Transaction Of Today…February 25, 1967 – The Atlanta Braves traded a player to be named later, Eddie Mathews and Arnold Umbach to the Houston Astros for Bob Bruce and Dave Nicholson. The Atlanta Braves sent Sandy Alomar (February 25, 1967) to the Houston Astros to complete the trade.
Shortly after graduating from high school, the Boston Braves dished out $6,000 to a kid, originally of Texarkana, Texas, who was playing baseball in Santa Barbara. The young man was a product of a couple of parents that loved and/or were familiar with the game. In fact, his mother used to throw batting practice to him while his father shagged the balls their son hit. If the poor kid hit the ball up the middle near his mother, he knew he’d have extra chores. Later on, Eddie Mathews would credit his mom for turning him into a pull hitter.
The Braves loved Mathews so much that they signed him the night of his high school graduation. Luckily for them, his father helped guide Mathews to take Boston’s offer, which wasn’t the highest total on the table because his dad believed it would be the easiest path to a starting gig at third base. Boston sent him to High Point-Thomasville as a 17-year-old. He matched his age with 17 homers. He landed with the Atlanta Crackers next and smacked another 32 homers. The Korean War briefly interrupted Mathews’ career, but he was granted a hardship discharge because his father was ill and Mathews was supporting his family via his baseball salary. Mathews only played in 49 games as a result during the 1951 season, but that did include a dozen outings with the Milwaukee Brewers, then a farm team of the Boston Braves. He’d return to Milwaukee soon.
In 1952, spring training opened and the 20-year-old competed with the aging veteran, Bob Elliott, for the third base position. The 1947 MVP, Elliott was chosen for his sixth All-Star Game the previous year so it was no guarantee that Mathews would take the position from him. Nevertheless, as his father had once predicted, he outperformed Elliott, who was traded to the Giants. After just three years in the minors, he was a starting third baseman in the majors.
Mathews hit the first 25 homers of his career in 1952, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year race. He’d hit another 487, including leading the NL twice. He’d also win a ring with Milwaukee in 1957 and ended Game 4 with a two-run walk-off bomb. With the bases loaded in the ninth inning of Game 7, Mathews backhanded a hard grounder and stepped on third base, which ended the series.
Mathews continued to show that he was one of the best offensive players in baseball throughout the Braves’ 13-year stay in Milwaukee, averaging 35 dongs per season. In 1966, he became the only person to play for the Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta Braves while hitting 16 homers in 134 games. But his time in Atlanta would be brief. A month after the Braves traded for Clete Boyer, they traded Mathews to Houston. And that’s what the meat of this article is looking at.
Officially, the deal occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1966. Heading to Houston with Mathews was pitcher Arnold Umbach while the Braves acquired right-hander Bob Bruce and slugging outfielder Dave Nicholson. A third player was also on his way to Houston as a player to be named later. And it was on this day, 53 years ago, that speedy infielder Sandy Alomar joined Mathews and Umbach as members of the Astros. He wouldn’t be there long, but I’ll get back to that.
While we all hate the Astros now, at the time, they were just a lowly expansion team who just completed their fifth year. After three years as the Colt .45s, they moved into the Astrodome in 1965 and adopted their new team name. The re-branding and new digs did nothing to change the on-the-field product. As a franchise, they had five consecutive seasons of 90 or more losses and hadn’t finished higher than eighth. That wouldn’t change in Mathews’ only season in Houston. In fact, he didn’t even last the year. With the Astros going nowhere and Mathews mostly playing first base at that point, the new member of the 500-homer club was traded in August to the Tigers. Detriot would finish one game short of the playoffs despite Mathews’ great leadership.
Mathews played one more season in Detroit, but back problems had him in traction before surgery was needed. He worked hard to get back to the team by the end of the season and even earned a spot on the World Series roster for the Tigers against the Cardinals. In Game 4, Mathews got a surprising start against Bob Gibson. He walked and singled against the phenomenal star pitcher as the Tigers lost. He wouldn’t play again in the series as Detroit came back to win the series’ final three games after losing three of the first four. Mathews’ start in Game 4 was the last time he played professional baseball.
But what about the rest of the deal? Born in Williamsburg, VA, Arnold Umbach was a right-handed arm out of Auburn. Umbach was one of the Braves’ best pitching prospects at the time, though arm troubles and walks had kept him from making his debut sooner. Finally, he got to the bigs in 1964 with Milwaukee, earning a victory in the season’s final game. Mathews didn’t play, but the game is most notable because, after 8.1 innings on the mound, Umbach was replaced by Warren Spahn. Spahn gave up a hit and a Sandy Alomar error helped two unearned runs charged to Umbach to score. From there, Spahn retired Manny Mota to end the game and the season. It was Spahn’s final game as a Brave. It was a little backward, but some thought of this moment as a passing of the torch from Spahn to one of the guys groomed to replace him and bring the Braves back to October glory.
