Swapping Stories: The Bert Campaneris Trade of 1979
May 4, 1979: Texas trades shortstop Bert Campaneris to California for infielder Dave Chalk.
Bert Campaneris boasted a Major League tenure that was eight years longer than that of the five-year-old Texas Rangers when owner Brad Corbett made the veteran shortstop the Rangers’ first noteworthy free agent signing. More significant than the healthy five-year, $400,000 contract Texas gave Campaneris was the fact that it was such a long commitment to an aging infielder whose game was built on speed.
The signing of the 34-year-old Campaneris arguably earned the Rangers some league-wide credibility, but his stay in Texas was marked by a steady decline and ultimately led to his trade to the California Angels less than halfway into the landmark contract. On May 4, 1979, the Rangers sent Campaneris to California for veteran infielder Dave Chalk – who lasted just six weeks before he was shipped away in a package to Oakland for young lefthander John Henry Johnson.
The A’s had signed Campaneris in 1961, not long before the breakdown in diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba effectively imposed an embargo on the supply of Cuban ballplayers to the Major Leagues. He was in the big leagues by 1964, hitting the first pitch he saw (a Jim Kaat offering) for a home run. The 22-year-old took Kaat deep a second time that day, becoming just the second player in baseball history to homer twice in his Major League debut.
In 1965, Campaneris’s first full season with Oakland, he broke Luis Aparicio’s run of nine straight seasons leading the American League in stolen bases. From 1965 (in which he became the first player ever to play all nine positions in one game) until 1972, Campaneris led the AL in steals six times, swiping more than twice as many bases in that span (410) as the next most prolific runner (Don Buford, with 187).
Although he was a leadoff hitter, Campaneris didn’t hit for particularly high averages and didn’t draw many walks. But when he got on base, he ran. Campaneris stole a career-high 62 bases in 1968 and again in 1969 – despite miserable .330 and .302 on-base percentages those two years.
Campaneris was a key component of the Oakland dynasty of the ‘70s, regularly making All-Star teams as the A’s won five AL West titles and three World Series from 1971 to 1975. When the advent of free agency led to the breakup of that dysfunctional club after the 1976 season, Campaneris (whose numbers had declined for the second straight year) was among the players who sought a better deal elsewhere. A week before Thanksgiving, he signed the multi-year deal with Texas, displacing original Ranger Toby Harrah, who was shifted from shortstop to third base.
By today’s standards, the 1977 season Campaneris had for Texas was mediocre at best, as he hit a punchless .254/.314/.341. But whether it was a weak AL shortstop class or Campaneris’s reputation, he made his sixth All-Star squad that summer. The most extraordinary aspect of Campaneris’s 1977 season was his 40 sacrifice bunts, a figure that no player had reached since the 1920s and that no player has reached since.
In 1978, at age 36, Campaneris hit just .186/.245/.238 in a season that saw him eventually hand his starting job back to Harrah. Campaneris was a highly paid backup when the 1979 season began, sitting behind rookie shortstop Nelson Norman. Harrah had been traded to Cleveland for Buddy Bell, who incidentally had been involved in a memorable fight with Campaneris back in 1976, when Campaneris (then with the A’s) fired a double play pivot and hit Bell (still with the Indians) in the head, inciting a bench-clearing brawl.
Campaneris and Bell weren’t Rangers teammates for long. Having started just three of the Rangers’ first 20 games in 1979, Campaneris was traded on May 4 to the Angels for Chalk, his All-Star teammate in 1974 and 1975. A former first-round pick of the Angels out of the University of Texas, Chalk made those All-Star squads in his first two full seasons in California, but his career too was on the decline at the time of his trade to Texas. The five-year Angels starter would never start again.
Chalk essentially pinch-hit for Texas upon his arrival, and not very effectively. In five weeks with the club, he made one start and eight late-inning appearances, going 2 for 8. On June 15, the Rangers traded Chalk, along with minor league catcher Mike Heath (whom they’d acquired in the off-season from the Yankees in the 10-player deal that sent prospect Dave Righetti to New York for veteran Sparky Lyle) and cash, to the A’s for Johnson – a 22-year-old who fanned 10 in five innings in his Texas debut, won his first two starts, and promptly lost his next six decisions.
Chalk finished the 1979 season with Oakland and spent the next two years on Kansas City’s bench before retiring. Campaneris was with California from 1979 through 1981 – playing out the five-year contract that Texas had given him – and retired himself, before spending the 1982 season playing in Mexico and then returning to the Major Leagues for one last time in 1983, turning in his highest career batting average (.322) and on-base percentage (.355) in spot duties for the Yankees, at age 41.
Campaneris wasn’t the first Rangers shortstop to later find more success in New York. Nor was he the first Rangers shortstop that the franchise made a statement with by signing in free agency.
What Campaneris was, undoubtedly, was not only the Rangers’ first noteworthy free agent signing, but all told the franchise’s first free agent disappointment.
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.