The Mets received Joel Youngblood from the Cardinals in exchange for infielder Mike Phillips on June 15, 1977. That same day they also traded away Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman. Hard to believe Youngblood didn’t capture any headlines, right?
In some ways it should have been impossible to ignore Joel Youngblood. He was a good-looking kid, at least until he removed his cap to reveal a prematurely receding hairline. And he had personality too, possessing an amiable-but-intense energy that frequently went over well both with fans and teammates. As Craig Swan said, "He was definitely a character." Like many southern players, he was an avid hunter, and he would grow a beard in September to mark the transition from baseball season to hunting season. Swan once made the mistake of going hunting with him. Upon realizing that Youngblood just wanted someone to flush out turkeys—a task Swan balked at, saying he wasn’t a dog—he never went again. He was even more memorable on the field. Originally a shortstop from a Houston-area high school, Youngblood had been the Reds’ second-round pick in the winter phase of the 1970 draft. We’re often taught that major league utility players are born solely from grit: while short on talent, they always run hard to first base, they slide in to second harder than anyone, and they never fail to eat their Wheaties. They make up for their shortcomings through sheer heart. Youngblood was different; he oozed talent. He was fast and had raw power. He had a real howitzer for an arm. And his best trait of all may have been his batspeed, frequently fawned over by scouts and coaches throughout his development. He could have been a star.
The problem was he was what prospect mavens call a tweener. He was strong, but he was a little on the short side, without a true power hitter’s frame. He was fast, but the speed wasn’t blazing, so he didn’t really grade out as a true center fielder. Nor were his hands good enough or his feet quick enough for any but the most optimistic to consider him a long-term shortstop. In fact, it would have been a stretch to even call him a future second baseman or third baseman. So Youngblood didn’t really have the hands or feet of an infielder, the speed of a center fielder, or the typical power of a corner outfielder or first baseman. At the same time, the bat was special enough to warrant everyday play somewhere. It was just a matter of where, and that is something Mets GM Joe McDonald should have been thankful for; otherwise, he’d never have had the opportunity to trade for Youngblood on that eventful day in 1977.
George Foster was the first man to make Joel Youngblood expendable. It happens to all but the best athletes, the ones who walk away at the top of their game—think Ted Williams or Barry Sanders—and the only good news is that few careers have room for it to happen more than three or four times. Cincinnati was the first team to make that judgment call on Youngblood, and it happened because they suddenly discovered that Foster could really hit.
There were many things Reds manager Sparky Anderson didn’t like, but chief among those were soft players and guys who couldn’t hit. The team was excellent, but third base was a black hole for the team. In 1972, the team won 95 games but started an over-the-hill Denis Menke at third and lost the World Series. In 1973, Menke was even more over-the-hill, forcing Anderson to play outfielder Dan Driessen there, and the team lost the Championship Series despite 99 wins. They met similar disappointment in 1974. By 1975, Anderson had become convinced the lack of a regular third baseman was costing his team the World Series year after year. Driessen’s defense—calling it brutal would have been quite charitable—was unacceptable, and he resolved to try John Vukovich at third. Vuk had a heck of a glove, but he couldn’t hit, so Sparky hated him by default. This whole time, Youngblood had been sitting tight at Triple-A Indianapolis and hitting fairly well, albeit as an outfielder. He had to figure a call was coming soon, if only to platoon with Driessen, a left-handed hitter, at third or in left.
But then Foster had to start hitting. Foster was a quiet, church-going guy, who Sparky didn’t like much more than Vukovich, believing that stars had to have personalities like Tony Perez, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, or Johnny Bench. They were certainly never soft. But Foster went on a tear and didn’t stop, forcing his way into the lineup on a regular basis. This allowed Anderson to shift Rose to third, effectively killing any chance at regular play Youngblood might have received as a Red, especially with the similarly skilled Driessen already on the roster. Youngblood spent a third season at Triple-A, before making the team out of spring training 1976, as a utility player, a role he never particularly wanted:
"From a manager’s standpoint, I gave him an insurance policy on the bench that could go in and play anywhere. But it took away some of the opportunities for me to play regularly at one position because I was so valuable I could play all positions quite well."
