"You don't trade a Hall of Famer!" went the anguished cry in Los Angeles the day Mike Piazza was traded—well, the first day Mike Piazza was traded. In fact, "You always trade a Hall of Famer!" is a more supportable statement.
The number of teams for which Piazza has now played, three, constitutes the career average for the Hall of Famers he hopes to join one day. Those admitted to Cooperstown tend to be more peripatetic than perennial: Of the 178 honored purely as major league players, only 39 spent their careers with one club, 101 played with three or more, and 62 with four or more. Sixty-eight Hall of Famers changed teams in midseason at least once.
Three teams in one year isn't even a Hall of Fame record. Steve Carlton, Burleigh Grimes, King Kelly, Phil Niekro and Lloyd Waner were all moved twice in a season. The game's first larger-than-life superstar, Kelly not only anticipated Piazza's trifecta by 107 years, but also made two of his 1891 stops in the same city, jumping after just four games with Boston's American Association team, the Reds, to its National League franchise, the Beaneaters, after having started the season with Cincinnati. Five years before that, the slugging catcher-outfielder had hit .388 to win the 1886 National League batting championship only to be sold by the Chicago White Stockings to the Beaneaters in the off-season, at age 28, for the unheard-of price of $10,000.
Most Hall of Famers who move change teams either very early in their careers or very late. But Babe Ruth was sold after his sixth season, Grover Cleveland Alexander was traded after his seventh and Tris Speaker after his ninth, each at a time when his immortality was better established than Piazza's is now. Each was moved for financial reasons—Ruth and Alexander because of the impecuniousness of their teams; Speaker, like Piazza, because of his salary demands. Most of the instability of 19th century rosters had to do with factors that seem remarkably relevant today: free agency, labor strife and under-funded franchises. Thirty-eight major leaguers who began their careers before 1900 are in Cooperstown, and not one of them spent his career with just one team.
Even if Piazza winds up with yet a fourth team later this season and a fifth one next year, he can only tie Carlton for the whirlwind tour record (Phillies to Giants to White Sox to Indians to Twins in just under 14 months late in his career). George Kell was traded in midseason four times. Dan Brouthers played for 11 teams, and closer to our own era Gaylord Perry played for eight clubs, Hoyt Wilhelm for nine.
Things could have been even more chaotic for Piazza. On Feb. 7, 1899, when the Brooklyn Superbas and the National League Baltimore Orioles were both run by Harry Von der Horst, Baltimore shortstop Hughie Jennings was transferred to Brooklyn along with fellow future Hall members Wee Willie Keeler and Joe Kelley. But Jennings's chronic arm problems rendered him nearly useless in Brooklyn, and on Aug. 3 he was traded back to Baltimore for a younger shortstop, Gene DeMontreville, and pitcher Jerry Nops. Jennings played two games for Baltimore, whereupon the owners called the deal off and shipped him back to Brooklyn.
That couldn't happen even to Piazza. I don't think.