Talking Trades: Royals Acquire Major Piece In Minor Trade

The Royals famously built their late-1970s teams through a lot of great trades. Many times, those were deals where Kansas City shipped out a veteran for a young player who had been undervalued by his previous team. One such trade, and one that worked out probably better than the Royals ever hoped, came 45 years ago this week. On May 16, 1976, to be exact, the Royals sent catcher Fran Healy to the Yankees for left-handed pitcher Larry Gura

Unlike some previous trades the Royals had pulled off, this one was not big news at the time. Gura was in his seventh major league season, but had spent his first five bouncing between the big leagues and the minors, amassing just 62 appearances (18 starts) in that time. He did have a nice stretch for the Yankees at the end of the 1974 season, going 5-1 in eight starts. But in 1975, he went just 7-8 in 26 games, with a 3.51 ERA. Even worse for Gura, the Yankees changed managers, bringing in Billy Martin for the last two months. For whatever reason, Martin decided he didn’t like the southpaw (supposedly, Martin didn’t like the fact that Gura played tennis to relax). So Gura, despite making New York’s Opening Day roster for 1976, did not appear in a game for the Yankees that season.

“When the season started, he said I’d be used as a spot starter or in long relief, but every time a situation came up, he’d use someone else. Finally he told me on a Friday that I would start the following Wednesday. I told him I’d like to get in an inning or two before that if the opportunity came up. That night Catfish Hunter got knocked out in the second inning. That was the perfect spot for me, but he brought in Tippy Martinez. I asked him why and he said Martinez hadn’t pitched in two weeks. I told him that I hadn’t pitched in four.”–Gura, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, October 23, 1976

Likewise, the Royals had found little use for Healy in the 1976 season. The 29-year-old catcher had been a small part of the original Royals, playing in six games in 1969. But he was traded to San Francisco following the 1970 season (for pitcher Bob Garibaldi), then traded back to the Royals just before the 1973 season started, this time for pitcher Greg Minton. He then had two pretty good seasons for the Royals, hitting .261/.345/.388 in 234 games over 1973 and 1974.  But his 1975 season was an injury-filled disappointment, as he hit .243/.306/.264 in just 56 games. Manager Whitey Herzog actually intended to use Healy as his starting catcher in 1976, and he started the first four games of the season. But Herzog then put Buck Martinez in the lineup and the team started winning. Healy would play in just four more games before the trade. While the veteran didn’t seem to get into an argument with Herzog like Gura did with Martin, he was understandably happy to get a chance to play more.

“It’s a new start for me. I’ve been here for years and I have a lot of memories. I’ll treasure most of them. I’ve met some great people and there are some great people in the Royals’ organization. I was disappointed I didn’t get to catch more, but baseball has its ups and downs.”–Healy, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, June 5, 1976

Gura’s arrival was a welcomed development for the Kansas City bullpen. Young lefty Bob McClure had been ineffective in a handful of appearances. Veteran southpaw (and Kansas City, Kansas, native) Ray Sadecki had allowed 10 baserunners in three appearances before the Royals released him. That left Steve Mingori as the only lefty reliever, although the Royals did bring in Tom Hall a week or so before acquiring Gura.

For the Yankees, Healy’s arrival strengthened the bench. Healy was considered a good defensive catcher, and a right-handed bat with a bit of power. Martin indicated he might use Healy behind the plate and put Thurman Munson in the outfield if he wanted an extra right-hander in the lineup.

The trade would eventually work out for the Royals, but it took a bit. Gura missed a month with a pulled muscle and didn’t really hit his stride until late July. He then contributed a decent spot start and some solid long relief appearances. But perhaps his biggest contribution came in late September. The Royals, seeking their first AL West title in franchise history, entered September with a comfortable eight-game lead on the Oakland A’s, the team the Royals had been trying to overcome for basically their entire existence. But when Kansas City dropped 10 of 15 to start the month, Oakland crept to within 3.5 games. The Royals bounced back and opened the lead back up to seven with 11 games left, only to drop two home games to the A’s, lose two of three in Texas, and then lose the first two games of a series in Oakland. The lead was down to 2.5 games and the Royals were on the ropes. Even with the lead, another loss would make it feel like the A’s were in control. 

With scheduled starter Al Fitzmorris suffering from a sprained ankle, Herzog surprised everyone by selecting Gura to start this crucial game. His hunch paid off as Gura held Oakland to four singles and a walk and the Royals headed home with a 4-0 win and a magic number of one. They would clinch the division two nights later.

Healy did his part to help the Yankees reach the postseason as well. Munson was injured in a collision at home plate on June 23. Healy and fellow veteran Elrod Hendricks filled in ably, combining for a .391 average in the week after Munson was hurt as the Yankees won five straight without their captain. Unlike the Royals, the Yankees would cruise to a division title. Healy hit .267/.318/.292 in 129 plate appearances in pinstripes.

Not surprisingly, the Gura-Martin feud became a leading subplot of the ALCS as the Royals and Yankees faced off. As you might guess from the date of the Gura quote above, the pitcher’s frustration with Martin was irresistible to reporters. George Brett chimed in that Martin had promised not to trade George’s brother Ken, then shipped him out two days after the Gura trade. Martin spent most of Game One screaming at Gura and Brett from the dugout, then accused Gura of taking “cheap shots” at him in the press. Gura allowed 12 hits but only four runs, but the Royals did nothing on offense. Gura also started Game Four but only lasted two innings, leaving after the Yankees cut the KC lead to 3-2 in a game the Royals had to (and did) win. Ultimately, of course, New York prevailed and advanced to the World Series.

The Yankees may have won that battle, but the Royals ended up winning the war. Or at least the trade. Neck injuries meant Healy had to retire early in the 1978 season. He provided the Yankees with 0.9 bWAR in 74 games. Meanwhile, Gura’s career took off in Kansas City. As a flyball pitcher, Royals Stadium was a perfect fit for him, and he would collect 111 wins in a Royals uniform, with a bWAR score of 18.7 (despite a combined -1.3 in his last two seasons). And he took particular delight in torturing his old team, which was often managed by Martin. Gura owned an 11-6 record against New York, with a 3.10 ERA in 25 games. To this day, Gura is fifth in Royals history in wins and innings pitched, seventh in WHIP, sixth in games started, and fourth in shutouts and complete games. He was elected to the team Hall of Fame in 1992. Not bad for a little-known pitcher who was acquired in a little-noticed trade.

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