Swapping Stories: The Bert Blyleven Trade of 1976

June 1, 1976: Texas trades shortstop Roy Smalley, third baseman Mike Cubbage, righthanders Bill Singer and Jim Gideon, and $250,000 to Minnesota for righthander Bert Blyleven and shortstop Danny Thompson.

At age 25, Roger Clemens had 51 wins. Greg Maddux had 61 when he turned 25. Steve Carlton had won 47 at that age, Tom Seaver 57.

It’s almost crazy to imagine any of those pitchers being discussed in trade talks at that age, let alone shipped away. Yet the Rangers were able to complete a trade in 1976 for a 25-year-old pitcher with 99 Major League victories under his belt and a career ERA of 2.80. On June 1 of that season, Texas sent infielders Roy Smalley and Mike Cubbage and righthanders Bill Singer and Jim Gideon to Minnesota in exchange for 25-year-old curve ball artist Bert Blyleven, getting infielder Danny Thompson tossed into the deal.

In retrospect, it was a stunning trade. Texas finished the 1975 season with a rotation made up completely by pitchers in their 30s, headed by Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins. The club decided it needed to get younger on the mound, and it had an excess on the infield to facilitate the effort. Shortstop Toby Harrah was 26 years old and had two All-Star Games to his credit, and third baseman Roy Howell drove in 51 runs in just 383 at-bats as a 21-year-old. Smalley (age 23) and Cubbage (age 25) were basically depth as the 1976 season got underway.

Gideon was a terrific prospect. He’d gone 17-0, 1.60 for the University of Texas and led them to the NCAA title in 1975 before signing with the Rangers as their first-round pick that summer (17th overall) and pitching at two minor league stops before finishing the season with a big league start.

But Gideon was just two years younger than Blyleven. And 99 wins behind him when the Rangers and Twins stood on the verge of a deal.

What Rangers general manager Dan O’Brien was able to do was package Smalley and Cubbage, who were blocked by better young players, with the prospect Gideon and the veteran Singer (who was off to a 4-1, 3.48 start to the season but certainly not a core member of the club) as well as $250,000, and in doing so he was able to entice the Twins to part with Blyleven, who had never had a losing record in six big league seasons but who had gone 4-5, 3.12 in April and May. Thompson was Minnesota’s starting shortstop in 1975, leading American Leaguers at that position with a .270 batting average, but the Twins were bringing Smalley in to start and thus agreed to include Thompson in the deal to fortify the Rangers’ bench. (Thompson would lose a battle with leukemia three months after the season.)

It’s a trade that would never be possible today.

Blyleven’s Rangers career got off to an impressive start. On June 5, 1976, in front of a massive Arlington crowd of nearly 33,000 (more than double the club’s average home attendance), Blyleven and Tigers rookie Mark Fidrych each went the distance in a 3-2 Detroit win, with Blyleven fanning 10 hitters and taking the loss when a Howell error led to the eventual game-winner – in the 11th inning. The young righthander’s Texas debut was, at the time, the second-longest outing in franchise history.

Two weeks later, Blyleven fired a one-hitter over 10 innings in Oakland, this time rewarded with a 1-0 victory.

The Holland native would win four 1-0 games for Texas in 1976. He went 9-11, 2.76 in 24 Rangers starts that season, with an astonishing average of 8.1 innings per start. He completed 14 games. He fired six shutouts, including a two-hitter in Minnesota in which Smalley and Cubbage combined to go 0 for 5 with a walk and three strikeouts.

But Blyleven’s finest moment as a Ranger came the following year, on September 22 in Anaheim, in what would be his final appearance for the organization. Facing an Angels club that he would join 12 years later for the final three seasons of his career, Blyleven came an out away from firing what would have been the 10th perfect game in Major League history. But Carlos May, pinch-hitting for catcher Andy Etchebarren, drew a two-out walk before Blyleven recovered to strike left fielder Thad Bosley out to seal the second no-hitter in Rangers history.

Less than three months later, the Rangers included Blyleven in a four-team, 11-player trade, sending him to Pittsburgh in a deal that, in the end, brought Pirates outfielder Al Oliver and shortstop Nelson Norman and Mets lefthander Jon Matlack to Texas. As remarkable as the June 1976 trade to get Blyleven was, the December 1977 trade sending him away was equally incredible. By then Blyleven was a 122-game winner, still just 26, and his ERA in nearly two seasons as a Ranger was 2.74, a mark that still stands as the best of any pitcher in franchise history with at least 400 innings to his credit.

Smalley and Cubbage had decent runs with the Twins. Singer went 9-9, 3.77 for Minnesota in 1976 before finishing his career with the expansion Blue Jays in 1977. Gideon would never get back to the big leagues with Minnesota, or anyone else. The start he made for Texas at the end of his draft year would be the only Major League appearance of career.

Meanwhile, Blyleven was a horse for Texas, finishing second in the American League in ERA in 1977, and first in hits and walks per inning. And arguably the second Blyleven trade the Rangers made – getting Oliver and Matlack – was just as big a win for the organization as the deal it made to get him in the first place.

But less notable than the Rangers’ success in trading for Blyleven and then shipping him away was the fact that, at such a young age, a workhorse like that was traded at all, let alone two times.

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.

1 Comment

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