September 24, 2020

From the Archives: “The Midnight Massacre”

September 2, 2020 by · 9 Comments 

Rest in Peace, Tom Seaver, and thank you for the memories (November 17, 1944-August 31, 2020).

(Editor’s Note: This was originally posted on February 9, 2008.)

June 15, 1977: Mets ace Tom Seaver to the Reds for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson and Dan Norman.

In one of the blockbuster trades in baseball history, the New York Mets sent Tom Seaver to the world champion Cincinnati Reds last night for four players of far less magnitude.”—Joe Durso, New York Times, June 16, 1977

That was the reality Mets fans woke up to on Thursday morning, June 16, 1977. Their ace pitcher, a hero and icon to many and the face of the Mets franchise, had been unceremoniously dealt to the Cincinnati Reds for four players of “far less magnitude,” a pitcher, a utility infielder, and two minor league outfielders. In addition to Seaver, the Mets sent slugger Dave Kingman to San Diego for Bobby Valentine, another utility infielder, and pitcher Paul Siebert, and dealt utility infielder Mike Phillips to the Cardinals for Joel Youngblood, yet another utility man.

More than 35 years later, Mets fans still refer to that moment as “The Midnight Massacre.”

While the Seaver trade angered most Mets fans (some sided with the Mets front office; others sided with neither), the deal didn’t come as a complete surprise. In fact, relations between Seaver and the Mets had soured more than a year earlier when the three-time Cy Young Award winner demanded a three-year deal worth a reported $800,000 and threatened to play out his option and test free agency if he didn’t get what he wanted.

A’s pitcher Catfish Hunter was granted free agency in mid-December 1974 and signed a lucrative deal reported to be worth $3.75 million with the Yankees two weeks later. A year later, the Players Association filed a grievance on behalf of pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith in an effort to challenge the reserve clause. The players won. Free agency was just around the corner and the players could taste it.

If Seaver refused to sign his contract and the club chose to renew it anyway, he’d be free to sign with whomever he chose in 1977. “Suppose I’m in a position to play out my option next year because of a decision on the reserve clause,” Seaver told reporters. “At 31, how much is my value enhanced to another club? I want to play for the Mets, but it would be silly not to consider playing out my option. My first loyalty is to my family, not to the Mets.”

The Mets were loathe to embrace the changing economic landscape so they countered Seaver’s demands by renewing his contract without his consent, an obligation they had based on the rules of the Basic Agreement at that time. “We are disturbed that we’ve had to renew Tom’s contract without his signature,” claimed Mets general manager Joe McDonald. “It’s the first time we’ve renewed a contract that way in the 13 years the Mets have been in business.”

Then McDonald initiated trade talks with a handful of teams, all of whom “expressed amazement” that they would trade the best pitcher in baseball. But the Mets had little choice. By renewing Seaver’s contract without his signature, they risked losing him after the 1976 season with nothing to show for it.

Rumors began to swirl. The Dodgers expressed interest and the Los Angeles Times speculated that shortstop Bill Russell, catcher Joe Ferguson and relief pitcher Mike Marshall might be had in a deal for Seaver. A couple weeks later, a story out of Los Angeles had Seaver possibly going to the Dodgers for Ferguson or Bill Buckner and ace pitcher Don Sutton. Dave Anderson of the New York Times warned that if the Mets didn’t accept Seaver’s demands, the Yankees would be more than happy to.

Prior to 1976, the Mets’ front office appeared to have been very generous to Seaver and only twice in his first nine years had either side expressed dismay during contract negotiations, at least openly. They doubled his salary to $25,000 after he won the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award in 1967, then increased it to $35,000 after the 1968 season. When Seaver led the Mets to a World Series title and won his first Cy Young Award in 1969, the team rewarded him with a $45,000 raise, bumping his salary to $80,000.

His new contract was the talk of baseball as reporters waxed that Babe Ruth didn’t earn $80,000 until he was 33 years old and already had 14 seasons under his belt (of course they forgot to take into account that Ruth’s 1928 salary was equivalent to over $180,000 in 1970 dollars based on the Consumer Price Index and he had the economic influence of someone making over $850,000).

After a “sub-par” 1970 season in which the hurler won “only” 18 games, the Mets awarded him with an “appreciation” raise of $5,000 prior to the 1971 season. He rebounded to win 20 games and lopped more than a run off his already impressive ERA, then finished second to Fergie Jenkins in Cy Young Award voting. Seaver felt that he was due for another substantial raise and asked for $125,000. The Mets countered with an offer of $110,000. Seaver called the negotiations the “most depressing” he’d ever had with the club. Less than a week later, the Mets upped their offer to $120,000 and Seaver signed the deal.

