Reliving 1972

I started becoming a really avid baseball fan in 1972. Well, maybe "avid" isn’t the right word; after all, I was all of seven years old. But that is the year that I started collecting baseball cards and really became interested in the game on more than a passing level.

To commemorate the 35th anniversary of my first spring and summer with the game, I’ll be reliving the 1972 season from time to time in this space. I’ll highlight some of the memorable moments from that season, while offering some personal reflections on what was a fascinating year in baseball. What happened in 1972? It was the year that Steve Carlton was traded, igniting the Hall of Fame portion of his career. That was the first year that a strike delayed Opening Day. It was also the last season that the American League played without a DH, and the last year that we saw Roberto Clemente stalk right field for the Pirates. It all culminated in a superb World Series, a high-level seven-game affair between the "Big Red Machine" and the "Mustache Gang."

In beginning our retrospective on 1972, let’s begin with what happened on this date 35 years ago. Today was the day that the Yankees acquired relief ace Sparky Lyle from the Red Sox for first baseman Danny Cater. Given the benefits of hindsight, we all know this turned out to be one of the most profitable deals in the history of the Yankees—and one of the worst in the annals of the Red Sox. Lyle didn’t just have a standout season in 1972, when he earned The Sporting News’ AL Fireman of the Year; he would remain terrific in pinstripes through the 1977 season before losing the closer’s role to Goose Gossage the following spring. In seven seasons with the Yankees, Lyle would record 141 saves. He would also win the Cy Young Award in 1977 while helping the Yankees to back-to-back world titles.

Even without hindsight, it’s hard to figure what benefit the Red Sox saw in this deal at the time. Lyle had pitched very well as their relief ace in 1971. Of their top five relievers in 1971, only Lyle and one other reliever put up ERA’s below 3.00. That was Bill Lee, who would eventually end up as a key starter in Beantown. Plus, the Sox had already traded one of their other southpaw relievers, Ken Brett, sending him to the Brewers as part of the George Scott/Tommy Harper blockbuster. With all of that in mind, why give up a good lefty reliever like Lyle for a singles-hitting first baseman in Cater?

The Red Sox may have simply felt a desperate need for a first baseman. In trading Boomer Scott to Milwaukee, the Red Sox received a young Cecil Cooper as part of the deal. But Cooper was only 22 at the time, and not yet ready to play first base regularly in the major leagues. Unfortunately, the Sox picked the wrong first baseman in Cater. In 1971, Cater had hit .301 for the Yankees, but it was a shallow .301, with few walks, no speed, and little power. Even in his best power season, coming in 1965 for the White Sox, Cater had managed only 14 home runs. He didn’t even have enough power to take advantage of The Wall at Fenway Park. In reality, Cater was a serviceable platoon player and pinch-hitter who really had no business playing first base everyday, either at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. And he would be out of baseball by the end of 1975, a full two years before Lyle’s peak season in New York. In the meantime, the Red Sox would remain without a dominant relief ace for much of the 1970s.

Danny Cater for Sparky Lyle. It didn’t make much sense 35 years ago. It only looks more lopsided in retrospect. And it might just be one reason why the Yankees and Red Sox haven’t made many trades with each other since that spring day in 1972.

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