Milt Pappas: It Wasn’t His Fault
Before we discuss anything else about Milt Pappas, know this: it wasn’t his fault.
He couldn’t help that the man for whom he was traded went on to hit 49 home runs, win the Triple Crown and MVP and lead his team to the World Championship–the very year of the trade. He was blameless that American League pitchers had no idea how to get Frank Robinson out. He was not culpable for the fact that Robinson played like a man on a mission to prove that his previous owner was an imbecile. He had nothing to do whatsoever with Robinson leading his new team to four pennants in six years. It just wasn’t his fault. It really wasn’t.
And yet . . .
When Milt Pappas passed away April 19 of this year, every single obituary carried some mention, usually in the first line, that he had been on the wrong side of one of the most infamous trades in baseball history.
ESPN.com: “Milt Pappas, the former All-Star pitcher who was part of the 1965 trade . . .”
New York Times: “Milt Pappas, a cagey righthander who won 209 games in his major league career, but whose most memorable, if unlucky, legacy is that he was traded for . . .”
Daily Herald: “Milt Pappas, who came within a disputed pitch of throwing a perfect game for the Chicago Cubs in 1972 and was part of the lopsided trade that . . .”
You get the idea.
It’s sad. And unfair.
Milt Pappas was a very good major league baseball player and played a valuable roll in the early days of the players’ union. He should be remembered for more than just his inclusion in a lousy trade.
Milt Pappas first appeared in a major league uniform at the age of 18 years, a cocky kid from Detroit with a smoking fastball and great command. He pitched in four games that year and came away with a cool 1.00 ERA. That first year he roomed with another teenager, Brooks Robinson, giving the team hope for the future, albeit in two peach-fuzzed guys not yet old enough to order a beer after games.
Pappas proceeded to became the most consistent pitcher for a team known for great pitching. In 1960, as the leader of Paul Richards’ Baby Birds, he helped the Baltimore Orioles to their first winning season, and came within two weeks of pulling out a surprise pennant.
Pappas was reliable. Every year you could write him in for 15 or 16 wins–even when some of his teams were decidedly mediocre–and not be wrong. On a given day, he could beat any pitcher in the league head-to-head. He finished his career with a record of 209-164 and an ERA of 3.40. He was the first major leaguer to win 200 games without ever winning 20 in a season and he missed winning 100 games in each league by one (he won 99 National League games).
But the trade. We always have to talk about the trade. It was actually a six-player, three team swap. The Orioles sent Jackie Brandt to the Phillies for relief pitcher Jack Baldschun and first baseman Norm Siebern to the Angels for outfielder Dick Simpson, then packaged the two with Pappas to the Reds for Frank Robinson. There were reasons the Reds owner Bill DeWitt wanted to get rid of Robinson–too complicated to be listed here, but all of them tragically erroneous and misguided.
Part of the injustice is the general feeling among the public that Pappas somehow didn’t play well and live up to his part of the trade. In fact, he did. Other than a little higher ERA, he was almost equally effective before and after the trade. In eight complete seasons before the trade, he won 110 games, an average of 13.75 a year. In eight seasons after the trade, he won 99, an average of 12.38. If you throw out his total of only seven wins in his last year (everyone has a lousy last year–that’s why it’s the last), he averaged 13.14 wins a season for the seven seasons after the trade.
So there was nothing wrong with Pappas; he came as advertised. The problem was entirely the responsibility of the nearsighted bumblers in the Reds front office who allowed themselves to be royally swindled. Of course Milt Pappas, and Dick Simpson (who retired with a .207 career batting average in parts of seven seasons), and Jack Baldschun (who won exactly one game for the Reds in 1966 and zero in 1967 before being released) were not worth a Frank Robinson. Any fan with a second-grade education could have told them that.
Pappas later said that he “hated every minute in Cincinnati.” This was most prominently because of the pressure put on him by the front office, media and fans that increased with each American League home run Frank Robinson hit. The fact that Pappas’ comrades in the trade, Simpson and Baldschun, did absolutely nothing seemed to be lost to history but further increased the feeling that the Reds got hosed. But there were also other causes of difficulty for Pappas in Cincinnati.
It can not be accurately said that Milt Pappas was well-liked by everyone. His extreme confidence on the mound, brutal honesty off it and unwillingness to back down when he felt he or others had been wronged had a propensity to anger fellow players and management types alike.
Despite the fact that he was intensely competitive during games and did not have a losing season until 1968 when he went 12-13, some teammates openly questioned his work ethic and desire, at the time a charge comparable to a gunslinger being called yellow in a Dodge City saloon–you’d better be reaching for iron when you said it.
Pappas had the reputation of a being a six or seven inning pitcher. Perfectly acceptable, even preferred nowadays, but scandalously close to being viewed as a slacker in the 1960s. The reason for this reputation was that Pappas had no problem speaking the truth late in a game when a manager asked how he felt. If Pappas was gassed and thought the bullpen had a better chance of pulling the game out, he said so. He reasoned why go out there trying to be John Wayne and pitch with an arrow through your heart and lose the game, when a fresh arm can come in and finish? This tendency contributed to him throwing fewer complete games than his contemporaries and kept his yearly innings-pitched totals around 220 each year, at a time when first-line starters were expected to go 275 or more. Maybe he was just ahead of his time, but it left him open to criticism.
