Revisiting The Sandberg Trade, 40 Years On
Today, we remember when the Cubs made one of the best deals in team history and traded for Ryne Sandberg, who became a Hall of Famer and a franchise icon.
IBWAA members love to write about baseball. So much so, we've decided to create our own newsletter about it! Subscribe to Here's the Pitch to expand your love of baseball, discover new voices, and support independent writing. Original content six days a week, straight to your inbox and straight from the hearts of baseball fans.
Did you know…
. . . Ryne Sandberg is near the top in almost every hitting category in Chicago Cubs history. Here are some of his most notable rankings on the Cubs’ all-time leaderboard:
Position player WAR (per Baseball Reference) — third (68.1)
Games played — fourth (2,151)
Runs scored — third (1,316)
Hits — fourth (2,385)
Doubles — fourth (403)
Home runs — fifth (282)
RBIs — seventh (1,061)
Stolen bases — fourth (344)
. . . Sandberg is one of three Hall of Famers to hail from the state of Washington. The other two are fellow Cub Ron Santo, who played in Chicago from 1960-1974 and was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame in 2012, and Earl Averill, who primarily played for the Cleveland Indians and was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1975.
. . . Sandberg initially retired after 1994 and did not play in 1995, but he then came back to the Cubs for two more seasons and finished his career in 1997. When he retired, Sandberg had hit more home runs (282) than any other second baseman in MLB history — he has since been passed by Jeff Kent, who leads the pack with 377 career dingers. He also ranks second behind Roberto Alomar (10) for most Gold Gloves all-time by a second baseman with nine.
Green’s Gamble: The Sandberg Trade
By Bill Pearch
On Oct. 15, 1981, Chicago Cubs Board Chairman Andy McKenna introduced Dallas Green as the team’s new executive vice president and general manager. Green, who managed the Philadelphia Phillies to a World Series championship in 1980, was adamant about his plan to transform the Cubs into perennial contenders.
“The Cubs have not been successful,” Green said at the time, “and somebody besides the players has to take responsibility for that.” He added, “Free agents are something we live with in this era of baseball, but I don’t believe in buying a team.”
He rolled the dice and acquired a promising youngster who became the franchise’s backbone and established a Cooperstown-worthy career.
The Cubs weren’t great in 1982, but they did improve from the prior season, finishing 73-89. That was good enough for fifth place in the National League East. Green realigned the franchise’s trajectory on Jan. 27, 1982, and swapped shortstops with his former employer. The Cubs shipped out 29-year-old Ivan De Jesus in exchange for 36-year-old Larry Bowa, and a 22-year-old rookie named Ryne Sandberg. Green, the Phillies’ director of Minor League scouting when Sandberg was drafted in 1978, was aware of the young ballplayer’s talent.
Sandberg reminisced about Green and the trade’s impact with SABR Chicago.
“He sent the scouts out to see me play in high school,” Sandberg said. “As a Minor Leaguer just having a good Triple-A season, to be traded to the Cubs where Dallas just took the GM job, I had to go on and earn it and earn my Spring Training and earn my spot. But he gave me the opportunity.”
Labeling Sandberg, a 20th-round pick, as a throw-in is misleading. He was a late-season callup who earned six at-bats in 13 games with the Phillies in 1981.
“They think it’s heavy,” Green said, demanding Sandberg’s inclusion in the deal, “but I don’t think so. I won’t trade Ivan even-up for any shortstop and they know it.”
Green saw Sandberg’s potential, but he knew he faced a logjam making the Phillies’ regular lineup. But it’s doubtful he projected Sandberg as a baseball immortal.
“Coming over here, I have a chance to be in the lineup every day,” Sandberg said. “So this is a real good opportunity for me.”
Since Sandberg was an unknown commodity at the time, Lee Elia, the Cubs’ manager from 1982-83, was uncertain if the rookie would play third base, second base or center field.