Seaver won 20 games again in 1972, finishing at 21-12 with a 2.92 ERA, and he finished fifth in Cy Young balloting. He also made his seventh straight All-Star team. Despite another successful season, the Mets offered Seaver a contract that was only $10,000 more than he’d made the previous season. The pitcher countered by asking for a $30,000 raise. The sides compromised and settled on a one-year, $140,000 deal.

Then Seaver pitched the Mets to the playoffs for the second time in five years, going 19-10 with a 2.08 ERA. He lost two of three postseason decisions, but was otherwise magnificent, recording a 1.99 ERA in 31 2/3 innings, but the Mets fell to the A’s in the World Series. He won his second Cy Young Award, however, and finished eighth in MVP balloting.

During the offseason, Seaver engaged the Mets in negotiating a new contract and again the sides disagreed about Seaver’s worth. When asked about the stalemate, then general manager Bob Scheffing told reporters, “We haven’t made much progress. He doesn’t think he’s asking too much, but it’s a lot in my opinion…There has to be someplace where you draw the line and say this is all the best pitcher in baseball is worth. That’s where we are now.” Seaver and Scheffing agreed to a new deal three weeks later that pocketed the hurler $170,000 and made him the highest paid pitcher in baseball.

In 1974 Seaver developed sciatica in his left hip and struggled through the season, winning only 11 games and posting his highest ERA (3.20) since becoming a big leaguer in 1967. M. Donald Grant, chairman of the Mets board of directors, couldn’t wait to cut Seaver’s salary by the maximum 20% allowed by the collective bargaining agreement. The $34,000 pay cut dropped Seaver’s salary to $136,000, but he took it all in stride. “No, I wasn’t disturbed that I got cut after one bad year,” said the Mets ace. “The ball club’s been very good and honest with me, and I with them. They paid me a good amount of money last year and I didn’t pitch up to that amount.”

To Grant’s credit, he revoked the pay cut and reinstated Seaver’s $170,000 contract when his star hurler went 22-9 with a 2.38 ERA in 1975 and won his third Cy Young Award.

But relations grew contentious from there. In the wake of Hunter’s deal with the Yankees, salaries grew at an alarming rate, at least as far as management was concerned, and McDonald feared things were getting out of hand. Royals first baseman, John Mayberry, signed a five-year, $1-million contract in mid-March 1976 and Red Sox center fielder, Fred Lynn, was demanding a $1.2 million deal after only a year of major league service. But Dave Anderson insisted that, considering what Seaver had meant to the Mets, he was a bargain at $800,000 over three years.

While Seaver was negotiating his own deal, he was also playing a prominent role in the Players Association’s battle with the owners over a new collective bargaining agreement and he was very outspoken about his opinions. But he always had been, making his feelings known not only about Organized Baseball’s issues, but about the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War and student unrest in the late 1960s. Seaver was such a polarizing figure that he received a telegram from the infamous “Chicago Eight” prior to the final game of the 1969 World Series wishing him luck in his battle against the “aggressors of the Amerikan (sic) League.”

Resentment grew between Seaver and the Mets during the offseason. Still Seaver admitted that he’d be surprised if the Mets traded him. On April 3, 1976 Grant told Seaver that his demands were unacceptable. Two days later it was announced that the Mets had reached an agreement with Seaver on a three-year deal worth $675,000. At $225,000 per annum, Seaver would be the highest paid pitcher in baseball.

Still Seaver resented the way he was treated by Grant and McDonald. His anger smoldered for almost a year before he lashed out at the Mets executives during spring training in 1977. “I was made an example of,” he told reporters. “I was pictured as the ingrate, after nine years with the club. I was to be punished.”

Then he criticized Grant and McDonald for not strengthening the club through free agency. “How can you not even try?” he asked. “We traded our center fielder last year. How can a team that depends so much on pitching trade its center fielder without a replacement?”

Seaver was referring to a deal that sent Del Unser and infielder Wayne Garrett to Montreal for outfielders Jim Dwyer and Pepe Mangual on July 21. Unser committed only one error in 76 games playing center field for the Mets, but hit only .228. Mangual committed one error in 38 games and batted only .186. Giants outfielder Gary Matthews hit .279 with 20 homers and 84 RBIs and parlayed that into a five-year, $1.75 million deal with the Braves (depending on the source, the amount ranged from $1.2 million to $1.75 million).

