Transaction of Today…December 26, 1953: The Milwaukee Braves traded Larry Lassalle (minors), Sid Gordon, Sam Jethroe, Curt Raydon, Max Surkont, Fred Waters and $100,000 to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Danny O’Connell.
You almost never see a deal as lopsided as this one. Milwaukee sent six players – and cash – to the Pirates for one player. It was the kind of deal that begs to be a failure and it predictably was. While the O’Connell trade won’t get a lot of support as one of the Braves’ worst compared to moves like Mark Teixeira, Hector Olivera, or Brett Butler, the trade for the second basemen still turned into an epic failure.
Born to a working-class Irish family just outside New York City, O’Connell was a baseball star in high school who eventually signed with his local Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. Three years later, the Dodgers sent him to the Pirates for $50,000 and Jack Cassini, who also played second. It wouldn’t take O’Connell long to push his way into the mix for Pittsburgh. By mid-season, he had taken over a share of shortstop and third base and hit .292/.342/.425 as a 21-year-old over 79 games.
O’Connell’s career took a break as he enlisted in the Army to serve his country during the Korean War. However, the unit was mainly ceremonial and he spent much of his two years of active duty playing baseball. Playing against a number of major leaguers, O’Connell excelled. In a way, he came away from the Army a better ballplayer than he had been with the Pirates.
In 1953, O’Connell returned to the Pirates and was moved to second base. Branch Rickey, who once traded O’Connell, was now the Pirates’ general manager. On a team short of talent – they would finish 50-104 – O’Connell was a rare bright spot. He slashed .294/.361/.401, leading the Pirates in many categories. Their offense would finish much like their pitching – dead last. But little blame for those struggles could be attached to O’Connell, who had become a team leader in addition to his productivity at the plate.
That’s what the Braves thought they were acquiring on this day in 1953. They had finished 13 games behind the Dodgers for the NL pennant during the year but were beginning to round into form. Catcher Del Crandall, first baseman Joe Adcock, and second-year third baseman Eddie Mathews were all established along with shortstop Johnny Logan, the sparkplug for Milwaukee. Warren Spahn and the young duo of Johnny Antonelli and Bob Buhl anchored a pitching staff that finished with the best ERA in the league. What they needed was to improve in the outfield and at second base.
They thought they had an option for the outfield. Just 19 years-old in 1953, Hank Aaron had hit .362 with 22 homers in Jacksonville of the South Atlantic League. He’d join Bill Bruton and Andy Pafko in the outfield. Milwaukee had long coveted Red Schoendienst, but found the price a bit too expensive. They settled on O’Connell to join Adcock, Logan, and Mathews on their young and excellent infield.
The trade cost a lot – at least in players. Sid Gordon hit .274/.372/.461 the previous year with 19 home runs. At 35, his best days were well behind him, but he was still a productive hitter. Trading him did open up a spot for Aaron, though. Interestingly, the Braves could have stuck with Gordon and went with Aaron at second base. They decided that Aaron was a better fit long-term in the outfield.
Also going to Pittsburgh was Sam Jethroe, who had won the NL Rookie of the Year in 1950 when he became the first black player in modern franchise history for the Braves. He spent 1953 in the minors after losing his job, though he did hit 28 homers and steal 27 bases.
Pitcher Curt Raydon had just finished his first year in the minors with an 11-7 record and a 3.50 ERA as a teammate of Aaron’s in Jacksonville. Max Surkont was a veteran who tossed 622 innings for Boston/Milwaukee the previous three years with a 3.96 ERA. A third pitcher, Fred Waters, spent his first year in the system after being acquired from the Dodgers mostly in Lincoln of the Western League. He wasn’t a big prospect but would be higher on the depth chart in Pittsburgh than he would have been with Milwaukee.
Finally, minor league pitcher Larry Lassalle joined the trade after going 19-5 with a 2.40 ERTA. The Pirates were very high on him as a difference maker in this trade. He’d never make it to the majors, though.
The trade appeared to many like a perfect fit. Most of the players Milwaukee was giving up were depth guys who would give Pittsburgh an infusion of talent while O’Connell would solidify a weakness for the Braves. Others weren’t so sure. Bob Carpenter, then the president of the Phillies, felt that O’Connell’s defense at second was a problem. With Mathews at third, O’Connell would have to play second unless Milwaukee moved Mathews to the outfield – which they tried, but ultimately gave up on.
