St. Louis Cardinals: Keith Hernandez, Whitey Herzog, and the 2nd worst trade

ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 4: St. Louis Cardinals Keith Hernandez
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 4: St. Louis Cardinals Keith Hernandez /

The Keith Hernandez trade in 1983 rates as the second worst trade in St. Louis Cardinals’ history.

On June 15, 1983, the St. Louis Cardinals traded first baseman Keith Hernandez to the New York Mets for pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey.  The trade of Hernandez shocked most Cardinal fans, as he was considered a cornerstone of the Redbird lineup.

Why would the St. Louis Cardinals trade  perennial gold glover Keith Hernandez, a consistent .300 hitter and future “Seinfeld” guest star?

Manager Whitey Herzog said in 1983 that the trade was because the Cardinals did not think they could re-sign Hernandez.  Hernandez was in the last year of his St. Louis Cardinals’ contract. However, Hernandez and  Herzog were rumored  to have a difficult relationship.  The Cardinal manager later admitted that he felt like Hernandez was “cancer” on the team and never regretted the trade.

During the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials that scandalized Major League Baseball, a clearer story emerged:

Hernandez admitted during his testimony that the trade was due to his use of cocaine (and distribution of the drug to other players) while playing for the Cardinals.  Hernandez also admitted that he played under the influence while with the Cardinals, but stopped using cocaine after his trade to the Mets.

Why is this trade between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets considered one of the worst in franchise history?   That’s relatively easy.

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Keith Hernandez was a five-time gold glover at first base and had appeared in two All-Star games, by the time of the trade.  He also won the 1979 MVP (with Willie Stargell), along with the 1979 Batting Title.  He hit over .300 three times during his years with the Cardinals, and had 8 RBIs during the 1982 World Series.  After his trade to the Mets, he won an additional six gold gloves and made three more All-Star appearances.

Neil Allen was a serviceable pitcher who spent his two-plus years with the Cardinals between the rotation and the bullpen. In 1983 he went 10-6 with a 3.70 ERA and in 1984 Allen went 9-6 with a 3.55 ERA and earned three saves. In 1985, after a 1-4 start and a mounting ERA of 5.59, the Cardinals shipped Allen to the New York Yankees.

Rick Ownbey, after arriving with the Cardinals, spent the 1983 season with their AAA minor league affiliate Louisville Cardinals.  In 1984, Ownbey’s first season with the MLB club, he went 0-3 with a 4.74 ERA in four starts.  After spending the entire 1985 season in the minors, Ownbey returned to the Cardinals in 1986.  Pitching mainly out of the bullpen he went 1-3 with a 3.80 ERA.  Rick Ownbey was out of baseball by 1987.

The trade of Keith Hernandez in 1983  didn’t have the long-term impact on the St. Louis Cardinals as the 1971 Steve Carlton trade.  By 1985, the Cardinals were back in the World Series and won 101 games.  However, Hernandez was a cornerstone of a New York Mets team from the mid-80s to the late-80s that consistently won 90 games or more for five consecutive years.

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In conclusion, this 1983 trade gave the St. Louis Cardinals almost nothing in return.  Like the Carlton trade in 1971, it was based on personalities, emotions, and gut reaction rather than sound baseball judgement.