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Braves Throwback Thursday: A spring training blockbuster involving two future Hall-of-Famers

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51 years ago this month, Atlanta traded All-Star Joe Torre to St. Louis for former MVP Orlando Cepeda

Orlando Cepeda Holding Bat
First baseman Orlando Cepeda was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 1969, helping the club to the NL West title that season. (Getty Images)

The Atlanta Braves have made their share of blockbuster trades over the years, though most of them have occurred at either midseason or during the traditional “hot stove” season of November, December and January.

Rarer are those mega-deals that occur during spring training. But the Braves pulled off one such trade in March 1969, 51 years ago this month.

Atlanta traded catcher/first baseman Joe Torre — a homegrown All-Star who had been in the organization since its Milwaukee days — to the St. Louis Cardinals for first baseman Orlando Cepeda, who had been the National League’s MVP just two seasons prior. The deal helped propel the Braves to the NL West Division championship, and their first postseason berth in 11 years.

Both Torre and Cepeda were coming off disappointing 1968 seasons. After hitting 30 home runs in 1966 and 20 in 1967, Torre had batted .271/.332/.377 with 10 homers and 55 RBIs in 115 games, numbers that were still good for a 112 OPS+ in the “Year of the Pitcher.”

The 30-year-old Cepeda had fallen off even more dramatically in 1968. The “Baby Bull” had slipped from a .325/.399/.524 line with 25 homers and 111 RBIs in St. Louis’ World Series championship season of 1967, to .248/.306/.378 with 16 homers and 73 RBIs for a Cardinals team that lost the World Series in seven games to the Detroit Tigers.

So maybe both players could use a change-of-scenery. But it went deeper than that with the 28-year-old Torre, who had earned a reputation as something of a malcontent.

Torre had become active in the Major League Baseball Players Association, which was involved in separate high-profile disputes over trading card royalties and pension benefits during the winter of 1968-69. Torre also balked when Braves general manager Paul Richards tried to cut his $65,000 salary by $5,000, and did not report to spring training when camp opened in 1969, instead staying home in suburban New York.

Richards seems unworried, telling reporters that as far as he was concerned Torre “could hold out until Thanksgiving.” At an impasse with his veteran catcher, Richards at first explored dealing the Brooklyn-born Torre to his hometown New York Mets before putting together a deal with the Cardinals for Cepeda on March 17.

“I’m just coming out of the fog, but I’m very happy,” Torre told the Associated Press. “You certainly can’t have any complaints when you get traded to a club like the Cardinals. I think I’ll be able to make some money with them.” (Indeed, he signed for $77,000 with St. Louis in 1969.)

Catcher Joe Torre Joe Torre played with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves from 1960-69, when they traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals for Orlando Cepeda. (Getty Images)

In Cepeda, the Braves got another big right-handed bat to pair with Aaron and the talented-but-oft-injured Rico Carty. Known as the “Beeg Boy,” Carty had missed a month in 1967 with a shoulder injury and all of 1968 while suffering from tuberculosis (he wouldn’t make his 1969 debut until May 2, but went on to bat .342 with 16 homers).

Though Cepeda initially told the Atlanta Constitution’s Hal Hayes he felt “much joy” regarding the trade and that he was looking forward to being a Brave, he told a different story in his 1998 autobiography “Baby Bull: From Hardball to Hard Time and Back.” A dark-skinned Puerto Rican, Cepeda said he considered initially retiring rather than play in Atlanta, where he feared the citizenry still adhered to the “Southern Culture and mentality in dealing with blacks and Latins.”

“I had never liked Atlanta,” Cepeda wrote. “… I even thought of giving up baseball, packing up, and going back to Puerto Rico, but my wife, Annie, put things in perspective quickly. Hurt feelings and stubbornness aside, baseball was my livelihood.”

Cepeda also wrote that once he arrived in Atlanta he found that “a lot had changed” and that his years with the Braves were “very happy ones.” He was in the lineup on Opening Day against the Giants in 1969, batting cleanup behind Aaron, whom he quickly embraced as a mentor.

Cepeda had a good but not great season for the Braves in 1969, batting .257/.325/.428 (a 109 OPS+) with 22 homers and 88 RBIs in 154 games. He was worth 3.2 Wins Above Replacement, nearly double the 1.8 WAR he’d posted in St. Louis the season before.

The Braves won 21 of their first 30 games to jump out to an early lead in the NL West, but had slipped a half-game behind the San Francisco Giants by Sept. 18. However, they then reeled off 10 straight victories — including a series sweep of the Houston Astros and two sweeps of the expansion San Diego Padres, clinching the division with a 3-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on Sept. 30.

Cepeda recorded the final out in the clincher, hauling in shortstop Bob Aspromonte’s throw on a grounder from Reds pinch-hitter Alex Johnson. For the third consecutive year, Cepeda was headed to the postseason.

The Braves dropped the National League Championship Series in three games to the “Miracle” New York Mets, though it was no fault of Cepeda’s. He went 5-for-11 with two doubles, a homer, three RBIs and a stolen base, briefly giving Atlanta the lead in Game 3 when he went deep off Mets reliever Nolan Ryan in the fifth inning.

Cepeda returned to form for the Braves in 1970, batting .305/.365/.543 (a 136 OPS+) with 34 homers and 111 RBIs. However, Atlanta slipped to 76-86 and finished a distant fifth in the NL West.

Cepeda had injured his right knee in 1964 while with the San Francisco Giants, and had played in just 33 games in 1965. In June 1971, he began to have trouble with his left knee, which would severely curtail the remainder of his career.

Cepeda played in only 71 games in 1971, batting .276/.330/.492 with 14 homers before being shut down in late July. He underwent surgery on the knee after the season, but aggravated the injury on Opening Day 1972 and missed two weeks.

