Tommy Helms played an integral role in the Cincinnati Reds winning back-to-back World Series in 1975 and ’76 despite not actually being on the Reds during those years. The November 1971 trade that sent him from Cincinnati to Houston, however, provided the one of the lynchpin pieces that would form the core of The Big Red Machine.
Helms was already a solid second baseman in the Major Leagues for half decade and a part of the Reds team that went to the 1970 World Series, a squad that lost to Baltimore in five games. Though he was popular in Cincinnati, including Helms in the seven-player deal with Houston meant that the Reds would get Joe Morgan in return.
Morgan helped spark the Reds, who went back to the World Series in 1972 [losing to Oakland], won their division in 1973 and then captured consecutive titles over the Red Sox and Yankees. While Morgan also won back-to-back National League MVP Awards in ’75 and ’76, Helms was sent to a squad that finished no better than third during his four years with the Astros.
Still, the North Carolina native, who still lives in the Cincinnati area, is not bitter about the deal that sent him away from the organization that drafted and developed him. The trade was simply part of playing the game.
“I was a little surprised I was traded,” Helms, 81, said. “The only thing I could figure was they were looking for speed and Joe Morgan was a heck of a player [with 131 steals over his previous three seasons]. They wanted to get a fast second baseman and the Astros wanted a power-hitting first baseman [Lee May]. It was a case if you want Morgan, you have to throw me in there.
“We had a good team in Houston, to tell you the truth. Things just didn’t work out. We had [Doug] Rader, [Roger] Metzger, me, Lee May, [Cesar] Cedeno, Jimmy Wynn and Bob Watson was playing left. We had a good team and we finished [tied for] second to them [with the Dodgers in 1972]. We had a managerial change that season and Leo Durocher came in. Leo was good but the problem was the pitchers. Leo just couldn’t figure out the pitchers and it bugged him. He was still back in the old school.”
Helms still holds a special place among his generation of Reds’ fans, though. He won the 1966 National League Rookie of the Year and hit Cincinnati’s first home run in Riverfront Stadium when the Reds moved there from Crosley Field in June of 1970.
He had a 14-year big-league career during which he was named to a pair of All-Star teams and won a pair of Gold Gloves. Additionally, Helms earned some MVP votes in 1968 when he hit .288 during the Year of the Pitcher. It all proved to be an interesting ride for Helms, who was all in on baseball at a very young age.
MY HOME IS IN CAROLINA
Helms didn’t live quite near any teams while growing up in North Carolina in the 1950s. The Washington Senators were closest to his home and there wasn’t much to cheer for there. They didn’t finish higher than fifth in any seasons in the 1950s so he turned to the Giants, who spent the majority of the decade in their long-time home at the Polo Grounds before moving to San Francisco.
Sure, the Giants had Willie Mays and Monte Irvin and later Willie McCovey, but Helms’ affinity for the New York/San Francisco centered on Whitey Lockman, who spent 13 of his 15 Major Leagues seasons with the Giants. Lockman’s father, Charles, worked in the same cotton mill as Helms’ father, Clyde, and the two families lived on the same street.
“I was a big Whitey Lockman fan,” Helms said. “He got the base hit before Bobby Thompson hit the [pennant-winning] homerun [in the 1951 playoff game against the Dodgers]. I never got to the Polo Grounds to watch a game and by the time I came up at the end of 1964, it wasn’t used. So, I missed Ebbetts Field and the Polo Grounds. But, I admired Lockman [who retired in 1960, after appearing in 21 games for the Reds].
“They wanted me to stay but they said I wasn’t going to play. So, I said okay, I’ll play for the worst team in baseball before I play for the Orioles.”
“I did get to play against Mays and McCovey. I hated to play them in the mid-60s. If you had to pitch to them when the game was on the line, you were going to lose.”
Helms was a bat boy for the local semipro team growing up and was there when the area mill teams played during the summers. He went on to star for his West Mecklenburg High School team, hitting .460 as a senior, leading his team to the State finals. He earned a host of local honors for his play in high school and with his American Legion team, for whom he earned all-state honors.
He went 9-for-21 in the State High School tournament, cementing interest from the Reds, Cubs and Cleveland before Cincinnati scout Paul Campbell signed him to a deal. He is one of two players from West Mecklenburg [along with Chad Tracy] to reach the Major Leagues.
