It's so clear now. The deal that brought Hall of Famer Frank Robinson to Baltimore — exactly 50 years ago — is the best trade in Orioles history for so many reasons that there really is no room for debate on the subject.
On Dec. 9, 1965, the Orioles sent starting pitcher Milt Pappas, reliever Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson to the Cincinnati Reds for a former National League Rookie of the Year and MVP who would immediately lead the club to its first World Series title.
Robinson would help carry the Orioles to three more World Series appearances and go on to make history as baseball's first African-American manager at the end of a playing career that would place him high among the sport's truly elite players.
The trade is widely regarded as one of the most lopsided deals off all time, but it wasn't quite so obvious a half-century ago.
"Actually, I kind of had mixed emotions about it because Milt was a good friend and a heck of a pitcher," slugger Boog Powell said. "We had seen Frank from the other side. We knew he was an MVP and had some really good years. We certainly respected him as a hitter. Also at the same time, why mess with something that was working pretty good?"
Powell now laughs at his ambivalence. His emotions got unmixed in a hurry once he started playing on the same field as Robinson in spring training.
The Orioles had won 94 games in 1965, but finished third in the American League behind the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox. They had won at least that many games in three of the five seasons leading up to 1966, but needed someone to help take the team up one more level.
The only reason Robinson was available was because the Reds felt they needed a quality starting pitcher to get over the hump and owner Bill DeWitt was convinced that Robinson was past his prime at the ripe old age of 30.
Everyone knows what happened after that. Robinson hit 49 homers in 1966 and became the only player to be named MVP in both the NL and AL. He also would be named MVP of the World Series after the Orioles shocked the baseball world by sweeping the pitching-rich Los Angeles Dodgers.
What is too easy to forget is that Pappas was the winningest pitcher in modern Orioles history when he was dispatched to Cincinnati. During eight years in the Orioles rotation, he never had a losing season. He would go on to win another 99 games and would deliver back-to-back 17-win seasons for the Chicago Cubs in 1971 and 1972.
Nobody in the Orioles clubhouse was happy to see him go, and — in a baseball world with limited television exposure and no interleague play other than the exhibition season and the World Series — few had a full comprehension Robinson's enormous talent.
"Obviously, you look at Frank, you know he had won an MVP. … You know he had hit [as many as] 39 home runs and probably would have hit more if not for the high scoreboard at Crosley Field," Hall of Famer Jim Palmer said. "But it's not like now when you can just go on Baseball-Reference.com and see where he stacks up or his wins above replacement."
Palmer was just arriving on the scene himself, but he is also quick to remind everyone that the Reds got a very valuable player in return. Pappas had averaged 15 victories and had a combined 2.87 ERA over the previous three seasons. If you want to put that in a contemporary perspective, Jeff Samardzija has never had a winning season as a starting pitcher, has a 4.09 career ERA and just signed a five-year contract worth $90 million.
Baldschun also was a solid pitcher who had been acquired by the Orioles from the Philadelphia Phillies just a few days before the big trade. But he didn't pitch well in Cincinnati and by the time Pappas was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 1968, the deal had evolved into a best-ever for the Orioles and a worst-ever for the Reds.
"It wasn't like we didn't give the Reds some guys who could play a little bit. But to get Frank Robinson?" Palmer said. "But with all the dialogue, all the rhetoric about 'an old 30,' I don't think any of us realized how good Frank was. That sounds like an insult, but you don't often get a guy like that. How do you know, even in your wildest dreams?"
Robinson was surprised by the deal, but he told The Baltimore Sun at the time that he was looking forward to coming to Baltimore. What he would reveal much later was that he was happy to get away from the Reds organization at that time because he felt unappreciated by ownership.
Of course, it didn't take long for him to be appreciated by his new team and its fans.
"I'll tell you the truth, when I first saw him in spring training, I knew I'd rather do it with him than without him," Powell said. "Watching him pop the ball through the palm trees in spring training and the other qualities that Frank had — the intangibles that he brought to the team and the way he played the game. The ferocity with which he went about his trade was a pretty awesome thing to see.
"He went at it with reckless abandon and what he did at the plate was incredible. And he was surrounded with the perfect lineup. Me and Brooks [Robinson] behind him. Paul Blair in front. What are you going to do?"
That fire would burn so brightly that Robinson would become an iconic Oriole though he played in Baltimore for only six of his 21 major league seasons.
"Frank just made us tougher," Palmer said. "Everybody says that good players have edges. Brooks' edge was he never let anything bother him. Boog was kind of in that category — two really good-natured guys that were terrific players. Boog would win an MVP. Brooksie had won an MVP and would make the Hall of Fame. But Frank just had a tough edge. When you see a guy who could play at his level and could play with the vigor and intensity that he did, I can't see how it could not have affected all of us."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
Top trades in Orioles history
1. Dec. 9, 1965: The Orioles get outfielder Frank Robinson from the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Milt Pappas, pitcher Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson.
2. June 15, 1976: The Orioles get catcher Rick Dempsey and pitchers Scott McGregor, Tippy Martinez, Rudy May and Dave Pagan from the New York Yankees for catcher Elrod Hendricks and pitchers Doyle Alexander, Ken Holtzman, Grant Jackson and Jimmy Freeman.
3. Dec. 4, 1968: The Orioles get pitcher Mike Cuellar and shortstop Enzo Hernandez from the Houston Astros for outfielder Curt Blefary.
5. Dec. 4, 1974: The Orioles get outfielder Ken Singleton and pitcher Mike Torrez from the Montreal Expos for pitcher Dave McNally and outfielder Rich Coggins.
6. July 30, 2011: The Orioles get first baseman Chris Davis and pitcher Tommy Hunter from the Texas Rangers for pitcher Koji Uehara.
The Frank Robinson trade before and after
With Reds (1956-65): 1956 NL Rookie of the Year, 1961 NL MVP, six-time NL All-Star, 1961 NL pennant (lost to New York Yankees in World Series)
With Orioles (1966-71): 1966 AL MVP, 1966 Triple Crown winner, 1966 World Series MVP, five-time AL All-Star, two World Series titles, four AL pennants