Seaver couldn’t understand why the Mets didn’t make a stronger effort to sign Matthews in the offseason. Grant insisted that he’d offered Matthews $1.2 million, but the outfielder rejected it in favor of Atlanta’s offer. (In hindsight, it was odd that the Mets made a play for Matthews at all. For one, he wasn’t a center fielder, he was a left fielder, and the Mets already had a capable left fielder in John Milner, whose 136 OPS+ in 1976 was better than Matthews’ 125. Secondly, Matthews was a horrible defensive player who could barely handle playing left field, let alone center field. Had the Mets signed Matthews and put him in center field in 1977, the pitching staff would have revolted. Actually they eventually did, but for different reasons).

Then Seaver publicly sided with slugger Dave Kingman, who was in his own contract squabble with the Mets, which just rubbed more salt into the festering wounds. Kingman had paced the Mets in homers in his first two years with the team, blasting 36 in 1975 and 37 in 1976. Only Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt hit more over that span. Now the Mets slugger wanted to be compensated for his home run prowess and was demanding a contract comparable to that recently signed by Reggie Jackson, a five-year deal worth $3 million.

At the March 15 interleague trading deadline, the Seaver-to-the-Dodgers rumors began anew and again they involved Don Sutton, who was unhappy that the Dodgers signed first baseman Steve Garvey to a six-year deal worth $1.75 million after they inked Sutton to a deal worth only $1 million over five years. A week later Seaver told reporters he’d welcome a trade to the Dodgers, but would especially like to pitch for the Reds. “It might be nice to know that I would pitch for a team that averaged five or six runs a game.” Writers were already speculating that Seaver would win 25-30 games pitching for Cincinnati.

A three-cornered deal was allegedly agreed upon that would send Seaver to Los Angeles, Sutton to Boston and slugger Jim Rice to New York, but the Mets reconsidered and killed the trade. A Seaver-for-Pete-Rose rumor was shot down as well. Grant continued to deny that he was trying to trade his star pitcher or that he was even entertaining offers for him. “No, no, a thousand times no,” he insisted. “We do not want to trade Tom Seaver.”

The team was, however, trying to trade Kingman after he demanded they do so in the wake of their refusal to meet his contract demands, which had dropped to $2 million over six years. The Mets were willing to pay him only $200,000 per year and gave the outfielder the option of signing for anywhere from two to six years, but they were unwilling to agree to a higher dollar amount.

The feud between Kingman and the front office was beginning to take its toll on the rest of the team. Mets manager Joe Frazier threatened to bench Kingman if he didn’t shut up about his contract. First baseman Ed Kranepool, a 16-year veteran who’d played for the Mets since the franchise’s inception in 1962, openly complained about Kingman’s absence from workouts. Pitcher Jon Matlack admitted he’d go ballistic if Kingman’s demands were met. “If they sign him for a lot of money, and if they then go to Tom Seaver and make it up to him because of Kingman, I’ll tear this place apart,” promised the pitcher.

The 1977 season began and Kingman still hadn’t signed a contract. He told everyone that would listen that he was going to play out his option, then file for free agency in the offseason.

Then the two embittered stars went to work. Seaver won the season opener at Wrigley Field, 5-3. Kingman hit a two-run homer in the third inning of the second game to stake the Mets to a 4-0 lead in a game they’d eventually win 8-6. And so it went. On April 20 it was announced that Seaver had been named National League Player of the Week after he’d thrown consecutive shutouts, one of which was a one-hitter, en route to a 3-0 record and a 1.67 ERA. Meanwhile Kingman had recorded a hit in every game but one and was batting .349 and slugging .674.

Seaver bumped his record to 4-0 and was named National League Pitcher of the Month for April. Kingman’s hot bat cooled a little, but he was still batting .294 and slugging .588 when the month came to a close and was tied for third in home runs with six. The Mets were in fourth place, three games behind the first-place Cardinals. The Dodgers, at 17-3, were running away with the National League West, while the Reds were a distant second, 7 1/2 games back.

Seaver lost his first game of the season on May 5 to the Dodgers. The following day he called Grant a “bleeping maniac” for telling the Mets that an upcoming exhibition game against the Yankees was a “must-win situation.”

“Here we are in our worst slump of the season, we’ve lost four in a row, and all he’s worrying about is an exhibition game that doesn’t mean a damn thing,” said an exasperated Seaver. “Wouldn’t you think, the way we’re going, he’d find something more to concern himself with?”

