Swapping Stories: The Lenny Randle Trade of 1977

April 26, 1977: Texas trades second baseman Lenny Randle to the New York Mets for a player to be named later (Rick Auerbach) and cash.

He was described as an exceedingly intelligent ballplayer, soft-spoken, introspective, and popular with his teammates. He was fluent in three languages, didn’t drink alcohol, and was working toward a master’s degree in special education.

But none of those bullet points survived what was unquestionably the ugliest ten seconds in Rangers franchise history, a vicious instant on March 28, 1977 that defined Lenny Randle’s legacy as a Texas Ranger and a professional athlete, and led to a trade for an inferior player who would never wear a Rangers uniform.

Randle was a two-sport star at Arizona State, the second baseman on the 1969 NCAA championship baseball team and a return specialist whose five punt returns for touchdowns stood as a Western Athletic Conference record for 35 years. He was the first-round pick of the Washington Senators in the secondary phase of the June 1970 draft, 10th overall, and was in the big leagues the following year.

With a game predicated on speed, the ability to handle the bat, and solid glovework all over the field, Randle had settled in as the Rangers’ starting second baseman in 1976 after splitting the 1975 season between second base, center field, and third base. But he hit only .224/.286/.273 in 1976, a significant dropoff from the season before.

Meanwhile, in those two seasons, a second baseman named Elliott “Bump” Wills, the son of the legendary Maury Wills, had hit .307 for Class AA Pittsfield and .324 for Class AAA Sacramento, after the Rangers had drafted him in the first round in 1975 — also out of Arizona State. Texas was ready to usher in the Bump Wills era in 1977, essentially anointing him as the starter going into camp.

Randle threatened to walk out of camp. Generally easygoing manager Frank Lucchesi was incensed. “It’s just too **** bad somebody stopped him from leaving,” he told a group of reporters. “I’m tired of these punks saying play me or trade me. Anyone who makes $80,000 a year and gripes and moans all spring is not going to get a tear out of me.”

Lucchesi insisted that the writers print what he said. They complied.

Randle was already upset about losing his job to an unproven rookie. Being called out like that by his skipper was more than he could take.

On March 28, 1977 — the day that the new issue of Sports Illustrated featured Wills on the cover — Texas had traveled to Orlando for a spring training game against the Twins. An hour before the first pitch, Randle walked up to Lucchesi during Rangers batting practice and said he wanted to talk to the 49-year-old, who was still in street clothes. After a few words were exchanged, Randle punched Lucchesi in the face, landing several more blows as the manager fell to the ground.

Randle broke Lucchesi’s cheekbone in three places. Some teammates rushed to Lucchesi’s aid. Others had to restrain outfielder Ken Henderson from going after Randle, who calmly jogged out to center field to run wind sprints and shag flies.

Teammates knew Randle to be hard-nosed on the field, but this was completely out of character for the well-liked infielder. Longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Jim Reeves, covering his first spring training on the Rangers beat, agreed. “Randle wasn’t a bad guy. He was quiet, composed, literate, and well spoken. He just flipped for some reason, ruining his career and probably Lucchesi’s, too.”

Lucchesi was hospitalized for a week, needing plastic surgery to repair his fractured cheekbone and recovering from bruises to his kidney and back. He was back with the team just in time for the season opener.

But Randle wasn’t. The Rangers suspended him for 30 days without pay and fined him $10,000. On April 26, before the suspension was complete, Texas traded him to the New York Mets for a player to be named later and cash. Four days after that, he appeared for the Mets as a defensive replacement in left field. The next day he started at second base, contributing two singles, a triple, and a stolen base. He was on his way to his best season, setting career marks in batting average (.304), on-base percentage (.383), slugging percentage (.404), home runs (five), and stolen bases (33).

On May 20, the Mets sent Texas 27-year-old infielder Rick Auerbach, a lifetime .219 hitter in parts of six big league seasons, to complete the trade. He never suited up for the Rangers. Less than four weeks later, Texas sold Auerbach to Cincinnati, his fourth organization in just over four months.

Texas put together a 94-win season in 1977, setting a franchise mark for wins that would stand until 1999. But neither Randle nor Lucchesi would be around for it. Randle started the season on suspension and was traded before ever suiting up. Lucchesi was fired on June 22, 1977, with the Rangers sitting at 31-31.

Randle would plead no contest to battery charges in a Florida court, getting slapped with a $1,050 fine. Lucchesi filed a civil suit against Randle, seeking a reported $200,000 in damages but settling out of court for $25,000 — which was probably less than his hospital bill, based on published reports.

The Mets got three seasons out of Randle, who then spent a few months in the minor leagues with San Francisco and Pittsburgh, one season with the Yankees, one with the Cubs, and two with Seattle before starring in Italy.

Lucchesi, who says he does not remember the attack, told a reporter from his hospital bed that same day, “My only wish is that I was ten years younger so I could have handled the situation myself.”

But if Lucchesi were in fact young enough to have escalated the fight, or even put a quick end to it, it would not have prevented it from being among the worst episodes in Rangers history, days before the club would embark on one of its greatest seasons ever, a season that would end with neither Lucchesi nor Randle around to enjoy it.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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