It’s a little too much to say that Don Hurst charted a course for Cooperstown throughout his early career, but it would be a little too little to say that he didn’t. Since 1920, 85 players have accrued at least 2,700 plate appearances and had an OPS+ of 120 or higher in their first five big-league seasons. The number of deserving Hall of Famers in the much varies according to taste, but it’s roughly 35 or 36, over 40 percent of the sample. To run at it from another direction, 106 players met the same playing time and performance thresholds over their ages 22 through 26 seasons, and an even higher percentage—almost exactly half—turned out to be true Hall of Fame-caliber figures.
Hurst was a first baseman from Kentucky. He went to Ohio State, and so was already 20 when he signed with the Syracuse Stars (an unaffiliated team in the International League) in 1926. He hit really well there, well enough to keep his place on the club when the Cardinals took it over as an affiliate in 1927. He played another strong season, then began 1928 in Rochester, where the Cardinals had moved the team over the winter. The problem for Hurst was clear, though: the Cardinals didn’t have room for him. The team had won the World Series in 1926 and would claim another pennant in 1928. Their starting first baseman was Hall of Famer (of dubious credentials, but the Hall is the Hall) Jim Bottomley, who was very much in his prime and would post a 162 OPS+ with 42 doubles, 20 triples, and 31 homers that season.
So, as often happened in those days, a big and rather messy deal was made, with the Cardinals shipping Don Hurst, Spud Davis, and Home Peel to the Phillies in return for Art Decatur, Jimmie Wilson, and Bill Kelly. Those Phillies would go 43-109, their 12th straight losing season, so they just wanted to get young, and Hurst and Davis were young. Neither Decatur nor Kelly would ever even play for the Cardinals, and Wilson remained more or less what he had been in Philadelphia: a serviceable but unimpressive backstop, with a light bat. Peel is similarly forgettable, other than his name, but Davis would go on to a career of 16 seasons and 27.2 WAR, playing mostly part-time at catcher but hitting really well for the position. And Hurst, whom the Phillies installed as their starting first baseman the day they acquired him, came roaring out of the gates.
Hurst hit .285 as a rookie (with 68 walks in 475 plate appearances), but over .300 in each of the next four seasons. He hit 31 homers and knocked 64 total extra-base hits in 1929. In 1932, when he really seemed to come into his own, he had a 144 OPS+, hit 41 doubles, four triples, and 24 home runs, and led the league with 143 RBI. He finished seventh in MVP voting, leading a Phillies team that ended the franchise’s string of losing campaigns at 15. He wasn’t a superstar, but he, Davis, and Chuck Klein comprised a really impressive young core. The future looked very bright.
Then, it didn’t. Hurst’s power deserted him in 1933, as he hit only eight home runs and slugged .389. He walked considerably less, too, perhaps pressing and losing his plate discipline, or perhaps not being treated with the same caution pitchers had afforded him when he was showing big power. A year after reaching his peak and looking like the centerpiece of the next championship Phillies team, Hurst failed to meet the offensive standard for a first baseman.
There was probably considerable hope for a turnaround from Hurst in 1934, but it didn’t come. In early June, with a season line of .272/.336/.392, Hurst was benched, and a week later, he was traded.
Dolph Camilli was trying to make it in pro ball at an age at which Hurst was still in college. Camilli played Class C ball in the Utah-Idaho League at 19 and 20, then latched on permanently with the Sacramento Senators of the old Pacific Coast League. He played nearly five full seasons in Sacramento, hitting quite well (we’ll never know exactly how well, because the PCL didn’t keep records of, for instance, walks, but he launched a ton of doubles and a fair number of home runs, and maintained solid batting averages) but not lighting it on fire. Late in the 1933 season, the Cubs signed Camilli, and he made his (unimpressive) debut for a few weeks that September.
Camilli would start 1934 with the Cubs, too, and looked briefly like he would blossom into a star. He hit .355/.412/.629 over his first 68 plate appearances that year, cracking five doubles and four homers over that short span. But then he slumped, and slumped badly. Over his next 60 plate appearances, he’d hit .190/.203/.241, striking out 15 times and walking just once. That’s the kind of slump teams would understand from an inexperienced big-leaguer today, even if it still worried them. Back then, it was unforgivable, especially the strikeout rate.
On June 11, the Cubs agreed to a change-of-scenery type of trade. It was straight-up, Hurst for Camilli. Each club hoped their new guy would rediscover whatever he’d lost.