He received just 60 plate appearances despite spending the whole season on the roster, batting just .193. Anderson liked his bats, and there was no way Youngblood was cracking one of the best lineups of all time. He was shipped to St. Louis in spring of 1977 for reliever Bill Caudill.
In retrospect, it was odd that the Cardinals weren’t willing to give Youngblood a shot to win a position somewhere on the field. Ken Reitz was at third, a brilliant defender but one with a career .290 on-base percentage. If not third, the Cardinals’ outfield situation was pitiful, consisting of a well-past-his-prime Lou Brock, Jerry Mumphrey, and a bunch of guys who couldn’t hit .240. Holding onto a young outfielder with batspeed and versatility would have been wise. Instead, the Mets offered Phillips, an infielder who couldn’t really hit, and the Cardinals bit. Acquiring a talented player who hadn’t yet been given a chance for pennies was a savvy move made by an organization more or less at its nadir. That day player-manager Joe Torre became manager Joe Torre, retiring to give Youngblood his roster spot.
Youngblood’s first season with the Mets wasn’t especially strong. Playing all over the diamond, he hit just .253/.301/.324 in 197 plate appearances, but from a 25-year-old player on a team where just five hitters had WARs over 1.0—a couple just barely so—it was enough to warrant more playing time. In 1978, he nearly matched his batting and on-base averages, but thanks to eight triples, he did improve his slugging by over a hundred points. Youngblood still hadn’t found a home on the field, spending time at every position except catcher and first base. By this point he was in danger of being officially designated a career utility player.
At first, it didn’t seem like 1979 would be any better. Third baseman Lenny Randle was released, but veteran Richie Hebner was brought in as a replacement. And Torre seemed intent on retaining the same outfield of Steve Henderson, Lee Mazzilli, and Elliott Maddox. But on April 12, Maddox jammed his foot against the outfield wall and wound up missing a month. Youngblood filled in and went on a tear, hitting .327/.418/.600 over the next three weeks; by the time Maddox was ready to return, he’d lost his regular job. Although he slowed down as the season wore on, he still finished the season with a robust .275/.346/.436 line while leading the team in doubles, home runs, and runs scored. He finished third on the team in WAR behind ace Craig Swan and rising star Lee Mazzilli.
Youngblood entered camp in 1980 with job security for the first time in his career. He didn’t even need to find a position. With a now-healthy Maddox attempting to halt the revolving door at third base—a move destined for failure, of course—Youngblood was penciled into right field. Through mid-May, he was off to another fine start—.299/.375/.464—but the next 32 games were rough, a stretch during which Youngblood hit .181. He eventually brought his batting average back up to .275, but his power was largely missing; he slugged just .381 and knocked only eight homers and 26 doubles. He was still one of the team’s better hitters, but that says more about a team that hit just 61 home runs while slugging .345 than it does about Youngblood.
George Foster was the first player to make Joel Youngblood expendable. He was also the second.
In 1981, Youngblood’s position was once again in doubt. After Maddox’s failure at third the year before, Torre wanted Youngblood to try the position out, allowing the team to put Mookie Wilson, Lee Mazzilli, and Dave Kingman in the outfield. Youngblood did as he asked, but it didn’t go very well:
"Everybody talks about mental preparation in this game. Well, for so long I didn't know where I was playing, what I was playing, if I was playing. So I told Joe I didn’t want to play third. I’m not comfortable at that position. I don’t even want balls to be hit to me when I’m in the infield. Joe said, ‘O.K.’ And he said I wouldn’t get to play very much."
