May 4, 1990: Cardinals trade Tom Brunansky to Boston for Lee Smith

For more than a month, the Cardinals and Red Sox had discussed a trade that would send St. Louis’s top home run hitter, Tom Brunansky, to the Boston for closer Lee Smith.

Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill declined the trade proposal in early April, hopeful that his club could re-sign Brunansky and keep in him an outfield that also included Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, and Milt Thompson, and had highly regarded prospect Ray Lankford waiting in Triple-A.

The issue, however, was Brunansky’s desire for a limited no-trade clause similar to the one included in his current deal, which he had signed with the Twins. The Cardinals had a team policy against no-trade clauses.

On April 5, Bernie Miklasz wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Brunansky could be traded for Smith.

“Who’s the most likely guy to leave here?” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog asked. “Bruno. He wants a smaller park to hit in, he knows the Cowboy (California Angels owner Gene Autry) wants him. He’s from California. He knows he can get $2.5 million a year from the Cowboy.”[1]

Herzog made clear that if Brunansky was traded, it wasn’t because his manager didn’t appreciate him.

“I like Bruno. He’s a dream to manage,” Herzog said. “You can’t find a better son of a gun. I’d like to keep him, but I’m just talking facts here.”[2]

At the time, Brunansky said he hadn’t heard anything from his agent regarding the deal, nor had the Red Sox reached out to him.

“I’m sure before they’d go for a trade like that, the Red Sox would at least want to talk to me,” he said. “They know I’m in my final year, and I’m sure they’d like to lock me up in a new contract instead of seeing me walk away.”[3]

By early May, with negotiations between Brunansky and the Cardinals at an impasse, Maxvill called Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman and it didn’t take long to finalize the exchange of pending free agents. On May 4, 1990, they made the deal official.

“We tried to work around this somehow, but it just couldn’t be done,” Maxvill said.[4]

Brunansky said he had met with both Maxvill and Herzog and encouraged them to make a trade that would help the team.

“The no-trade was the whole thing,” Brunansky said. “We never got to the point of talking any money. For me to stay here, I would need some kind of security. I wasn’t going to sign here for three years, buy a house and everything, and keep hearing trade rumors.”[5]

Brunansky had come to St. Louis in an April 1988 trade with the Twins for Tom Herr. He hit 22 homers and drove in 79 runs for the Cardinals that season to lead the team in both categories. In 1989, Brunansky led the club with 20 homers and his 85 RBIs ranked second on the team to Pedro Guerrero.

Through the first 19 games of the 1990 season, however, he was batting just .158 with more walks (12) than hits (9) and was splitting time with Thompson in right field.

“I know it was hard on Bruno and me both,” Thompson said of the Cardinals’ crowded outfield situation. “You find yourself pressuring a lot when you get the opportunity. The key now is to go out there and relax and just play ball.”[6]

Just as the Twins had found it difficult to part with the well-liked Brunansky two years earlier, the Cardinals were disappointed to see the popular outfielder leaving.

“From my perspective, I don’t know Lee Smith, and certainly he’s been a great pitcher and he’s going to help us,” Cardinals pitcher Ricky Horton said. “There’s no doubt about that, but from a personal standpoint, we’re losing a great guy. Bruno is just a great guy to have around the clubhouse. He’s a big leaguer and I’m going to miss him.”[7]

The Red Sox, of course, were excited to add Brunansky’s bat to their lineup. They chose the Cardinals’ trade offer over a package from the Braves that included pitcher Tommy Greene and third baseman Jim Presley.[8]

“A power hitter was our secondary need, but a big need,” said Red Sox president John Harrington. “We would have preferred a starting pitcher, but Tom Brunansky is no second fiddle by any means.”[9]

In trading the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Brunansky, the Cardinals added a 6-foot-5, 220-pound closer in Smith, who emerged in the Cubs’ bullpen after they traded Bruce Sutter to the Cardinals in 1980. In eight seasons, Smith saved 180 games for the Cubs, including a league-leading 29 in 1983.

After the 1987 season, the Cubs traded Smith to the Red Sox for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. In two-plus seasons in Boston, Smith saved 58 games. During the previous offseason, however, the Red Sox signed Jeff Reardon, making the big right-hander expendable. Like Brunansky, Smith was due to become a free agent after the season.

“This makes us pretty strong,” Herzog said, noting that three members of the Cardinals’ bullpen – Smith, Scott Terry, and Tom Niedenfuer – had experience closing.[10]

For his part, Smith was glad to come to a situation where – despite the experience of Terry and Niedenfuer – he was the clear-cut closer.

“I’m really pleased,” Smith said. “Something had to be done here. With the two closers we had, it wasn’t fair to either one of us. Over the winter, they were talking about how they could use both of us. Jeff would pitch one day and I’d pitch the next, but it seemed like every time I pitched this season, Jeff pitched the same day. I said going into spring training that I didn’t think it would work.”[11]

It certainly worked in St. Louis. Smith saved 27 games for the Cardinals in 1990, posting a 2.10 ERA in 68 2/3 innings.

The 1991 season was arguably the best of Smith’s 18-year career, as he led the league with 47 saves. In addition to making his third all-star appearance, he placed second in the Cy Young Award voting behind Tom Glavine and placed eighth in the MVP vote.

In 1992, Smith saved 43 games with a 3.12 ERA. Once again, he was named an all-star and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. In 1993, Smith saved 43 games with a 4.50 ERA before the Cardinals traded him to the Yankees on August 31 for Rich Batchelor.

In four seasons, Smith saved 160 games for the Cardinals with a 2.90 ERA. He retired in 1997 with 478 saves. Beginning in 2003, Smith spent 15 years on the Hall of Fame ballot, reaching a high of 50.6% of the vote in 2012 but never reaching the 75% threshold required for induction. In 2018, all 16 members of the Today’s Game Committee voted Smith into the Hall of Fame alongside Harold Baines.

Meanwhile, Brunansky turned his 1990 season around with Boston, batting .267 with 15 homers and 71 RBIs for the Red Sox. After the season, he re-signed with Boston and played the next two seasons there before signing with Milwaukee in 1993. In 1994, the Brewers traded Brunansky back to the Red Sox for Dave Valle.

He retired after the 1994 season with 271 homers and 919 RBIs in a 14-year major-league career.


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[1] Bernie Miklasz, “‘Bruno’ Could Go If Pen Needs Help,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 5, 1990.

[2] Bernie Miklasz, “‘Bruno’ Could Go If Pen Needs Help,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 5, 1990.

[3] Bernie Miklasz, “‘Bruno’ Could Go If Pen Needs Help,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 5, 1990.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Cards Acquire Lee Smith,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 5, 1990.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Cards Acquire Lee Smith,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 5, 1990.

[6] Dan O’Neill, “Cards Sad Brunansky Had To Go,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 5, 1990.

[7] Dan O’Neill, “Cards Sad Brunansky Had To Go,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 5, 1990.

[8] Nick Cafardo, “Sox trade Smith for Brunansky,” Boston Globe, May 5, 1990.

[9] Nick Cafardo, “Sox trade Smith for Brunansky,” Boston Globe, May 5, 1990.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Cards Acquire Lee Smith,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 5, 1990.

[11] Rick Hummel, “Cards Acquire Lee Smith,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 5, 1990.

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