The History of Players Changing Teams

Mandatory Credit: boyofsummer.net

Mandatory Credit: boyofsummer.net

It is a curious way, we Americans tend to balance history and future, looking ahead but at the same time glorifying our past. On one hand, we pursue our lives with the hope and certainty that our kids, the next generation, will have it better than we do. At the same time, we are always talking about “the good old days.” Folks of all generations do that. Whether it is about music, politics, human interaction and behavior, there is this dichotomy. Ah, there was nothing like the Beatles and the British Invasion, or even Elvis and Chuck. Ah, “back then,” Democrats and Republicans could at least get along. Didn’t Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, foes in politics, have a drink or two after hours? Every generation looks back and thinks about how people used to treat each other better. Wasn’t it better before all this technology was developed? All the social media helps us be connected, yet in some ways distances us.

This is the case with baseball too. Every generation recalls fondly the heroes of their lifetimes. Can anyone really claim that Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, Paul Goldschmidt and Carlos Correa don’t have the chance to be some of the greatest players of all time? Are they really not as good, or do we just THINK they are not as good, as the ones my kids grew up watching, like Bonds, Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Maddux? Hold on, how can you compare those four with guys like Seaver, Gwynn, Schmidt and Palmer? Right, but look at these guys compared to the Golden Era of Baseball, Mantle and Mays, Koufax and Gibson, Banks and Clemente.  Before them, it was Ted Williams, Feller and Joe D.  And are ANY of them as good as Ruth and Gehrig, Walter Johnson, Cobb, Hornsby and Cy Young?

Substitute the names I have used, there are a million great players, it doesn’t matter. We glorify what we know, what we miss, what caused us to love the game. In addition to the players, we think about the eras and, sadly, how business was conducted. One happy memory is that many players remained with one team for their whole careers. We think that only free agency caused the constant movement that demands that players, over a long career, buy, sell, or just keep adding homes in multiple cities from Seattle to Florida, Colorado to Boston. Well, free agency may have doubled the ways that player movement could occur, but let’s be clear, and I learned this from a great book my cousin Andi gave me, players have always, ALWAYS had to acquire new zip codes and phone numbers. It was just previously not under their control. Trades happened all the time, to most players. As a point of disclosure, I did minimal research, mostly using names that popped into my head. I did use Baseball.reference.com a few times as well as the book I mentioned above. For purposes of this article, I am NOT differentiating between trades and free agency, just noting the numbers who have played for more than one team, however that happened. And, in deference to my perennial fact/contact checker friend Steve, some of the players I identify, did change teams only at the ends of their careers, sometimes in mercy trades or in an effort to hang on another year.  Still….

Let’s take a look at the movement of players through the eras, recalling that prior to 1975, trading was the primary way a player changed teams (players could and did sign as free agents upon release from teams). We single out with affection those who played with one team, especially “our” team, their whole career; certainly now, in the era of free agency, this is more remarkable since they can make the decision to leave at some point. Current players Wright, Posey, Stanton, Verlander, Pedroia, Kershaw, Goldschmidt, McCutchen and King Felix might be headed that way due to long term contracts, but it is hard to assume, since most of them are years from retirement, and those contracts do expire. Or they can be traded.

What “franchise” players in the last two decades have worn only one team’s uniform? Quite a few, of course. Why would any team trade these guys, or let them walk?  Begin with the group of Yankees, starting with Jeter and Rivera. Chipper Jones, and Astros’ Biggio and Bagwell, although he was drafted by Boston. Gwynn, Ripken, and Larkin. The generation of one-teamers before that included Bench, Yount, Brett, Schmidt, Palmer, Trammell and Whitaker, Yaz, Stargell and Concepcion, to name a few. This is not a complete, group, to be sure. If you look at these names, a (largely) common denominator is the Hall of Fame, either enshrined or the subject of great debate. There are some other greats we can toss in who are not in or not likely destined for the Hall, including, Freehan, Oliva, Stottlemyre, Helton, Hrbek and Maz, who also called one ballpark home for their career. There are quite a few, great and mediocre, who were never traded or used free agency. But, if my page-scrolling counting skills are accurate, there are only 167 players who, with careers of at least ten years, played for just one team; 48 of them, less than 25% of the HOFers, played for just one team.