When the 1954 season opened, the now 25-year-old seemed to prove the Braves right for all of their confidence in him. He drove in three runs on opening day and through his first 17 games, he was hitting .342/.364/.397. Less than a week later, his OPS fell under .700. It never again climbed over. By June, he had been removed from the #2 spot in the lineup because he wasn’t getting on base. He rebounded some to finish the year at .279/.326/.357, but he was a utility player by season’s end. Injuries to Mathews and Adcock gave him a bit more time at the corners to finish the year, but it wasn’t the kind of season the Braves envisioned when they traded for him.
O’Connell did himself few favors in the offseason, complaining about how his teammates had not stood up for their hitters, especially Adcock who had been beaned with a pitch that August. O’Connell also wrote an apology to his manager, Charlie Grimm, after saying Grimm was “too easy on the players.” The implication was that Grimm’s easy-going style cost the Braves a chance to win the pennant.
In ’55, O’Connell would be slowed by back spasms to begin the year. It opened up more time for Jack Dittmer and even Aaron played some games there to allow the aging Pafko a chance to play a bit more. In the end, the Braves had wasted another year of Mathews/Aaron/Spahn by finishing in second place. O’Connell had been a massive disappointment, hitting just .225 with a .276 OBP. His six homers were the fewest by any of the Braves’ regulars and the batting average was the worst among major league regulars.
The following season, O’Connell was yet again in the mix as the Braves were slow to replace any of the regulars. O’Connell would start slow, but after a benching in early June, he’d come alive. He had a three-triple game on June 13 and five multi-hit games in the first 17 games after returning to the lineup. The torrid pace, including a .423 OBP and .585 SLG, upped his season numbers to .280/.373/.423. For a moment, it looked like O’Connell had finally arrived.
But it was fleeting. He went 1-for-5 the next game and disappeared into a dry spell. Oh, he had a few notable games (4-hit game vs. Brooklyn, three other 3-hit games), but his numbers slumped to .239/.342/.321 by season’s end. He had been given a leadoff responsibility so he set a new personal high in walks with 76, but that was one of his only good notes from his three-year run in Milwaukee. He was hitting just .249/.317/.332 as a Brave and considering his suspect defense, he was an obvious weakness for three Milwaukee teams that all finished no worse than third place.
Fred Haney, who had been O’Connell’s manager in Pittsburgh, was hired to replace Grimm during ’56. He guided them to a strong 68-40 finish and they had been a half-game up on the Dodgers entering their final two games but failed to secure the division and their first trip to the playoffs in 1914. As the ’57 season opened, the Braves still had a problem with second base and no solutions. There remained the option of moving Mathews to left field to open up third base for O’Connell, but doing so would have meant young Felix Mantilla would have played that position or pushed Logan to second. That wasn’t certain to help anymore than keeping O’Connell there.
For the first two months, O’Connell continued to struggle and the Braves grew restless. With his slash at .235/.312/.311, the Braves finally made their move. On June 15, nearly a year after the Cardinals had traded Schoendienst to the Giants, New York moved him to the Braves. The Giants re-acquired former hero Bobby Thomson, starter Ray Crone, and O’Connell. The Braves finally had the guy they had wanted for so long. Schoendienst was on the backend of his career, but the former World Series Champion with the Cardinals finished very strong. Over the final 93 games, Schoendienst hit .310/.348/.434. He paced the lead with 200 hits, the first time the 34-year-old had ever reached the 200-hit mark. He also finished third in the NL MVP race.
Schoendienst would pick up five hits and drove in two runs during Milwaukee’s win over the Yankees in the World Series. He played three more seasons for Milwaukee, though he spent much of the time injured. He did go 9-for-30 in the World Series in ’58, but the Braves lost in seven to the Yankees.
O’Connell wouldn’t have the same level of success. He perked up after the trade, finishing with an OPS about a hundred points higher with New York than it had been with Milwaukee. He joined the Giants for their 1958 move to San Francisco but was no longer considered a starting option. They cut him in 1960 during spring training. After a year in the Pacific Coast League, O’Connell signed with the Senators and was a regular for them in 1961 before falling off the next year. His career was over from there.
The 1953 trade for O’Connell was a big investment for the Braves. It cost them a number of players – some of which could have been dealt in trades to acquire other talent. But it was the kind of move a team that believes they are a player away makes. They swing for the fences. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, O’Connell never got close. However, he did help them acquire the guy who did help to get them there so there’s that silver lining.