Perhaps the number one reason Pappas was disliked by management was his work in the nascent players union. For the majority of his career, Pappas served as a team player rep, a position voted on by team members each spring. In an era when player reps were universally viewed as trouble makers, Pappas actually sought the position and held it for all four teams for which he played. While some player reps did little, Pappas took the job very seriously. He picked the brain of respected, committed veterans such as Robin Roberts, who was a teammate with the Orioles from 1962 to 1965 and who was instrumental in the hiring of Marvin Miller as chief of the union. He studied up on the issues and fully understood the stakes and the chance that baseball players of his generation had to make improvements for the future. Modern players owe their multimillion dollar contracts to pioneers like Pappas.
Player rep Pappas was a thinking man who did not hesitate to state his opinions and as such, was labeled as a clubhouse lawyer and even a team cancer. Player union boss Marvin Miller said of Pappas, “Milt is an extremely conscientious player representative,” and noted that he attended more meetings with owners groups than any other player rep, often on his own time in the offseason.
Pappas later labeled the position “the most thankless job in baseball,” yet he kept accepting it each year.
A big issue for the Reds in the summer of 1968 was the fact that the Reds management reneged on an agreement to seat players in first class on the team’s trips, which were on commercial flights. Several Reds players, who were considerably larger than the average person, complained to Pappas that they were tired of squeezing next to yokels in cramped economy sections while the front office types, coaches, writers, and radio and television members enjoyed first class accommodations. As player rep Pappas took the complaint to the front office then, when nothing was done, to the press. For this he was roundly chastised by the media–a natural reaction when viewed with the fact that the Cincinnati Enquirer was owned by the Reds’ majority owner at the time and frequently parroted the ownership position.
Soon thereafter, Pappas punched his ticket out of Cincy (and presumably it was coach, not first class). With the nation stunned by the assassination of Robert Kennedy in early June, 1968, baseball commissioner Eckert decried that the schedule be adjusted so that no games would be played during the funeral. When the funeral was delayed due to traffic problems associated with the funeral train’s procession, the Reds-Cardinals game in Cincinnati, a 7 PM start, was in jeopardy.
Pappas felt strongly that the game should not be played. Manager Dave Bristol and general manager Bob Howsam were just as adamant that the game should go on. Howsam delivered a speech in the Reds clubhouse to the effect that Bobby Kennedy would have wanted the players to play the game. “Who is this guy anyway,” Pappas later said to a reporter, “to tell us what Bobby Kennedy would have wanted us to do?” Pappas then stood up and argued passionately against playing. A team vote was taken and the players, some of whom were privately badgered by Bristol and Howsam, voted 13-12 in favor of playing. Pappas resigned as player rep and told reporters that he knew right then his days as a Reds were numbered.
As if on cue, he was traded to the Braves two days later (Howsam told reporters the clubhouse incident had nothing to do with it, but that a trade had been in the works for some time).
Pappas was traded from the Braves to the Cubs in 1970 and enjoyed several more good years, winning 17 games each in 1971 and 1972.
His finest moment, and most frustrating also, came September 2, 1972 against the Padres at Wrigley Field. After retiring the first 26 consecutive men he faced, Pappas went 0-2 on pinch-hitter Larry Stahl, then missed with three straight pitches. With the pay-off pitch, he threw a ball he thought caught a piece of the outside corner, however home-plate umpire Bruce Froemming called it a ball. Pappas is still the only man to lose a perfect game on a walk to the 27th batter. Had Froemming possessed a better understanding of the Greek words Pappas screamed from the mound, Pappas undoubtedly would have also been the first man tossed out of a perfect game after walking the 27th batter. As it was, he retired the next man on a popup and had a no-hitter.
While his account of how close the last pitch to Stahl had been varied over the years, Pappas remained adamant that on a two-out, ninth-inning, 3-2 pitch with a perfect game on the line, the pitcher should be given an inch, at least. It was a belief he took to his grave.
After retirement from baseball, living in the Chicago area, Pappas retained his love for the game and never shied away from talking about it, or from giving his honest opinions. He was noted to enjoy mixing with fans when recognized at Cubs games. He never turned down a request for an interview or an autograph.
I had the opportunity to talk to Milt Pappas on three occasions for various projects. He was very cooperative and friendly and seemed to genuinely enjoy talking about baseball and his career. It was obvious the game never lost its appeal for him. Once, he called me back late at night when he remembered a story he wanted me to know.
I was impressed that he and Brooks Robinson not only remained friends but corresponded regularly, even though it had been almost 50 years since they were teammates.
Pappas liked to tell one of my all-time favorite Ted Williams stories. Early in his major league career, the teenaged Pappas found himself on the mound, two outs in the first inning and staring in at Teddy Ballgame. Pappas carefully worked to a full count then, as a kid just cocky enough to be dangerous, threw his best fastball right down the middle. The Splendid Splinter watched the ball all the way into the catcher’s mitt without moving his bat. Time froze as the catcher, umpire and pitcher all watched the great man for a reaction. Finally, Williams laid down his bat and started for the dugout. The umpire shot out his hand and yelled, “Strike three!” On his way to the dugout, Pappas detoured by home plate and asked the umpire, “What would you have called if he had started walking toward first base?”
“Then it would have been a ball,” came the immediate reply. “His eyes are better than mine.”
Milt Pappas, a man not afraid to stand up for his beliefs, even when they made him unpopular. And not a bad ballplayer either.
And remember, it wasn’t his fault.