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The greatest trade that never was

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You might say that the Yankee Clipper's best days were well behind him. It would have been a lopsided disaster for the Red Sox had the deal gone through.


As Red Sox aficionados fretfully wring their hands over the possibility that Mookie Betts might be traded this off-season, they should carefully consider the fact that sometimes the best trades in baseball are the ones that never happen.

The Boston Globe's estimable Peter Abraham, in his "On Baseball" column, recently alluded to the most famous deal that was never struck, Ted Williams of the Red Sox for Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees. The story of that almost-but-never-was trade goes back more than 70 years, and while it was never confirmed, it was never denied, either.

Supposedly, Tom Yawkey, owner of the Red Sox, and Dan Topping, the Yankees co-owner, were sharing a dinner one night that was well-lubricated by many glasses of amber-colored liquids. Ben Bradlee, Jr., in his epic Williams biography, "The Kid," puts the site of the repast as Toots Shor's restaurant in Manhattan, the legendary watering-hole for the sports and show-biz crowd. Talk got around, as it often did among baseball people in those days, to the relative merits of Williams and DiMaggio, the two great icons of the day. Wasn't it a shame, they both agreed, that Ted didn't have the short porch in Yankee Stadium's right field to shoot for, and that Joe didn't have The Wall in Fenway's left field (it would be another generation before anyone thought of calling it the Green Monster) as a target? Instead, Ted had to cope with the vast expanse of Fenway's right field while Joe had to deal with the wide-open spaces of Yankee Stadium's left field. Just think, Yawkey and Topping commiserated, of what the two great stars could accomplish if only they played on the other's home field. The fact is that Ted never particularly liked hitting in Yankee Stadium. He didn't like the shadows cast by the frieze that adorned the roof of the third deck.

One thing led to another ("Hey, Toots, bring us another round."), and Yawkey and Topping decided, in the alcohol-induced fog of the evening, to swap the two biggest names in the game, even up. They shook hands on it, and the deal was done. Until the next morning.

In the harsh sunlight of the day, and probably after talking to his baseball people, Yawkey decided that maybe the trade wasn't such a good idea, after all. Williams in early 1948, when most fix the date of the dinner, was just 29, right in the prime of his career, while DiMaggio, three years older, had already begun to decline. Indeed, nine years after Joe retired, Ted was still playing. In 1958, when Ted led the American League by hitting an unbelievable .388 at age 39, Joe had long-since hung up his spikes and been married, then divorced, from Marilyn Monroe. You might say that the Yankee Clipper's best days were well behind him. It would have been a lopsided disaster for the Red Sox had the deal gone through.

Still, Yawkey prided himself on being a man of his word, and he had shaken hands on the deal. The story goes that he called Topping and said the deal was still on, but that the Yankees would have to throw in "their little left fielder." The little left fielder in question was Yogi Berra, who, in his first two years with the Yankees, had divided his time between catching and playing the outfield. The Yankees knew that Berra was a blossoming super-star, and throwing him into the trade was a deal-breaker. So the trade of the century was off, much to the relief of the Red Sox and Yawkey.

Or so the story goes. Was there any truth to it or was it just an urban myth? According to the writer Ed Linn, who had the good fortune to write his Williams biography ("Hitter," 1993) while Ted was still alive and in good health, one of those who believed it to be true was Williams himself. "I'm sure that the story is true," Linn quotes Ted as saying. "No question about it. The way I heard the story, it was a matter of these two guys getting together one night, half looped. Players were like prize possessions to them, I guess, and they made this deal." But it all fell apart the next day because, again quoting Williams, "DiMaggio wasn't at the height of his career and I was."

Those who throw cold water on the story point to the supposedly father-son relationship that Yawkey and Williams had. But the truth is that, though they admired one another, they didn't have much in common and were not especially close. Yawkey was born to great wealth while Ted was the son of a ne'er-do-well father and a mother who was a Salvation Army zealot; Yawkey loved to play bridge and Ted didn't even play cards; and Yawkey was a famously heavy drinker while Ted never touched the stuff.

So, while the famous Tom Yawkey/Dan Topping dinner may or may not have happened, it could well have. That's what has made it such fun to wonder about for all of these years. Who knows? Maybe there will be a famous Mookie Betts trade that never gets made.

The point is that there is not much reason to get all excited about what might or might not happen with Mookie this off-season. Let's wait until it does or doesn't. Besides, he's going to be just fine either way. He already has enough money to live the good life for as long as it lasts. He made $20 million this past season and another $10.5 million the year before that. He's due, through arbitration, to make approximately $28 million more next year. After that, when he becomes a free agent, the real money comes rolling in. It's money Mookie will never see because he'll have no need for it. But it will assure that his children and his children's children will all have something in common with Tom Yawkey. They'll be born into great wealth.

Just tell 'em to go easy on the booze.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.

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