After Cepeda appeared in just 28 of the Braves’ first 63 games, Atlanta traded him to the Oakland A’s for mercurial pitcher Denny McLain on June 26, 1972. He made three pinch-hitting appearances for Oakland in early July before sitting out the remainder of the year, and was released in the offseason. (McLain — the AL Cy Young winner and MVP with the champion Tigers in 1968 — was equally a disaster with the Braves, posting a 6.50 ERA in 54 innings. He was released by Atlanta the following spring and never played in the majors again.)

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves
Braves first baseman Orlando Cepeda slides in under the tag of New York Mets second baseman Ken Boswell during the 1969 National League Championship Series. (Photo by John Olson/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

The American League added the designated hitter in 1973, and Cepeda had a brief comeback with the Boston Red Sox. He batted .289/.350/.444 with 20 homers and 86 RBIs (a 117 OPS+), but was released the following spring and spent 33 unproductive games with the Kansas City Royals in 1974 before retiring.

In 2,124 major-league games over 17 seasons with six teams, Cepeda batted .297/.350/.499 with 379 home runs, 1,365 RBIs and a 133 OPS+. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1999.

Torre played more games at first base than catcher for the first time as a big-leaguer for the Cardinals in 1969, and also enjoyed a renaissance. He batted .289/.361/.447 with 18 homers and 101 RBIs, good for a 126 OPS+ and 3.0 WAR.

Torre was an All-Star the next four years in St. Louis, posting back-to-back 5-plus WAR seasons in 1970 and 1971. He moved briefly back to catcher in 1970 before settling in at third base the following season, when he had the best year of his career.

Torre won the NL batting title in 1971, batting .363 with a league-best 230 hits and 137 RBIs. He added in a .421 on-base percentage, a .555 slugging percentage, 34 doubles and eight triples, winning the NL MVP award in a landslide.

However, the Cardinals never made the postseason in Torre’s six seasons with the club, finishing a close second in the NL East in both 1973 and 1974. He was finally traded to the Mets after the 1974 season, spending three seasons as a part-time player for his hometown team before hanging it up in 1977.

Though he would go on to a Hall-of-Fame career as manager of the New York Yankees, Torre was very nearly worthy of Cooperstown as a player. In 2,209 games over 18 seasons, he batted .297/.365/.452 (a 129 OPS+) with 252 homers and 1,185 RBIs, and was worth 57.6 Wins Above Replacement (more than Cepeda’s 50.2, among other Hall-of-Famers).

It was early in Torre’s managerial career that this story has an interesting — and controversial — postscript. The Braves hired the 41-year-old Torre as manager prior to the 1982 season, and he was immediately successful.

Sparked by a season-opening 13-game winning streak, the Braves went 89-73 and won the NL West in 1982, securing their first postseason berth since 1969. Atlanta went 88-74 in 1983, falling out of the race in August following a season-ending injury to slugging third baseman Bob Horner.

Atlanta Braves
Joe Torre, left, is shown in 1983 during his tenure as manager of the Atlanta Braves. At right is coach Tommie Aaron, brother of Braves legend Hank Aaron.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

It was in 1984 that things fell apart for the Braves and Torre, and his old teammate Hank Aaron — by then Atlanta’s director of minor league operations — was at the center of it. With the Braves still above .500 (but well behind first-place San Diego) in mid-August, Aaron implied in an interview with the Associated Press that Torre was mis-using youngsters Brad Komminsk and Gerald Perry by shuffling them in and out of the lineup.

“They are going to struggle until they get the same confident that is being given to the veterans,” Aaron said. “They have to play every day. And they can’t play looking over their shoulders, worrying that if they go 0-for-4 or have a bad week or two, that they’re going to be sat down. Komminsk and Perry are going to be terrific players. They are ready now.”

The Braves again played poorly in August and September, and finished 80-82. Torre was fired at the end of the season, with owner Ted Turner admitting he’d acted largely on the advice of a front-office contingent that included Aaron.

(Komminsk and Perry never did achieve the stardom predicted for them by Aaron and others. Perry hit .300 and was an All-Star for a terrible Braves team in 1988, but was most a role-player otherwise in a 13-year career with Atlanta, Kansas City and St. Louis. Komminsk posted a .617 OPS in 220 games with the Braves before being traded to Milwaukee prior to the 1987 season, and was out of the majors by age 30.)

Torre did TV work for the California Angels for the remainder of the 1980s, before returning to the dugout as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals midway through the 1990 season. On one trip back to Atlanta with the Cardinals in July 1991, he still appeared wounded by Aaron’s remarks.

“If you want to fire me, just say so and I’ll walk away,” Torre told the Atlanta Constitution’s Joe Strauss. “Wanting to make a change in this game is enough reason to make a change. I can accept that. But don’t look for something that wasn’t there.

“I don’t think I need any vindication. We won here in ’82.”

Torre managed the Cardinals for four seasons and parts of two others, but never got the team to the playoffs and was fired in 1995. He was a surprise choice to manage the Yankees the following year, but won four World Series, six AL pennants and 10 division titles in 12 seasons in the Bronx.

Torre retired in 2010 following a three-season tenure with the Los Angeles Dodgers, having totaled 2,326 career victories (fifth in MLB history). He was inducted into Cooperstown as a manager in 2014, meaning the Torre-for-Cepeda swap of 1969 was the rare trade in which one future Hall-of-Famer was dealt for another.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; SABR.org; Newspapers.com; Sporting News archive (via PaperofRecord.com); Baby Bull: From Hardball to Hard Time and Back, Orlando Cepeda with Herb Fagen, Taylor Trade Publishing, 1998.