Grant fired back. “He’s gone off the deep end. He’s disappointed that he didn’t get what the free agents got and he can’t stand it. He’s disappointed that he can’t make their money. . .and he didn’t have the guts to go for it.” Indeed lesser pitchers like Don Gullet and Wayne Garland were signing lucrative deals with the Yankees and Indians, respectively, for upwards of $2 million.

Seaver wasn’t the only pitcher unhappy with the Mets front office, though. After falling to 1-4 on the season on May 8, Matlack expressed his dissatisfaction with management and demanded to be traded. Jerry Koosman expressed his frustration as well, directing his ire at the Mets offense, or lack thereof. “Working without any runs is starting to get to me after 10 years,” the southpaw complained. At 3.22 runs per start, Koosman was getting the worst run support on the staff. Seaver again ripped Grant and McDonald for not signing Matthews when they had a chance.

As May morphed into June, it was reported that Seaver would agree to be dealt to one of only four teamsthe Dodgers, Reds, Phillies or Pirates. The Phillies made an offer of major leaguers and prospects and were willing to renegotiate Seaver’s contract, and the Pirates and Dodgers expressed interest, but refused to part with anything substantial.

Most experts believed the Reds had the best chance of landing the pitcher and were the most desperate to acquire his services. Fred Norman (7-2, 2.70) and Jack Billingham (7-3, 3.80) were having good seasons anchoring the Reds rotation, but Pat Zachry was struggling, Gary Nolan was an injury waiting to happen, Woodie Fryman had been ineffective and was bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen, and rookie Tom Hume was awful in three starts before he, too, was sent to the bullpen.

On June 14, one day before the trade deadline, it was reported that Seaver would be dealt to the Reds for closer Rawley Eastwick, who was at odds with Reds management over his contract, and infielder Doug Flynn. Parton Keese of the New York Times speculated the deal might also include outfielder Ken Griffey. Meanwhile Seaver, in a last ditch effort to stay with the Mets, went over Grant’s head and contacted Mets owner Lorinda deRoulet to discuss a new contract. Ms. deRoulet wouldn’t agree to a raise, but she allegedly agreed to give Seaver a three-year extension, the first year at $300,000 and the next two at $400,000. Trade talks were halted; Seaver was to remain a Met.

But the next day, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young destroyed any chance the Mets had of retaining their ace when he wrote, “Nolan Ryan is getting more now than Seaver, and that galls Tom because Nancy Seaver and Ruth Ryan are very friendly and Tom Seaver has long treated Nolan Ryan like a little brother.” When Seaver heard about Young’s column, he went into a rage and reiterated his desire to be traded. “I called the Mets and told them, ‘That’s it. It’s all over. Make the deal,'” Seaver later told reporters.

On June 15, 1977 Seaver was sent to the Reds for Zachry, Flynn, and minor league outfielders Steve Henderson and Dan Norman. At the time of the deal, Zachry was 3-7 with a 5.04 ERA; Flynn was hitting .250/.242/.344 in limited action, mostly at third base; Henderson, a highly-touted prospect, was hitting .326 and slugging .519 for Triple-A Indianapolis; and Norman was hitting .249 with a .411 slugging percentage for Indianapolis. Seaver was 7-3 with a 3.00 ERA.

Henderson was given the Mets’ starting left field job and played well, hitting .297 with 12 homers and 65 RBIs in 99 games, and he finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting to Montreal’s Andre Dawson. Zachry turned his season around and did a solid job for the Mets, going 7-6 with a 3.76 ERA in 19 starts. Flynn was used in a utility role and was horrible at the plate, hitting only .191/.220/.220 in 90 games. Norman was sent to Tidewater of the International League, where he hit .264 with 10 homers and 30 RBIs in 80 games.

Seaver did exactly what the Reds hoped he would. He tossed a three-hit shutout at the Expos in his first start with Cincinnati on June 18, then won 13 of his next 16 decisions, en route to a 14-3 record, and posted a 2.34 ERA. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough to help the Reds catch the Dodgers. At the time the deal was made the Reds were 32-27 (.542) and stood in second place, seven games out of first place. After the trade, Cincinnati went 56-47 (.544), a slightly better pace, but lost three more games in the standings and finished 10 games behind Los Angeles.

The Mets, to no one’s surprise, got worse after the trade. With Seaver (and Kingman) they’d won at a .426 clip (26-35); without Seaver (and Kingman) they won at a .376 clip (38-63).

