Remembering those days when big trades made the sports world tremble with delight

Earlier this month the irrepressible Don Cherry, decked out in a costume he could only have found at a Gilbert & Sullivan fire sale, was emoting with his customarily delightful bombast on the usual grist of his CBC Hockey Night in Canada gig when he digressed to observe the impending 40th anniversary of the trade he proclaims “the greatest in NHL history.”

The deal Grapes had in mind? What else but the epic transaction sending Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais to the Rangers and bringing Brad Park, Jean Ratelle, and the immortal Joe Zanussi to the Bruins, with the redoubtable Harry Sinden delivering a knockout to old buddy Emile “Cat” Francis, then boss of the Broadway Blueshirts. In one “damn the torpedoes” caper, three world-class Hall of Famers and a borderline player changed colors thanks to the happy collision of wild impulse and shrewd instinct wrought by a couple of riverboat gamblers daring to take a chance and willing to bear the consequences.  

What a deal it was! Some would argue Milt Schmidt’s earlier brilliant shakedown of the Blackhawks – the six-player heist that brought Espo to town along with Kennie Hodge and Freddie Stanfield – was the equal. And in terms of impact, it was every bit comparable. But no deal - maybe in all Boston sports history (at least since the Babe Ruth fiasco) – has been more stunning than Harry’s flimflamming of the Cat in November of ’75. A thunderbolt, it involved true stars all at their heights. No one saw it coming.

Interestingly, the consensus that initially formed overwhelmingly declared the Rangers had snookered the Bruins. Sinden was denounced here, and ridiculed in New York. Park and Ratelle had been frequently injured whereas Espo, with his gargantuan scoring stats, still had the region mesmerized. But it only took about four months for everyone to realize it was Harry who had done the snookering.  

With the immortal Bobby Orr sadly reaching the end of the line, and with Espo fast-proving past his prime, Park and Ratelle instantly became architects of a seamless transition that kept the Bruins rollicking as Cup contenders another decade. Like Orr, Park never had good knees. Yet he was a magnificent defenseman, high among the smartest and most creative that ever played the game. The equally superb Ratelle would be an even more surprising revelation: an elegant center worthy of comparison to the near-incomparable Jean Beliveau, whom he greatly resembled both in terms of playing style and personal character.

What a deal it was indeed! Grapes credits it with saving both the Bruins and him, figuring that without Brad and Ratty, his coaching career would have been swiftly ended, thus quashing his legend – now thriving every Saturday night on CBC – before it ever got the chance to blossom. Which, of course, would have made us all the poorer, eh?
But the main point of this meditation is to illustrate the larger point that they don’t make trades like that anymore, not in this game, nor any game. There are plenty of reasons, the biggest being money. Players and agents have too much control over the process. Owners are obsessed with payroll, and their GMs better be if they wish to survive. Nowadays, contract complications and the endless shuffling of salary obligations confound the process, although it may also be that the buttoned-down corporate whiz kids, many out of the Ivy League, who now run most teams in all games lack the guts and gall to roll the dice the way the Harrys and Cats of yore were bred to do. More’s the pity because there’s nothing in sports like a great old-fashioned headline-grabbing swap.

The hockey world has always featured fascinating trades. Sinden, a maestro at the fine art, swiped the likes of Cam Neely, Adam Oates, Ricky Middleton, Peter McNab, Andy Moog, et al., in other marvelously one-sided larcenies. In earlier times, they landed Johnny Bucyk at the price of Terry Sawchuk, another blockbuster.  Espo was hardly the only luminary they traded away. Among others were Eddie Shore, Ray Bourque, Tiny Thompson, and in an ill-advised move, a college kid named Ken Dryden.

So what of the other Boston teams? There’s no question which trick of their many off-the-charts the Celtics would nominate. But as often enough is the case, it wasn’t wildly received when it went down.  Befitting the genius he truly boasted, Red Auerbach was quite alone in 1956 in properly calculating Bill Russell’s ultimate worth as a potentially revolutionary force.  

If everyone recognized Russ had been a wonderful collegian, he was also deemed curiously unique, being a great player who didn’t score much and maybe never would. Further looming in the background, of course, was the draconian issue of race, in itself at the time enough to scare off half the potential suitors. Most NBA savants were skeptical. Red alone recognized his historic opportunity. In retrospect, his cagey maneuvers to land the draft pick he needed were downright brilliant. In Boston, the price of having to give St. Louis the highly popular Ed McCauley and the very promising Cliff Hagen was considered huge. People forget that. Terms like “historic” are tossed around too lightly in sports. This deal was.

Of the major games, trades are least common in football, always have been. Multi-player exchanges of established NFL veterans, let alone stars, rarely happen anymore and are near always built around draft picks.

In earlier times, the Patriots were wheeler-dealers quite of necessity, ever scheming and scratching just to get by. They often got taken, as in the infamous Nick Buoniconti deal with Miami, or when they got stuck with Joe Kapp. But Chuck Fairbanks pulled off a stunning coup in 1976 when he sent Jim Plunkett, no longer wanted at quarterback, to San Francisco for premium draft picks that became Pete Brock, Tim Fox, Ray Clayborn, Horace Ivory, plus QB Tom Owen. The deal cemented Fairbanks’s rebuild that finally made the Pats a bona-fide NFL franchise. 

It’s in baseball that sports trades were invented, and where the convoluted art of making them was long ago perfected. The circulating of players through myriad deals and misdeals – many wild and improbable –accounts for some of the richest stuff in the game’s all-time annals, with such as the infinitely regrettable Babe Ruth bumbling by the Sox ranking among the more glittering examples. Enough said on that. Books have been written about it. Many!

But is trading a dying art? That’s the question. Some fear so, although there has been a slight revival the last couple of winters as more teams find bartering a better tactic serving their needs than squandering humongous moneys in the increasingly suspect free-agent market. There are also those manic mid-summer salary dumps, but in the traditional sense they’re hardly true “trades.” Even if overall there’s an uptick in trade traffic, the big multi-player landmark deals of yore are increasingly rare.

So far this hot-stove baseball season, there have been just a handful of mildly arresting examples. The Red Sox sent four allegedly promising prospects to the Padres for much touted reliever Craig Kimbrel. Four purportedly premium prospects for a guy who worked 59 innings last season?  Did you ever think you’d see that day?  

Meanwhile, the Yanks and Twins have swapped 25-year-old bit players. If, theoretically, Aaron Hicks and J.R. Murphy are capable of larger roles, it’s a deal hardly worth the heavy scrutiny it’s getting. There’ve been a few other comparable deals, equally puny. It’s early, but one senses little that’s less puny looming.

Enough of this picayune pretense, says I. One yearns for the sort of real deals we had back when Novembers boiled over with them.  Like on November 17, 1947, when Boston obtained Junior Stephens and Jack Kramer from St. Louis for Roy Partee,  Al Widmar, Eddie Pellagrini, Pete Layden, Joe Ostrowski, Jim Wilson, and $310,000.  Then – the very next day! – the Sox got Ellie Kinder and Billy Hitchcock from the one and same Browns for Clem Dreisewerd, Sam Dente, a player-to-be-named, and $65,000.

That’s 2 days, 13 players, and $375 grand back when that was still a lot of money. Ah, but that was also when Men were Men and Trades were Trades and the St. Louis Browns were eternally last in the American League.

I remember it well.