Revisiting the Frank Robinson Trade, Part II: The Milt Pappas Trade

Photo via www.baseball-almanac.com

Everyone knows the story of the trade that brought Milt Pappas to the Reds. But the story of the trade that sent him away is important to remember for entirely different reasons.

Just after midnight the morning of June 5, 1968, United States Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was shot in a Los Angeles hotel. He died of his wounds one day later. The funeral was scheduled for Saturday, June 8, and the following day, June 9, had been declared a national day of mourning by President Lyndon Johnson. Baseball commissioner William "Spike" Eckert was faced with a decision on how to handle the baseball games scheduled to be played over those two days.

Initially, Eckert decreed that no games should be played on Saturday, June 8 until Kennedy’s funeral was completed. There was a funeral mass scheduled that afternoon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, after which Kennedy’s remains were to be transported by train to Arlington National Cemetery, where at 5 pm he would be laid to rest alongside his brother John. Some Saturday afternoon games were cancelled outright, including games in New York and Washington, D.C. All other afternoon games were postponed to that evening, to begin after the burial was to be completed. Among these postponed games was the game between the Cardinals and the Reds that was to be played at Crosley Field in Cincinnati.

However, due to the massive outpouring of grief, the train carrying Kennedy’s body was delayed. Mourners gathered along the train tracks to witness the train passing, and there were such large crowds that the train was unable to gather speed. The train didn’t arrive in Washington, D.C. until after 9 pm, and the burial wasn’t completed until 10:30 that night. To this day, the burial of Robert F. Kennedy is the only night burial in the history of Arlington National Cemetery.

Back in Cincinnati, the players were well aware of this delay. The teams met separately to decide what to do. The Cardinals voted to cancel the game, but as the home team, the decision was ultimately left to the Reds. The meeting to decide what to do was led by the Reds player representative, pitcher Milt Pappas.

It’s important to note that this was the infancy of the MLB Player’s Association as we know it today. Marvin Miller had been hired as executive director only two years prior. The first ever Collective Bargaining Agreement between the MLBPA and the owners had just been signed in February of 1968. The role of the player representative was to keep his team informed of MLBPA business and to represent his team in meetings with ownership. However, as Miller noted in his memoir A Whole Different Ball Game, player representatives were often viewed as agitators and troublemakers by their front offices, and were traded disproportionately often, even when they were top performers.

Pappas was adamant that the game should be cancelled. Manager Dave Bristol was equally adamant that the game should be played. The team took a vote on the matter, which resulted in a 12-12 tie with one abstention. It is unknown which player abstained. According to the book The Summer of ‘68, by Tim Wendell, Bristol then began actively campaigning the players to defy Pappas, and when a second vote was taken, the result was 13-12 in favor of playing. The Summer of ‘68 also quotes Pappas as shouting at his teammates that they had made the wrong decision as they prepared to take the field without him. The game, scheduled for a 7:00 start, finally began at 7:45. The Cardinals won 7-2.

While the incident in Cincinnati was the most contentious of the day, several players around baseball refused to play even though their teams went ahead with their games. Among these were Bob Aspromonte and Rusty Staub of the Astros, both of whom were fined by Astros management, and Maury Wills of the Pirates, who stayed in the clubhouse throughout his team’s game reading Robert Kennedy’s book To Seek a Newer World. Wills was presumably not punished at that time. After the Reds game, Pappas resigned as player representative and told the Associated Press that his "days with the club are numbered." The Sporting News wrote "Pappas lost a power struggle within the club" in this incident.

The next day, Sunday, June 9, the national day of mourning, the Cardinals and Reds had a doubleheader scheduled. The Cardinals, led by their player representative, catcher Tim McCarver (yes, that Tim McCarver - besides being a standout catcher in his day, he was also a strong early supporter of the player’s union) again voted to postpone the game. But this time, presumably as a reaction to the chaos of the day before, Commissioner Eckert declared that the management of each home team, not the players, would determine whether the games would be played. Only the Orioles and Red Sox management cancelled their games. Unsurprisingly, Reds management wanted the games played, although there was a short memorial before the first game began. The Cardinals won the first game, 10-8 and the Reds won the second game, 7-6. Pappas appeared in both games as a relief pitcher, and was credited with the win in the second game. He was booed by the Cincinnati fans in both outings. These would be his final appearances in a Cincinnati Reds uniform.

On June 11, Pappas was traded to the Atlanta Braves (where, incidentally, he became a teammate of Dusty Baker), along with pitcher Ted Davidson and infielder Bob Johnson. The Reds received pitchers Tony Cloninger and Clay Carroll, and infielder Woody Woodward in return. Reds management denied that the Kennedy incident was a factor in the trade. Pappas, for his part, was not surprised, saying "I knew I was going. It was only a matter of where and when." Tellingly, Aspomonte and Staub were both traded after the 1968 season, and Wills was left unprotected in that offseason’s expansion draft and was picked up by the Montreal Expos expansion team. It could be a coincidence that the players who were most outspoken in their disagreement with baseball management about the handling of the Kennedy situation were all playing for new teams the following season. But somehow I doubt it.

Milt Pappas began his Reds career being booed by his team’s fans because he was the result of an unpopular trade. He ended his Reds career being booed by his team’s fans because he dared disagree with team management on an issue that was important to him. 45 years later, he’s mostly remembered for being the insufficient return in one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. This is a shame. Pappas was not only a very good pitcher, but he had the courage to stand up for what he believed in during a tumultuous time in American history, and he deserves better than being the answer to a trivia question.




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