Seaver spent six years in Cincinnati and went 75-46 with a 3.18 ERA in 158 starts and tossed a no-hitter at the Cardinals in 1978. He was traded back to the Mets in December 1982, spent one year in New York (9-14, 3.55), then was lost to the White Sox in January 1984 in the free agent compensation draft. He pitched for the White Sox for 2 1/2 seasons and won his 300th game in 1985, before being traded to the Red Sox mid-way through the 1986 season. He retired following the ’86 campaign with a career mark of 311-205 and a 2.86 ERA.

Henderson had a solid 12-year career, but never lived up to his rookie season or the hype he generated as a minor league star. He spent four years with the Mets and batted .287/.360/.423 in 1,800 at-bats. His .480 slugging percentage in 1977 ended up being his career best as was his 132 OPS+. After four seasons in which he failed to amass as many homers as Kingman hit in one season, he was traded to the Cubs on February 28, 1981 for, ironically enough, Dave Kingman.

Zachry proved to be the epitome of average in his six seasons with the Mets, going 41-46 with a 3.63 ERA in 135 games. He won 10 games for the Mets in 1978 and posted a 3.01 ERA in 1980, but did little else. He was traded to the Dodgers in December 1982 and enjoyed one good season as a reliever before finishing out his career with two below average years in L.A. and Philadelphia.

Flynn spent five years with the Mets and was the team’s starting second baseman in four of them. He was atrocious at the plate, hitting .234/.264/.292 in over 2,000 at-bats, but he was a good (sometimes excellent) second baseman and was awarded a Gold Glove in 1980. He was traded to the Texas Rangers in December 1981 for pitcher Jim Kern, who was subsequently sent to Cincinnati with Alex Trevino and Greg Harris for slugger George Foster.

Norman spent five years in the majors and compiled a grand total of 348 at-bats in 192 games. He batted .227/.287/.362 and hit 11 home runs, with a career best four coming in 1978. M. Donald Grant claimed after the trade, “Twenty years from now, people will remember this as the Dan Norman trade.”

Grant was forced to resign a year later.

Scoring the Seaver Trade with WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player)

Comments

9 Responses to “From the Archives: “The Midnight Massacre””
  1. Tom Stanley says:

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Stanley

  2. Mike Lynch says:

    Thanks, Tom, I appreciate that!

    Mike

  3. John Lease says:

    Mike, was part of the rush to dump Seaver also because he was about to become a 10 and 5 guy? Then he could veto any trade he didn’t like. It wasn’t many years later that the Pirates dumped Kent Tekulve for just that reason.

  4. Mike Lynch says:

    John,

    That wasn’t mentioned until the trade talks heated up in 1977 and then it only came up because Seaver gave the Mets a list of teams to whom he’d approve a trade. In almost every article that came out about contract negotiations between Joe McDonald and any of the Mets, McDonald would tell reporters, “It’s not about the contract length, it’s about the money.” In fact, that was his standard answer about everything, “It’s about the money.”

    The Mets were in no hurry to trade Seaver. They told him on a handful of occasions that they’d honor his request to be traded, then they’d drag their feet. Seaver later recounted that that was one of the things that left a bitter taste in his mouth, that and the fact that they either lied about their intention of signing free agents to improve the team or kept low-balling him during contract negotiations. When he signed his $25,000 contract in 1968, newspapers reported it as generous on the part of the Mets. Seaver later said that they wanted to bump his salary from the minimum $10,000 to $15,000 and hinted he should be grateful that they were giving him a 50% raise. He said that’s when he realized what he’d have to deal with as long as he remained a Met.

  5. Al Michaels says:

    I remember Dick Young’s article being the final impetus to the Seaver deal back then. But now that I’m reading it, I don’t know what he wrote that was so bad. Nolan Ryan was with the Angels at the time, so why did Seaver get so bent out of shape?

  6. Jeff P. says:

    I guess Johan Santana isnt the only former CYA winner traded for marginal prospects.

  7. Mike Lynch says:

    Al,

    Seaver got pissed because Young wrote about his wife. At that point, it apparently became “personal” and Seaver went nuts on the Mets front office and demanded to be traded (again). Had Young not written the article, Seaver probably would have remained a Met.

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  1. […] Mike Lynch wrote a fantastic post today on “The Midnight Massacre”Here’s ONLY a quick extractIn one of the blockbuster trades in baseball history, the New York Mets sent Tom Seaver to the world champion Cincinnati Reds last night for four players of far less magnitude.—Joe Durso, New York Times, June 16, 1977 … […]

  2. […] seems a bit harsh). After expressing dissatisfaction with the Mets front office in the mid 1970s, Seaver was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in what came to be called “the midnight massacre” that presaged […]



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