November 20, 1981: Cardinals trade for Lonnie Smith

The day after the Cardinals, Phillies, and Indians agreed on a three-team deal that sent Lonnie Smith to St. Louis, Philadelphia Daily News reporter Bill Conlin wrote that it “was a deal filled with marvelous paradoxes.”[1]

The Cardinals already had outfielders George Hendrick, David Green, Dane Iorg, and Sixto Lezcano on the roster, and had just obtained a little-known minor league outfielder named Willie McGee the month prior.

Despite their need for pitching, the Cardinals gave up 40% of their starting rotation in the deal, sending Silvio Martinez and Lary Sorensen to the Cleveland Indians. In exchange, the Indians sent strong-armed catcher Bo Diaz to the Phillies (who already had four catchers on the roster) for a player to be named later. In December, the Phillies sent right-handed pitcher Scott Munninghoff to the Indians to complete the deal.

Smith, a 1974 first-round draft pick, had cups of coffee in the big leagues in 1978 and 1979 before placing third in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1980 behind the Dodgers’ Steve Howe and the Expos’ Bill Gullickson. That season, the player affectionately known as “Skates” for his occasional difficulty keeping his footing in the outfield hit .339 with three homers, 20 RBIs and a Phillies rookie-record 33 stolen bases. In 298 at-bats, he provided a spark that helped the Phillies capture the 1980 world championship.

In 1981, he batted .324 with 21 stolen bases in just 176 at-bats, wresting the center field job away from Garry Maddox in the final month of the season. He finished the season on a 23-game hitting streak.

Smith “spends more time on the carpet than a Reagan budget aide, but talents like him don’t wander into your organization every day,” Conlin wrote in reporting the trade. “He’s a flat-out gamer who comes to play, a throwback, if you will, a kid who breaks up the double play with the reckless abandon of Enos Slaughter. His offense will not be replaced by Garry Maddox, the former incumbent in center, or Bob Dernier, a fleet rookie with Smith’s base-stealing ability who has yet to prove he can hit major league pitching.”[2]

Philadelphia fans were irate at general manager Paul Owens’ decision to trade Smith to obtain Diaz, who despite an all-star appearance while batting .313 for the Indians in 1981, had never exceeded 207 at-bats in a season. Over the next 3 1/2 seasons, he would bat .256 with 36 home runs and 174 RBIs before being traded to the Reds as part of a five-player deal.

Nonetheless, Conlin wrote, trading Smith for Diaz “provoked a firestorm of fan outrage that lit the Phillies’ switchboard like the White House Christmas tree and turned a WCAU-AM sports talk show into a clinic on vitriol.”[3]

“If you are among the million or so fans who figure the Phillies paid through the nose to solve what they considered a desperate catching problem, welcome to the club,” Conlin wrote.[4]

For his part, Smith wasn’t surprised by the trade. Ever since Phillies manager Dallas Green left for an executive role with the Cardinals, he had known he was a likely trade candidate.

“I didn’t think I ever figured into their plans,” he said. “I never felt like I was a starter and I knew I wouldn’t be.”[5]

Once Smith saw that the Phillies would need to make a trade to acquire a catcher, he said the entire organization knew someone would be out the door.

“Even the ushers and guards at the ballpark thought they wouldn’t be there next year,” Smith said, “but it surprised me to be traded to the Cardinals. I didn’t think they needed outfielders.”[6]

Indeed, while Smith played exactly the style of baseball Herzog wanted to bring to St. Louis and Herzog told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Smith “was the number one guy on the priority list,”[7] the Philadelphia Daily News reported that Herzog initially turned down a trade offer that would have sent Smith to St. Louis. Instead, Herzog wanted shortstop Larry Bowa to replace Garry Templeton,[8] whom the Cardinals planned to trade following an incident in which he made an obscene gesture at fans during a game.

Owens, however, needed the Cardinals in the deal to supply the pitching the Indians wanted in exchange for Diaz. He even explored adding a fourth team to the trade, but that fell through.[9] In the end, Herzog simply couldn’t turn down a player of Smith’s speed and potential for the relatively cheap price of Sorensen and Martinez.

Both Owens and Herzog indicated that the deal marked just the beginning of their offseason deals. In the months to come, Owens sold catcher Bob Boone to the California Angels, traded Dan Larson, Keith Moreland, and Dickie Noles to the Cubs for Mike Krukow, dealt Bowa and Ryne Sandberg to the Cubs for Ivan de Jesus, sent Bake McBride to the Indians for Sid Monge, and traded minor leaguer Steve Dunnegan to the Astros for Dave Roberts.

Herzog too promised further moves. Three weeks after acquiring Smith, Herzog traded Templeton and Lezcano to the Padres for future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, pitcher Steve Mura, and a player to be named later. On December 29, Herzog re-signed Joaquin Andujar, whom he had acquired in a trade with the Astros that summer.

Meanwhile, Lonnie Smith predicted that if given the opportunity, he could bat .300 and steal 50 or 60 bases.[10] He may have underestimated himself. In 1982, he hit .307 with 120 runs scored and 68 stolen bases, earning an all-star nod and placing second to Dale Murphy in the National League MVP voting.

In three-plus seasons with the Cardinals, Smith batted .293 with a .371 on-base percentage, 295 runs scored, and 173 stolen bases. In 1985, the Cardinals traded him to Kansas City for John Morris. They would wind up seeing him again in that season’s World Series, which Smith and the Royals won in seven games.

Sorensen spent two seasons in Cleveland, going 22-26 with a 4.86 ERA. Martinez failed to make the Indians’ starting rotation in 1982 and was sent to Triple-A Charleston. He made four appearances there, posting a 6.06 ERA over 16 1/3 innings before leaving the game at age 26.


[1] Bill Conlin, “Phils Deal Catches Flak,” Philadelphia Daily News, November 20, 1981: Page 120.

[2] Bill Conlin, “Phils Deal Catches Flak,” Philadelphia Daily News, November 20, 1981: Page 120.

[3] Bill Conlin, “Phils Deal Catches Flak,” Philadelphia Daily News, November 20, 1981: Page 120.

[4] Bill Conlin, “Phils Deal Catches Flak,” Philadelphia Daily News, November 20, 1981: Page 120.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Lonnie Smith Deal Tip of Birds’ Iceberg,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 20, 1981: Page C1.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Lonnie Smith Deal Tip of Birds’ Iceberg,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 20, 1981: Page C1.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Lonnie Smith Deal Tip of Birds’ Iceberg,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 20, 1981: Page C3.

[8] Bill Conlin, “Phils Deal Catches Flak,” Philadelphia Daily News, November 20, 1981: Page 118.

[9] Bill Conlin, “Phils Deal Catches Flak,” Philadelphia Daily News, November 20, 1981: Page 118.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Lonnie Smith Deal Tip of Birds’ Iceberg,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 20, 1981: Page C3.

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