Just a few weeks before the 1969 season kicked off, the Braves acquired a former MVP. Unfortunately, it cost them a future MVP.
Joe Torre appeared for the Braves first in 1960 before becoming the runner-up for the 1961 Rookie of the Year. Slowly, but surely, he grew into a power-hitting catcher. He hammered 20 home runs in 1964 and in 1966, the franchise’s first season in Atlanta, he bashed 36 home runs. However, over the next two seasons, his numbers declined. In 1967, he hit just 20 homers with a .790 OPS. Injuries limited him to 115 games the following season and when he did play, he didn’t look like the old Torre. Never a defensive wonder behind the plate, with his offense declining, Torre was a question mark.
At the same time, the Braves thought they had their next star catcher. A fourth-round pick in 1967, Bob Didier flashed a smooth glove behind the plate. Despite being just 20 years-old, Atlanta was pretty excited. Didier would soon pair with Phil Niekro to form a solid battery after Torre expressed disdain at handling Niekro’s knuckler. Didier’s bat, however, was fairly – well – dead. After starting 108 games in 1969, he started just 101 games over the next three seasons – almost entirely with Niekro.
As the Braves tried to decide what to do with Torre, they also sought some offense to help out Hank Aaron and Felipe Alou. Only three teams in the NL scored fewer runs in 1968 than the Braves. If Torre couldn’t deliver bigger numbers, maybe someone else would.
Atlanta was preparing to welcome back Rico Carty, which helped. Adding a player like Orlando Cepeda seemed like a perfect addition as well. Atlanta had enough pitching to stay competitive with Niekro, Ron Reed, Pat Jarvis, and George Stone. Cecil Upshaw would be stellar in 1969 to give the bullpen a boost. Adding Cepeda gave the Braves a little more thunder in their lineup. Two years before, the 1958 Rookie of the Year added a Most Valuable Player award, hitting .325/.399/.524.
While his teammate Bob Gibson was enjoying The Year of the Pitcher, Cepeda was one of the players who struggled greatly. In one year, his OPS slid from .923 to .685. Like the Braves with Torre, the Cardinals were concerned about Cepeda moving forward.
The trade wasn’t as simple as moving chairs on the deck to best fit the needs of each team, though. Paul Richards, then the VP of the Braves, was in the midst of a spat with Joe Torre. Here is a description from the Cardinals’ blog, On This Day in Cardinal Nation:
The wheels were in motion to move Torre out of the Braves several months before the deal was made. Torre had been in a verbal feud with the vice president of the Braves organization Paul Richards since the early part of that year. As an active member of the players association, Torre was fighting to improve the players pension plan.
You could imagine this did not go over well with those who had the money he was trying to help spend. As the feud escalated Torre refused to sign his contract with the Braves. He was demanding more money as well as an apology from Richards. They were at a point of irreconcilable differences, as Richards was quoted as to saying “Torre could hold out to Thanksgiving.” The Braves organization engaged in trade talks with the New York Mets for several months before realizing that they would not be able to get a deal done. Then came a conversation with Bing Devine. Four hours later, Torre was headed to St. Louis.
After the trade, Cepeda would bounce back a little. He hit 22 homers, finishing second on the ’69 Braves behind Aaron in that category. However, he hit just .257/.325/.428 – a far cry from his MVP season just two years before. The Braves offense continued to struggle despite the return of Carty and performance by Cepeda, finishing fifth in the NL in runs scored. Alou’s bat disappearing was a big reason for that finish. But the Braves still won the newly formed NL West and played the New York Mets in the NLCS. Atlanta lost in four straight by a deficit of at least three runs each time. You couldn’t blame Cepeda, who went 5-for-11 with two doubles and a homer.
Cepeda would explode the following year, slashing .305/.365/.543 with 34 home runs. Atlanta fell to fifth place, though. The three-headed monster of Aaron/Carty/Cepeda continued to hit well, but the Braves failed to surround the trio with much support. Even if they had, the pitching staff fell to ninth of 12 NL teams in ERA. With the Braves slumping, Cepeda’s “good knee” wasn’t so good anymore and he went home in September after having surgery.
With his knees shot, Cepeda would play in just 71 games in 1971. The following year, he tried to play through the pain for the Braves before being shipped off to Oakland for Denny McLain. Also, a former MVP, McLain was likewise struggling to regain his former form. Both Cepeda and McLain barely played for their new clubs. The latter was cut the next March before the season began. While 1972 would be the end of McLain’s career, Cepeda briefly found life after the AL adopted the DH.
Meanwhile, Torre spent most of his Cardinals career at first base and third base. He also re-found his stroke. He OPS’d .808 in 1969 before following that up with a .325/.398/.498 season in 1970. The next year, he took home the MVP after winning a batting title and hitting .363/.421/.555. After a trio of good seasons followed, Torre finished up his career with three seasons in Flushing with the Mets. Surprisingly, he would never play a postseason game.
In the short-term, Atlanta benefited from this trade. Cepeda helped them win a division. Torre would prove to be a better and durable player versus where Cepeda was at that point in his career, though. Of course, Torre would later find fame as a manager with the Mets, Braves, Cardinals, and Dodgers. It was his team at the helm of the Yankees, however, that would get Torre into the Hall of Fame. In addition, for the Braves, it took another decade to find a player who brought some stability behind the plate for the team like Torre did. Moral of the story: maybe not deal a franchise catcher because you don’t like his opinions on labor relations.