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Bad trades in Cubs history: Sam Jones

Here’s one that really hurt the Cubs in the 1950s.

Bettmann Archive

Sam Jones pitched for the Cubs in 1955 and 1956. He’s not to be confused with Sad Sam Jones, though the Cubs hurler was also sometimes called “Sad Sam” due to his sort of hangdog look (see the photo above). The ‘50s era Jones was acquired by the Cubs from the Cleveland Indians after the 1954 season.

That was a very good deal for the Cubs. They sent Ralph Kiner to Cleveland and received Jones, Gale Wade and $60,000 in exchange. Kiner was just about done. He played one year for the Tribe and retired. Wade was a non-entity, but $60,000 in 1955 is the equivalent to about $575,000 today.

And Jones paid dividends. He threw a no-hitter May 12, 1955 against the Pirates. It had been 38 years since any Cubs pitcher had thrown one. It wasn’t a pretty game — Jones walked seven. That included Jones walking the bases loaded in the ninth inning, then striking out the side. And the three hitters he K’d were pretty good players — Dick Groat, Roberto Clemente and Frank Thomas. (Not the Frank Thomas you’re thinking of. This Frank Thomas.) Odd coincidence: Exactly 15 years later, May 12, 1970, Ernie Banks hit his 500th home run.

Jones led the N.L. in strikeouts in 1955 with 198, which was a good total, especially in that era. He led the major leagues in walks with 185, which ... wasn’t. He posted 3.2 bWAR in 1955 and 1.8 bWAR in 1956 (not that anyone knew what WAR was back then), again leading the N.L. in walks and strikeouts. By bWAR he was the Cubs’ best pitcher in 1955 and one of their best in 1956.

Naturally, that meant the Cubs would trade him. And the deal they made was, by any measure, bad. They sent Jones, Jim Davis, Hobie Landrith and Eddie Miksis to the Cardinals for Jackie Collum, Ray Katt, Tom Poholsky and a minor leaguer named Wally Lammers on December 11, 1956.

Davis pitched in only 20 MLB games after the trade. Miksis hit .165/.262/.198 as a part-time player for a couple years. Landrith played seven more years as a backup catcher, playing in almost 500 more games. Jones, meanwhile, had two very good years in St. Louis, posting 26 wins and a total of 9.1 bWAR for the Cardinals before he was traded to the Giants for Bill White and Ray Jablonski after the 1958 season. White was a mainstay in St. Louis for a decade and played on three pennant winners. So the Cardinals made out very well in that deal.

Meanwhile, the Cubs... not so much. Katt was traded to the Giants just before the 1957 season started and never played in a game for the Cubs. The two other players the Cubs received in that deal produced negative bWAR. Poholsky threw in 28 games for the Cubs in ‘57, posted a 4.93 ERA and retired. Collum pitched in only nine games for the Cubs before being traded to the Dodgers for Don Elston. That deal worked out all right, as Elston (who had originally signed with the Cubs before being traded to the Dodgers in 1955) played nine more years for the Cubs and produced 10.3 bWAR.

Still, the Cubs would have been better off just keeping Jones. He had those two good years for the Cardinals and then in 1959 won 21 games and led the N.L. in ERA and shutouts. He finished second in Cy Young voting, and in those days there was just one Cy Young Award for both leagues. Early Wynn of the White Sox won it, so Jones would likely have been the N.L. winner if there had been two awards.

The 1959 Cubs weren’t a bad team. They lurked around contention most of the first half and on July 28 they were 50-48, just 4½ games out of first place. It was Ernie Banks’ second MVP season, where he hit .304/.374/.596 with 45 home runs and led the N.L. with a career-high 143 RBI. (RBI as a stat might not mean that much, of course, but the only Cub who’s had more since then is Sammy Sosa, in 1998 and 2001).

The 1959 Cubs finished 10 games under .500, but just 12 games out of first place. Jones had 5.7 bWAR in 1959, not enough to make up all 12 of those games, but he’d have been replacing, most likely, someone with negative value who started for the Cubs that year. The Cubs had 36 starts from pitchers with negative bWAR in 1959 (total -1.9 bWAR). Replace all those with Jones and who knows? At the very least they probably stay in contention, and perhaps we could have had a Cubs/White Sox World Series in 1959.

Yet another in the almost-always bad set of Cubs deals in the 1950s.