Swapping Stories: The Gorman Thomas trades of 1977 and 1978

August 20, 1977: Texas trades first baseman Ed Kirkpatrick to Milwaukee for a player to be named later; October 25, 1977: Milwaukee sends outfielder Gorman Thomas to Texas to complete the trade; February 8, 1978: Texas sells Thomas to Milwaukee.

In 1979, the Texas Rangers traded reliever Ed Farmer and first baseman Gary Holle to the White Sox for third baseman (and Ranger-killer) Eric Soderholm, and the Dallas Cowboys traded two draft picks to the Baltimore Colts for star defensive lineman John Dutton.

I was an excited 10-year-old. Players didn’t change teams as often then as they do now. Soderholm and Dutton, suddenly, were not only trading cards I owned; they were on my teams.

It was that same year when I discovered what had to be a mistake: Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Gorman Thomas, who finished seventh in the American League MVP race on the strength of 45 home runs and 123 RBI, had been traded to the Rangers in 1977. And traded back to the Brewers in 1978.

Surely what I’d seen was a typographical blunder. Those Topps cards made it clear that Thomas had been drafted by Milwaukee (nee Seattle Pilots), developed by that organization, and played only for Brewers farm clubs and Milwaukee itself. After splitting the 1973 and 1974 seasons between AAA and the big leagues, he was with the Brewers all year in 1975 and 1976. He then spent all of 1977 with the Brewers’ AAA affiliate in Spokane, before returning to Milwaukee in 1978 and remaining a fixture until a 1983 trade to Cleveland.

The difference between Thomas before and after that 1977 season on the farm was staggering. In four big league seasons prior to 1977, Thomas hit .193 in 297 games, homering 22 times. In his five Brewers seasons that followed, he hit .245 with 175 homers in 716 games, more than three times the home run frequency.

So how did Texas figure in? If he never played for the Rangers, my 10-year-old mind wondered, was it really true that Texas traded for him at some point and then inexplicably shipped him right back without ever getting him in uniform? And if so, could I somehow take credit for my team turning Thomas’s career around?

Dan O’Brien Sr., who was the Rangers’ general manager from 1974 through 1978, recalls the impetus for the move, initiated by Brewers GM Harry Dalton, that made Thomas a Ranger. “Harry and I were good friends.

“And he needed a favor.”

The 1977 season was a breakthrough year for the Rangers. They won 94 games, a total they have surpassed just once (in their third playoff season in 1999). In mid-June, four games back and in third place, Texas sent seldom-used 35-year-old first baseman Jim Fregosi to Pittsburgh for seldom-used 32-year-old first baseman Ed Kirkpatrick. The move didn’t have much of an impact. Over the course of two months, Kirkpatrick got 48 largely unproductive at-bats.

The Brewers, for some reason, called Texas two months later and, in spite of being on their way to 95 losses, said they could use Kirkpatrick. On August 20, O’Brien (whose team had been in first place the previous three days, the first time in franchise history that the Rangers held a division lead after May) agreed to send him to the Brewers for a player to be named later. In what would be the final major league action of his career, Kirkpatrick managed to get 77 Milwaukee at-bats over the season’s final six weeks.

After the season, Dalton, who still owed Texas the player to be named, asked O’Brien to help him out. The two GM’s agreed that the Kirkpatrick deal didn’t call for a significant return, but Dalton nonetheless needed to clear a roster spot over the winter. He basically asked if the Rangers would stash Thomas on their roster for a few months.

“It was purely a friendship deal,” O’Brien says.

On October 25, 1977, the Brewers sent Thomas, a big league disappointment coming off a huge AAA season (.322 with 36 homers and 114 RBI in 143 games), to Texas.

On February 8, 1978, O’Brien sold Thomas back to Dalton. That year, the 27-year-old Thomas, whose biggest home run output in four big league seasons had been 10, would go deep 32 times. Kindly, however, he only trotted around the bases twice that year against Texas, the team that had owned him – on paper – for 106 days the preceding winter.

Was that three-and-a-half month off-season stint as a Ranger responsible for Thomas’s metamorphosis into one of the league’s top home run hitters? Not even a 10-year-old kid today would come to that conclusion, but maybe since O’Brien’s son, Dan Jr., who was briefly the Rangers GM himself between the tenures of Doug Melvin and John Hart, is now Melvin’s assistant in Milwaukee, perhaps the Rangers could prevail upon the younger O’Brien to return the favor that his father extended to Dalton and the Brewers 30 years earlier.

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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