There’s little doubt that the 1970 trade that sent Denny McLain to Washington for Aurelio Rodriguez, Eddie Brinkman and Joe Coleman still ranks as one of the great trades in Detroit Tigers franchise history. Where would the 1972 Tigers have been without Brinkman and Rodriguez sweeping up the left side of the infield and without Coleman providing an ideal No. 2 starter behind Mickey Lolich? They wouldn’t have been in the American League Championship Series, that’s for sure.
On the other end of the deal, most of the players the Tigers traded to the Senators flopped, making the trade seem even more favorable to Detroit. McLain’s right arm had already been torn asunder by overuse, a fast-aging Don Wert was near the end of the line as a productive third baseman, and young right-hander Norm McRae would never fulfill the promise that sometimes comes with minor league seasoning. Of all the players the Tigers surrendered in the deal, only one would sustain a career of any significant value after Detroit. That was a young outfielder/third baseman named Elliott Maddox.
The Tigers really did not want to part with Maddox. A first-round draft choice in 1968, Maddox had showed an ability to hit for average at all four minor league stops he played at in 1968 and ‘69. He also had game breaking speed, which he flashed occasionally as a basestealer.
Then there was the issue of his fielding. Originally drafted as a third baseman, Maddox had exhibited growing pains at the hot corner. In 1969, the Tigers tried him out in center field. There he could use his speed and long strides to track down fly balls. The Tigers saw that he had natural talent for the outfield, where he could better utilize his speed and athletic grace.
After the 1969 season, Maddox reported to the Tigers’ Instructional League affiliate in Clearwater, Florida. Much like he had seen in previous locales, Maddox experienced the racism of Jim Crow. With Clearwater’s motels closed to blacks, Maddox and the team’s other black players had no choice but to sleep in their cars. The situation continued for a week, when Maddox reached a boiling point. He phoned Tigers GM Jim Campbell and told him that the organization needed to remedy the untenable situation immediately. Otherwise, Maddox would lead a walkout of the black players.
Within two hours of the phone call, Maddox received a suitable answer. Campbell told Maddox that a motel on the beach would accept the Tigers’ minority players. Even at 21 years old, Maddox showed himself willing to take a stand as a clubhouse leader.
The incident, which bothered some in a conservative organization like the Tigers, did little to dissuade Campbell from bringing Maddox to the Tigers in 1970, when Mayo Smith used him as a jack-of-all-trades. He didn’t hit much (only .248), but did reach base 32 per cent of the time and put in time at six different positions, including shortstop. Maddox played all of the outfield positions and all of the infield spots, with the exception of first base.
The Senators certainly took notice of Maddox. Impressed with his versatility and athleticism, they insisted the Tigers include him in the McLain blockbuster.
If there were any concerns the Senators had, they involved Maddox’ bat. Still, they gave him a chance to play extensively in center field and right field in 1971, but he batted only .217. When the Senators moved to Texas in 1972, Maddox moved with them and improved his hitting, lifting his batting average to a respectable .252 while stealing 20 bases. But the improvement didn’t last. The following summer, Maddox regressed. His average fell into the .230s and he became a non-factor in terms of his basestealing. He also didn’t get along with Billy Martin, who had become Texas’ manager late in the ‘73 season. Martin did not appreciate Maddox’ outspoken manner. Critics of Martin felt that race might have played a part in his rift with the player.
Maddox’ stock fell so far in Texas (and in the mind of Martin) that the Rangers practically gave him away the following spring. Instead of making a trade, the Rangers accepted a cash payment from the Yankees for Maddox, all at the urging of Martin. In contrast, Yankee manager Bill Virdon liked Maddox enough to make him the starting center fielder by May, while bumping the more established Bobby Murcer from center to right.
With a change of scenery and a new manager in tow, Maddox responded with a career breakthrough. Showing unforeseen patience at the plate, he drew 69 walks, lifted his batting average to .303, and raised his on-base percentage to within a whisker of .400. As expected, he also played a brilliant center field, covering the gaps at Shea Stadium with a smoothness not seen by Yankee fans since the days of Joe DiMaggio. He also displayed a strong arm, throwing out 14 runners, an especially good total for a center fielder. Maddox didn’t win the Gold Glove, but perhaps he should have. Here’s what did happen: his all-around game earned him an eighth-place finish in the MVP race.
If you never saw Maddox play center field for the Yankees, you missed out on one of the game’s great defensive spectacles. Built lean and lithe, Maddox glided gracefully after fly balls, consuming outfield space with long, loping strides. With range that ran from gap to gap, Maddox drew comparisons to a young Paul Blair. And if you ever saw Blair play center field for the Baltimore Orioles, that’s just about the ultimate compliment that a young center fielder can receive.
At 26 years of age, Maddox had the makings of a long-term star. In 1975, Maddox continued to hit, lifting his average into the low .300s. Then came the kind of misfortune that can define a career. On June 13, the Yankees hosted the Chicago White Sox in a game at Shea Stadium. The outfield remained soaked from a rainstorm the previous night. Maddox pursued a fly ball into right-center field, made the catch, and then turned his body to make the throw. As he turned, his leg slipped badly on the moistened grass. Maddox tore up his right knee badly.
Not only did the injury end Maddox’ season, it also hampered him for the rest of his career. (Maddox eventually sued the city of New York over the condition of the Shea Stadium outfield, but to no avail.) In early September, Maddox’ knee underwent a complete reconstruction. He was then fitted with a knee brace.
Maddox refused to give up, instead undergoing an exhaustive rehabilitation process. Unable to return to the starting lineup in 1976 (and it didn’t help that Martin was now managing the Yankees), Maddox settled for a backup role in the Bronx before undergoing a second knee surgery that winter. The Yankees gave up on Maddox, dealing him to the Orioles for Blair, the man to whom he had so often been compared. From there, he joined the Mets, finishing out his career with three lackluster seasons as a combination right fielder and third baseman. By the age of 32, Elliott Maddox was done.
Oh what might have been. If only Maddox had remained with the Tigers, he would never have had to play the outfield at Shea Stadium that awful day in 1974 and might never have mangled his knee. With Mickey Stanley beginning to wind down his career as a starter in the mid-1970s, Maddox could have moved seamlessly into the job, fielding fly balls between the likes of Ron LeFlore and Rusty Staub. With the speed of LeFlore in left and the pure grace of Maddox in center, the Tigers of the mid-1970s would have been a lot more bearable to watch. They wouldn’t have won any additional pennants, but they would have been far more fun.
None of this is meant to suggest that the Tigers shouldn’t have included Maddox in that blockbuster trade with the Senators after the 1970 season. You can’t expect everything to go right in a multiple-player deal; it was still a phenomenal trade, given the contributions of the big three of Brinkman, Rodriguez, and Coleman.
Yet, it’s still interesting to speculate what might have been. In so many ways, Maddox would have been the perfect player to succeed Stanley, a terrific defensive player in his own right and one of the keys to the team’s 1968 world championship. Given the 440-foot dimensions of center field at Tiger Stadium, what better environment could there have been for a player with the speed, range, and tracking ability of an Elliott Maddox to show his worth. Perhaps Maddox would have become the new Paul Blair after all.
Once again, the fates of baseball simply did not cooperate.