Well, here’s how the deal broke. Camilli didn’t break out immediately, but he did draw 48 walks in 429 plate appearances for the Phillies after the trade that year, and 65 in 672 trips the next season. His big breakout came in 1936, when he hit .315, had 70 extra-base hits, and walked a staggering 116 times. From 1936 through 1943, he batted .284/.405/.518, good for a 149 OPS+. He won the 1941 NL MVP, and had had a credible case for the award in 1939, too. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he’s not far off.
Hurst played out the string for the Cubs in 1934, hitting .199/.239/.291. That was the end of his career. Hurst played his last game in September, age 29 years, 39 days. He’d play in the minors for the next few years, but never made it back to MLB. Camilli passed age 29 years, 39 days in early June 1936, and had a .350/.470/.607 slash line when he did so.
Should the Cubs have known better? Was the trade of Hurst for Camilli a myopic one, or are the results just another in the laundry list of bad breaks the universe has dealt the Cubs over the last century and change? I think a case can be made either way. Camilli’s command of the strike zone, while not strange from our modern perspective, was unorthodox back then, and might even have signified serious risk. Most really good hitters walked at least twice as often as they struck out back then; Camilli sometimes struck out more than he walked. He traded contact for power at times, but didn’t have all that much power, not for a first baseman. It was really the patience he found only after leaving the Cubs that turned him into a great player. Maybe the Cubs can be faulted for not seeing and fostering that valuable skill, but maybe they can’t: no one properly valued patience back then anyway.
Still, I think it’s fair to say that Hurst was the wrong way to try to replace Camilli. He was older, and despite his strong early track record, he was 750 plate appearances removed from having been a good hitter by the time the Cubs dealt for him. If he had maintained any skill other than not striking out, believing in him as a rebound candidate would have made some sense, but he really hadn’t. Despite the pedigree of Hurst and the strange career arc of Camilli, I think most smart baseball people of the moment would have taken Camilli, even in 1934.
This trade haunted the Cubs, for my money, longer and worse than did the deal of Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio. The 1935 Cubs won the pennant, but lost the World Series. So did the 1938 Cubs. In between, they finished second in the National League twice. In those four seasons, with Phil Cavaretta at first base sometimes and Ripper Collins there at others, the Cubs never fielded even an average first baseman. The problem would persist until Cavaretta (who came up at 18 but wasn’t really good until his early-to-mid-20s) became the full-time first baseman in 1943—at the tail end of Camilli’s peak.
Put Camilli’s bat into the lineup for any of those four great Cubs teams, from 1935-38, and they almost certainly win a World Series. For one thing, they might well have made it to all four, and almost surely would have made it to three. For another, in the two Series they did play, their first basemen combined for five hits in 39 at bats, with neither a walk nor an extra-base hit.
By the time Camilli won the MVP in 1941, the Cubs had faded into irrelevance, there to stay (save for the 1945 pennant, which they very well might not have won had it not been for World War II taking good talent from better teams) until the Brock (though really, of course, the Banks-Williams-Santo) Era. They missed their chance to change the building narrative about the franchise, and indeed, found themselves in the first prolonged period of abject badness ever. The Phillies, who inexplicably traded Camilli for next-to nothing in 1938, didn’t fare all that much better, but that’s another story for another time.
Why am I telling you this? Well, for starters, it’s interesting. Secondly, the Cubs are in Philadelphia this week, and Saturday marks the 82nd anniversary of the Hurst-Camilli trade, so it seemed appropriate. Thirdly, I suppose, it’s a poignant reminder of the most daunting and terrifying fact about the current Cubs, who seem so certain to be kicking off a dynasty right now. I believe that they are. I look at their organizational depth and the critical mass of elite positional talent already on the roster, and I think the Cubs will be very good for years to come.
The stories of Camilli and Hurst, though, are reminders that youth and early success in the Majors aren’t perfect predictors of long-term success. The Cubs are the subject of many trade rumors this June, including one in which they’d acquire Jose Bautista (a Camilli for these modern times, in terms of career arc, though he’s near the age at which Camilli slowed down) to play left field. That has excited some Cubs fans, but made others (who find understandable comfort in the youth and cheapness of players like Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber) uneasy. Neither side is all right or all wrong, but a good moral of the story of the Hurst-for-Camilli trade is that aging curves are imperfect, and that it might be okay to bet on some short-term excellence from a player a bit older and more expensive, even if that comes at some long-term cost.
Lead Photo Courtesy Gregory Fisher—USA Today Sports.