“I saw Sandberg in September,” Cubs first baseman Bill Buckner said after the trade, quoted in the Chicago Tribune. “He looked pretty good to me.”
Following the trade, Chicago Tribune columnist Jerome Holtzman noted the criteria to judge its impact.
“For the deal to work to the Cubs’ advantage,” he said, “Green must be correct in his assessment that Sandberg has the ability to win a starting spot within the next two years.”
Sandberg shattered Holtzman’s expectations. He broke camp with a spot in the 1982 Opening Day lineup and quickly assumed a leadership role.
“You’re our Opening Day third baseman,” Elia said to Sandberg at the time, acknowledging the release of Ken Reitz. “You’re gonna play there every day from now on.”
Though initially a third baseman, Sandberg transitioned to second base in 1983. In 1984, comfortable as a second baseman, he earned the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. During that season, he sparked the Cubs to their first National League East title and one win short of reaching their first World Series since the conclusion of World War II.
Often asked about his favorite games, Sandberg opts to emphasize the entire 1984 season.
“I was around winning players,” he said. “I was around gamers. My game went to a different level. My job and my expectations going to the yard every day [were] completely different than the year before. And it also meant winning. That’s what changed everything for me.”
His season’s statistics bear that out: 156 games, 19 home runs, 84 RBIs, a career-best .314 batting average and an .887 OPS.
During Sandberg’s tenure, the Cubs also reached the postseason in 1989. Again, they fell short of a pennant. But that season, Sandberg boosted his offense and belted 30 home runs. In 1990, he hit a career-high 40 homers and drove in 100 runs.
But never underestimate Sandberg’s defensive prowess. Though his offense often stole the show, Sandberg’s fielding was peerless.
“Day in and day out, this guy is a very, very good baseball player,” said Jim Frey, who succeeded Green as the Cubs’ general manager in 1988. “He’s as good a second baseman as you’ll ever see.”
When the 10-time All-Star retired after 16 seasons (1981-1994, 1996-1997), he finished his career with a .989 fielding percentage. In addition to seven Silver Slugger awards, he earned nine consecutive Gold Glove awards at second from 1983-91.
“[Sandberg] makes all the plays, left and right,” said Don Zimmer, the Cubs’ manager from 1988-91. “He makes all the double plays. He makes so few errors that when he makes one, you think the world’s coming in on you.”
“I can’t believe the Phillies gave up on Sandberg,” said Bowa in 1982. “He’ll play for the Cubs right now. A good kid, a big kid. Only thing is, he’s real quiet. We’re gonna have to get him to talk more in Chicago.”
Sandberg spoke volumes throughout his Cubs career and 2005 enshrinement in Cooperstown. He hammered home the term respect -- for family and friends, for teammates and opponents, for team management, the game of baseball and more.
“Dallas Green brought me to Chicago and without him, who knows? I couldn’t let him down,” Sandberg said. “I owed him too much. I had too much respect for him to let him down.”
Bill Pearch, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, serves as newsletter editor for SABR’s Emil Rothe Chapter (Chicago). He has contributed to SABR’s publications about old Comiskey Park and the 1995 Atlanta Braves. He was in attendance for Sandberg’s final two games at Wrigley Field. Follow him on Twitter @billpearch.
Cleaning Up - SABR 50 Spotlight
Oral presentations are expected to last 20 minutes, followed by a five-minute question-and-answer period. Posters will be presented, with the author on hand to discuss the work, during a poster session of 60 minutes and they will remain on display throughout the convention.
Through on-site judging, the most highly-regarded presentations will receive the Doug Pappas Award for best oral presentation and the SABR Convention Poster Presentation Award for best poster presentation.
Click here to submit abstracts for SABR 50.
The submission deadline for SABR 50 abstracts is midnight PST on Friday, March 4, 2022.
SABR 50 is scheduled to be held August 17-21, 2022, at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor in Baltimore.