A Look Back at the Sandberg Trade
I’m sure you know the Phillies traded Sandberg and Larry Bowa to the Cubs in January 1982 for Ivan DeJesus. It’s considered one of the worst trades in franchise history, but it might not even be the worst trade the Phillies made with the Cubs. They also sent Grover Cleveland Alexander and Ferguson Jenkins to the Cubs in regrettable trades.
I wrote about the Sandberg fiasco in my Phillies book “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly.”
Here’s an excerpt:
We have to have Sandberg to make this trade.
You have to have him?
Yeah, we have to have him.
Well, OK then.
The Phillies traded Ryne Sandberg to the Chicago Cubs on January 27, 1982, not because they wanted to trade him, but because they wanted to trade Larry Bowa. They just needed to include Sandberg to make it happen. It turned out to be one of the worst trades in history. The Phillies got Ivan DeJesus. The Cubs got Bowa and Sandberg, a Hall of Fame second baseman.
Bowa had become embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with the new Phillies president Bill Giles. Bowa, who had just turned 36, wanted the three-year contract extension that owner Ruly Carpenter had promised him before he had sold the team. Giles had no plans to sign an aging shortstop to a contract extension, especially because the Phillies had top prospect Julio Franco coming through their farm system. So Bowa called Giles a liar. He said the organization had no class.
Bowa had to go. But where? Former Phillies manager Dallas Green had started to run the show in Chicago, and he had interest. But he said the only way he would send DeJesus to the Phillies was if they included Sandberg.
“We knew we had them over a barrel,” Green said. “Giles had already made the mistake of telling the world Bowa was gone. I kept saying, ‘Since we were the Little Sisters of the Poor, we had to get a plus in the trade.’”
The Phillies hemmed and hawed. They tried to expand the deal to include hard-throwing right-hander Lee Smith. But the Cubs didn’t want players like Sparky Lyle, Don McCormack, and Del Unser in a package that included Smith. The Cubs wanted somebody like George Vukovich, and the Phillies were not about to trade him because they thought he had a bright future. Their dilemma with Sandberg was that they weren’t sure what position he would play. Most didn’t think he could play shortstop. They thought he could be a third baseman, except Mike Schmidt was there. They thought he could be a second baseman, except Manny Trillo was there. They thought maybe he could play one of the corner outfield positions. They even tried him as a center fielder, but that experiment was short-lived.
They never gave him a shot at any of those positions, and by the time Sandberg won National League Most Valuable Player honors in 1984, Franco, Trillo, and Vukovich (along with Jay Baller and Jerry Willard) had been traded to the Cleveland Indians in the 5-for-1 deal that got them Von Hayes.
“Sandberg is the biggest mistake we’ve made since I took over the operation of the ballclub,” Giles said in ’84. “We knew Ryne was going to be a good player, but he’s become a great player.”
Richie Ashburn had a revealing look at Sandberg’s evaluation within the Phillies system in a November 15, 1984, column he wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News. The Phillies let Ashburn peek at the team’s scouting reports. The Phillies drafted Sandberg in the 20th round in 1978, and he hit .311 in 56 games for Helena. Phillies scout Bill Harper wrote in his reports that Sandberg did not have “much body bounce–he’s a dead-*** type player.” Another scout, W.H. “Moose” Johnson, wrote, “May be a little stiff, plays too shallow at shortstop, and will struggle with the bat for a while. His crouch stance makes him vulnerable to high, tight pitches, but he does stay tough at the plate.” Minor-league instructor Larry Rojas looked more favorably upon Sandberg during his rookie-ball season. He wrote, “Sandberg doesn’t say much, but has done a very good job offensively and defensively. He has good hands. He can steal a base almost anytime he wants. He’s a line-drive-type hitter who hits the ball up the middle and to right-center field. I recommend him highly.”
Sandberg seemed to be on his way, but he hit .247 for Single A Spartanburg in 1979. Former Phillies shortstop Granny Hamner, who worked for the Phillies as an instructor, called Sandberg a disappointment. Rojas seemed concerned, too. He wrote, “Am a little worried about his hitting–not handling the outside pitch well. I would like to see more drive and aggressiveness.”
Bill Dancy, Sandberg’s manager, said in July 1979 that he would want Sandberg at the plate in a clutch situation, but considered him a “chance prospect” in his final report. Spartanburg coach Mel Roberts said Sandberg “doesn’t put much effort into what he’s doing. Has a lot of ability that he has not come close to using this season. Has average attitude and desire. Below average in drive.”
Sandberg hit .310 for Double A Reading in 1980 and .293 for Triple A Oklahoma City in 1981. Hamner changed his outlook on Sandberg. He called him a “definite major-league prospect,” although he didn’t think he could play a big-league shortstop. But in the end, the improved reports on Sandberg from Hamner and others weren’t enough to convince the Phillies to keep him.
Ashburn wrote that Phillies vice president of player development Jim Baumer, minor-league executive secretary Bill Gargano, and assistant director of minor leagues and scouting Jack Pastore got upset when Phillies general manager Paul Owens said they included Sandberg in the trade for DeJesus because “our minor league reports weren’t that good on Sandberg.”
The Phillies aren’t the first team to trade a future stud. The Cubs traded Lou Brock to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ernie Broglio in 1964. The Boston Red Sox sent Jeff Bagwell to the Houston for Larry Andersen in 1990. The Detroit Tigers shipped John Smoltz to the Atlanta Braves for Doyle Alexander in 1997. The Seattle Mariners sent Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek to the Boston Red Sox for Heathcliff Slocumb in 1997.
Sandberg entered the Hall of Fame in 2005 after a remarkable 16-year career in which he won one MVP, made 10 All-Star teams, and won nine Gold Gloves and seven Silver Slugger Awards. Bowa played shortstop for the Cubs team that made the National League Championship Series in 1984. DeJesus? He hit no better than .257 in three seasons with the Phillies, who traded him and Bill Campbell to the St. Louis Cardinals for Dave Rucker in 1985.
It turns out Sandberg couldn’t play shortstop. But he could play a heck of a second base.
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