IP at AAA Arkansas of the Pacific Coast League (?) in 1964-65. He made his major league debut for the Phils in September of 1965, and appeared as a reliever in seven games, striking out 10, walking 2, and allowing 3 runs in 12.1 IP. And then he was traded.

Understanding why requires a bit of historical context. While everyone knows that the Phillies are baseball's all-time losingest franchise, few realize that the entire sub-.500 margin and then some comes from an almost inconceivably disastrous period in their history from the beginning of the first world war to the end of the second. Otherwise, the Phils have actually been over .500 and have had numerous stretches of decent-to-good play over their history

The mid-'60s were one of these positive stretches. After a last-place finish in 1961 when the team set a probably-unbreakable major league record for most consecutive losses to begin a season, the Phils reeled off six straight winning seasons, the "high point" of which was 1964 when they won 92 games but ended the year on, shall we say, a down note. Well, as Rebecca Black might point out, 1965 followed 1964, and the team was still pretty good that year. Although they only finished sixth in a feast-or-famine NL, their record was a respectable 85-76, 11.5 games back of the Koufax-and-Drysdale-led Los Angeles Dodgers. The best players on the team were Richie Allen, Johnny Callison, Chris Short, and Jim Bunning.

As Wheels explained it on the TV broadcast the other day, manager Gene Mauch and the front office decided that the team was close enough that it needed to strike while the iron was hot and get itself over the hump. So, a few weeks into the 1966 season, they decided to go for it and pick up some "seasoned veterans" in exchange for guys who were "just prospects who might not even pan out." So Jenkins, along with bench player John Herrnstein and outfield prospect Adolfo Phillips, were sent to the Chicago Cubs for two starting pitchers, 37-year-old pitcher Bob Buhl and 35-year-old Larry Jackson.

Buhl may be best remembered today as possibly the worst hitter ever (.089 BA and .257 OPS in 952 career PA), but both he and Jackson had been pretty good pitchers at one time. Buhl had twice won 18 games as a member of the Milwaukee Braves in the '50s, and Jackson had gone 24-11 for the Cubs as recently as 1964. But both were coming off subpar 1965 seasons: Buhl had posted a 84 ERA+ at age 36, while Jackson's ERA+ had been 96 at age 34.

Needless to say, this trade did not work out as the Phillies had hoped. Buhl was awful in 1966. His ERA+ slipped to 75, and he was apparently bumped from the rotation midway through the year. He'd pitch 3.0 IP in 1967 and then retire. Jackson was actually pretty good in 1966, but he wasn't good enough to lift the Phillies over the hump, as their record would only improve to 87-75, eight games behind the Dodgers. And then, two years later, he too would retire.

Meanwhile, here's what Jenkins would do over the fifteen seasons that followed the trade.

1966 23 Cubs 6-8 60 12 182.0 2 51 148 3.53 3.31 111
1967 24 Cubs 20-13 38 38 289.1 20 83 236 3.16 2.80 127
1968 25 Cubs 20-15 40 40 308.0 20 65 260 2.46 2.63 121
1969 26 Cubs 21-15 43 42 311.1 23 71 273 2.64 3.21 126
1970 27 Cubs 22-16 40 39 313.0 24 60 274 2.78 3.39 132
1971 28 Cubs 24-13 39 39 325.0 30 37 263 2.38 2.77 142
1972 29 Cubs 20-12 36 36 289.1 23 62 184 3.28 3.20 119
1973 30 Cubs 14-16 38 38 271.0 7 57 170 3.67 3.89 101
1974 31 Rangers 25-12 41 41 328.1 29 45 225 2.76 2.82 126
1975 32 Rangers 17-18 37 37 270.0 22 56 157 3.93 3.93 96
1976 33 Red Sox 12-11 30 29 209.0 12 43 142 3.21 3.27 121
1977 34 Red Sox 10-10 28 28 193.0 11 36 105 4.23 3.68 124
1978 35 Rangers 18-8 34 30 249.0 16 41 157 2.95 3.04 125
1979 36 Rangers 16-14 37 37 259.0 10 81 164 4.45 4.07 102
1980 37 Rangers 12-12 29 29 198.0 12 52 129 3.74 3.77 103

Not too shabby, eh? Jenkins, like Robin Roberts (who has his highest similarity score on BB-Ref), did have a propensity to give up a ton of home runs. But since nobody was ever on base, they never really hurt him very much. He would continue to pitch until 1983 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.

For some reason, it seems that as the years have passed, this trade has left the consciousness not only of Phillies fandom but also of MLB fandom in general. When I was a kid, I had a little book of "wacky baseball stories" in which there was a chapter on the worst trades of all time, and it mentioned Robinson-for-Pappas, Lou Brock, Nolan Ryan - all the old standbys. But the Jenkins trade wasn't mentioned and, at least in my experience, nobody ever talks about it. But people ought to. It fully deserves to be included in the same pantheon as those other catastrophes.

A few more thoughts:

  • The only competitor I can think of for the "worst trade in Phillies history" title is the Ryne Sandberg trade in 1982. It is a little bit galling to consider that it was the Cubs, of all teams, that did it to us both times.
  • I wonder if Jenkins was helped at all by leaving Philadelphia, which was not exactly the greatest environment for black baseball players in the 1960s. Then again, it's not as if Chicago (or anywhere else, for that matter) was some kind of post-racial shangri-la in that era either. In any event, it obviously wouldn't excuse the stupidity of the trade, either way.
  • Should we wish that this trade had never happened? Not necessarily. The arc of history is long. If Jenkins isn't traded in 1966, the Phillies' draft position is likely different in 1971, and who knows if Tony Lucadello is then able to prevail upon the front office draft Mike Schmidt? It's an unanswerable question, of course, and there's ultimately no such thing as "what would have been." It would still be nice, though, if the organization can avoid ever doing anything like this ever again in the future.