As for Umbach, after not appearing in the Braves’ final season in Milwaukee, he made 22 appearances in 1966 with Atlanta. The numbers look pretty decent overall, but struggles with his performance and confidence led the Braves to eventually decide to re-assign him to Richmond. Believing that they had done just about all they could to get Umbach to develop, the Braves were happy to include him in the deal to Houston. The Astros, desperate for pitching, hoped a change of scenery could unlock things for the former bonus baby.
It didn’t work. Despite the Astros using 22 pitchers in 1967, Umbach was not one of them. Another opening 1968 in Double-A, Umbach retired after two outings. Umbach, who often was late to spring training because he was completing his studies at Auburn, finally finished in 1969 and got his law degree from Alabama two years later. He joined a law firm in Lee County, Alabama, that went by the name Walker, Hill, Adams, & Umbach. The firm is still in operation, though it’s now Adams, White, & Oliver, LLP.
As I’ve already mentioned, the final piece of the trade wasn’t announced until nearly two months later as Sandy Alomar moved to the Astros’ spring training home. A switch-hitter out of Puerto Rico, the “Iron Pony” got to the majors for the first time in 1964 and over three seasons with the Braves, appeared 117 times with just 214 plate appearances. The brother of three other brothers that played professional baseball, Sandy was the only one to get to the majors. The speedy infielder never played for the Astros and was traded a month later to the Mets, who subsequently dealt him that summer to Chicago’s southside. He received his first big taste of the majors in 1968 with the White Sox, who then moved him to the Angels the following year. There, he became an everyday second baseman who made an All-Star roster and twice stole 30 bases. He’d finish his career as a backup with the Yankees and Rangers.
After 227 career steals, Alomar went home to Puerto Rico, bought a gas station, and did some coaching for the national team and in winter leagues. Strangely, it was his two sons, Roberto and Sandy Jr., who led to their father getting offered a position back in organized ball. The Padres tried to make it clear that Alomar’s hiring was not a result of trying to encourage his two sons to sign with them. Both did, though. That’s just facts. The elder Alomar would continue to coach or manage in baseball for another twenty years.
As for the players the Braves got, they played 22 combined games with Atlanta in 1967 and wouldn’t play again in the majors after the season. Bob Bruce was a righty who was outstanding in 1964, though he only finished tenth in ERA with a 2.76 mark. Over a nine-year career in the majors, Bruce finished with a 3.85 ERA, but due to the era he played in, that was still 9% below average when league and park factors are taken into account. He appeared a dozen times in ’67, including seven starts. In late June, he was sent to Richmond and finished up his career with eleven games with the R-Braves.
Outfielder Dave Nicholson had considerable power – when he connected the bat with the ball. He bashed 22 homers in 1963 but led the Junior Circuit with 175 K’s. His season, as a member of the White Sox, was the best year of his career. He also played with the Orioles in 1960 and 1962 to go with his one year in Houston in 1966. With the Braves in 1967, Nicholson spent most of the year in the minors, smashing 21 homers between Richmond and Austin before a September callup to Atlanta. He went 5-for-25 in 10 games. Pushed back to the minors in 1968, he drilled 34 homers for the R-Braves, forming a nice power duo with Chuck Harrison. Both would be sold to the Royals on October 18, 1968. Harrelson appeared 124 times with the Royals between two stints in 1969 and 1971, but Nicholson only played in the minors for one year before his career was over.
As is often the case when aging Hall of Famers are traded, this deal exists mostly on name value alone rather than the players exchanged. Mathews’ time in Houston is pretty forgetful and while Alomar would go on to have a decent career, he’s known more for his progenies rather than his own career. In terms of fWAR, the most impactful player of this deal was Fred Gladding, one of the two players Houston got for Mathews when they traded him to Detroit. He contributed 1.3 fWAR to Houston over six seasons.
But it’s always noteworthy when a player so attached to one team moves on. Eddie Mathews played for the Boston Braves, suited up each year for the Milwaukee Braves, and was there when Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (simply known as Atlanta Stadium then) opened in front of 50,000 fans. It would be his only year in Atlanta. In 1978, he was elected to the Hall of Fame with 79% of the vote in his fifth year. Yeah, they screwed over players back then, too. Mathews passed away in 2001, roughly four hours away from the baseball field that bears his name at his alma mater, Santa Barbara High School.
(One final note – I hope you enjoyed this look back. I had high hopes to get back to regular posting, but obviously, that didn’t happen. And, if I’m being honest, it probably won’t. But I hope to occasionally post here and there and I recommend following me @WalkOffWalk1 on Twitter if you want to keep track of those infrequent posts. Thanks for reading!)