So, we glamorize something that never really existed. The point is made more emphatically when you begin to identify the number of incredible players who have changed homes. Again, it is more common in the free agent era when the move can be at the desire of the team or the player, movement was always a common thing. You would think that the better the player, the more likely it is that they would stay with a team because ownership would pony up more money to retain stars AND please the fan base. But think of how many current stars, some still early in their careers, are on at least their second team. Does David Price ring a bell? Jason Heyward? Johnny Cueto?

I am again combing generations here, but which stars of the last several decades did not stick with one team? It sounds like a Who’s Who of, well, the Hall of Fame. Pitchers Seaver, Ryan, Randy Johnson and Carlton. The Braves pitching triple threat of Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine. Clemens, Schilling, and Pedro. Position players include Bonds, Reggie, Griffey, Morgan, Manny, Alomar, Molitor, Boggs, Rose, Winfield, Dawson and the Carters, Gary and Joe. These are just SOME of the perennial all-stars who re-located. The list is huge, add your own players to it.

You think the Golden Age of baseball, before free agency, saw mainly one-team guys? For every Mantle, Clemente, Musial, Kaline, Koufax, DiMaggio, Campanella, Brooks, Gibson, Feller, and Banks, there were superstars, and I mean superstars, who changed teams. Sometimes it was a favor to them, to return to their original playing home, but nevertheless they changed teams. Mays to the Mets. Aaron to the Brewers. Spahn and Snider to the Mets and Giants.  Giants Hall of Famers Marichal, McCovey, Cepeda and Perry. Billy Williams and Ralph Kiner, Killebrew, Early Wynn, Frank Robinson, and Jim Bunning.  For God’s sake, even Jackie Robinson was traded to the Giants, although he chose to retire before he put on the rivals uni.

Let’s go further back, way, way back in home run parlance. Leftys Grove and Gomez. Shoeless Joe. Rogers Hornsby, Christy Matthewson and the man for whom the greatest pitching award is named, Cy Young. Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker and Hank Greenberg and those with great names or nicknames such as Dizzy Dean, Chief Bender, Heinie Manush and Rabbit Maranville. Even BABE RUTH was traded, in THAT most famous, or shall we say infamous, trade of all time.

Further, it is not only that these players were traded, but the number of times, including some great players. Hoyt Wilhelm was sent packing an astonishing eight times and Tommy Davis seven. Rocky Colavito, the first name I looked up in the book I mentioned, was traded six times, two stints with both the Indians and White Sox. Dick Allen and Le Grand Orange, Rusty Staub were traded six times. Dock Ellis’ acid-laced no-hitter did not stop him from being traded five times, along with Smokey Burgess. Jim Kaat and Harvey Kuenn packed their suitcases four times, Roger Maris and Luis Aparicio three times each. The list goes on. Read up on the stuff, you will be shocked.

Many players, throughout the decades, have played for 8-10 teams. I THINK it was Roger Craig, he of a season of 24 losses with the Amazin’ Mets, who said something to the effect that being traded means that someone wants you. He should know, he was traded twice. Of course, he went on to transform pitching with the splitter, and was a great manager for the Giants.

Who to leave in, who to leave out (nod to Bob Seger’s Against the Wind).  I may have combined a few generations; I may have made a couple of errors on the number of times some players were traded, and perhaps a couple of the moves I have called “trades” were free agency moves.  For this article it doesn’t matter, because the point is how many players changed teams. I could have thrown in many more names, and made some of you smile about baseball history, but then it would be like reading War and Peace. Or, as some real baseball fans talk about the game and its history, the Bible.

Of course, Ed Kranepool, a mediocre player but one of my favorites, played with the Mets for 18 years without changing teams…

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5 thoughts on “The History of Players Changing Teams

  1. Hi, Mike and Dan, thanks for the clarifications about Ruth’s changing of teams. Please remember, for the purpose of the article, I was less talking about who was traded than the fact that so many players played for multiple teams. I should have said he had played for three teams. Hope you enjoyed the article otherwise. Thanks – Eric

    On Wed, Jan 20, 2016 at 7:30 AM, Baseball Magazine wrote:

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    • Apologies for the error. I know he was voted in by the Veterans Committee. Hope you like the article otherwise, which was generally about players who change teams. And as you obviously know, Maz did not. Still remember listening when he hit that home run….

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