So for the first couple weeks of the season, Youngblood sat on the bench. He eventually told Torre that perhaps he might be willing to play third before changing his mind again and returning to the bench. He might never have started a game again, but Wilson began the year in a dreadful slump, and Youngblood started both games of a doubleheader on April 19. He went 3-for-9 with two walks. By May 10, he was hitting .369/.414/.523. Needless to say, when Torre wanted to move Wilson back into the lineup, Kingman was moved to first and Youngblood stayed in right.
The good feeling didn’t last long, however. At the end of May, Youngblood started to suffer from back spasms, and before the month was done, the team had acquired talented veteran outfielder Ellis Valentine from the Expos for Dan Norman and Jeff Reardon. Youngblood said at the time: "I thought, ‘Oh, no! Oh, no!’—you can use exclamation points there—‘Here it goes again!’" Torre didn’t have to make any decisions for at least a little while: right after Youngblood returned from the back spasms, he tore a ligament in his knee sliding into second. A week after that, the players striked, resulting in a split season. At the time of the strike, Youngblood was the NL’s leading hitter at .359. Luck wasn’t Youngblood’s strong suit.
The knee healed up during the strike, and Youngblood represented the Mets as the team’s sole All-Star in Cleveland on August 9. Still, he returned to find himself back on the pine and bouncing around the field again. Valentine didn’t have much left, batting .207 as a Met that season, but as a former star, he wasn’t going to sit. Wilson rebounded from his poor start, so Mazzilli and Youngblood wound up fighting for playing time, albeit not for long: Youngblood’s knee started acting up again, ending his season.
That offseason, Foster struck again, coming over to the Mets for a package of prospects. Mazzilli was traded shortly after, but Youngblood was left with nowhere to play. Wilson was now a fixture in center, and Foster and Valentine had the corner positions locked down. So Youngblood went back to the supersub thing, but he wasn’t happy and his production suffered. On August 4, the Mets traded Youngblood to the Expos during the third inning of a game in Chicago, right after he had knocked in two runs with a single. He immediately boarded a plane and arrived in Montreal just in time to get a pinch hit with his new team, becoming the first player to get two hits with two different teams in two different cities. "It was a very, very long day," he reflected years later.
Youngblood struggled with Montreal and signed with San Francisco during the ensuing offseason. He would remain a productive hitter for a year or two, but the Giants insisted upon using him as an infielder, and they paid dearly—he committed 36 errors at the hot corner in 1984 after committing 18 at second in 1983. After that, he was just a part-timer. In 1989, he ended his career where it started, with Cincinnati. This time, he didn’t need George Foster to make him expendable. He took care of that himself.
Some might be surprised to see Youngblood this high. After all, he only spent two seasons as a healthy regular, spending the other four as a key reserve. I’ll admit, I was surprised. But there’s a value in versatility, one that I really feel doesn’t get properly represented by traditional statistics, or even by more modern measures like WAR. And Youngblood’s defensive ratings make him look like a worse fielder than he probably was. He was a good defensive outfielder with an outstanding arm; had he been allowed to play the position he preferred all the time, he’d have had more defensive value. Youngblood often called his versatility a curse, and he may have been correct.
For those wishing to compare Youngblood to other teams’ 48th-best players according to WAR from 1962 to the present:
Not a solid comparable to Youngblood there. Larry Herndon probably comes closest. Both were somewhat similar hitters, good athletes who didn’t excel at any one thing in particular. The Tigers held onto Herndon during his decline, however, making his career shape with his team different than Youngblood’s with the Mets.
Eric wrote a profile on Youngblood for the original incarnation of this list, a true help to me while researching this piece. You may find it here.
While he doesn’t mention Youngblood, I used Joe Posnanski’s The Machine as a resource while describing the mentality in Cincinnati during Youngblood’s pre-Mets years. It’s as good a book on the Big Red Machine as you’ll find anywhere.
The story about Swan’s hunting trip with Youngblood comes from Peter Golenbock’s Amazin’: The Miraculous History of New York’s Most Beloved Baseball Team.