The Reds immediately sent him to Palatka of the then Class-D Florida State League, where he appeared in 56 games and hit .252.
“My brother played minor league ball and he played in Palatka, too,” Helms said. “It was terrible there. We didn’t have a fence in the outfield, it was a bank. It rained every day at four o’clock and it seemed like it as 100 degrees every day. We were about 50 miles south of Jacksonville and we traveled everywhere in station wagons.
“The first year I went off and played 50 games and hit .252. I had never hit that [low] in my life. If you were in high school and you got signed, you were usually one of the better players. So, I just made some adjustments, went back the next year and led the league in hits.”
Helms had a big year in Palatka in 1960, and indeed did lead the league with 171 hits and 119 runs. He was third with 223 total bases while hitting .292. The Reds had a strong farm system at the time with the likes of Helms, Pete Rose, Tommy Harper and Art Shamsky coming through the pipeline. They were all part of the group that laid the foundation for the strong Cincy teams of the 1970s.
“We had a heck of a team in the 60s,” Helms said. “The Reds had a great organization. I didn’t play much with Frank Robinson, only a half a year. He was just a quiet leader. He didn’t holler much. He wasn’t fast but he knew how to play baseball. And Vada Pinson could fly and he could hit. He got 200 hits almost every year. That guy liked to play and he could run. When he was running it didn’t look like he was running; it looked like he was flying.”
It would take a few years for Helms to join the big club, though. In the interim, he had a great season in 1961 with Topeka of the Three-I League, hitting .277 with 57 RBI. He followed that up with a monster year in 1962 playing alongside Rose with Macon of the Class-A South Atlantic League. Helms led the league with 195 hits in 139 games while hitting .340. Rose, meanwhile, hit .330 and collected 178 hits. That Helms outhit Rose remains a source of humor between the two longtime friends.
Cincinnati Reds Tommy Helms (19) and Lee May (23) in action, fielding pop fly vs Baltimore Orioles at Riverfront Stadium. Cincinnati, OH 10/10/1970 (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
MAKING HIS WAY TO THE QUEEN CITY
Despite outhitting Rose, Helms was back in the minors in ’63 while Rose went on to win National League Rookie of the Year. Helms spent all of 1963 and 1964 with San Diego of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, hitting .309 in the latter season, earning a brief September call-up. He was announced as a pinch-hitter in a Sept. 23 game against the Phillies but was then pinch-hit for himself by Marty Keough. Helms would get his first big-league at-bat 11 days later, striking out as against Philadelphia’s Jim Bunning.
“I pinch-hit against Bunning but we were riding that thing with Philadelphia [which was in the process of an historic September collapse],” Helms said. “So we had to play the starters as Philly blew an eight-game lead.”
Helms bounced between Cincinnati and San Diego in 1965, appearing in 21 games for the Reds [he hit .381] and 96 games in the PCL [hitting .319]. He was with the big-league team for good in 1966 and made quite the splash, hitting .284 while striking out only 31 times in 542 at-bats to easily outdistance Houston’s Sonny Jackson for Rookie of the Year honors.
“We had Leo Cardenas playing shortstop and Rose playing second base and the only reason I got to the big leagues was because they moved Rose to third,” Helms said. “But then I went to third base because Rose didn’t like it there. I was just happy to play. I don’t think I was a good third baseman. I was a decent shortstop but third base was different. I didn’t like playing third base when the Giants came to town facing guys like Mays, Jim Ray Hart and Ollie Brown.
“I was hitting .300 that year and then had to go to a two-week summer camp for the Marines. The Rookie of the Year was the best thing you do in your first year. I wasn’t a homerun hitter, though. I mostly hit first or second or seventh or eighth. When I was in the Marine Corps Reserve every week, you were afraid they were going to call you up [and send you to Vietnam].”
The Reds finished seventh in 1966, though, and Dave Bristol took over as manager replacing Don Heffner midway through the season. The Reds had an 11-game improvement in 1967 while playing a full season for Bristol and Helms continued to shine. He moved back to his natural position at second base and was named to the National League All-Star team for the first time.
Cardinal pitcher Steve Carlton (r) puts the tag on Cincinnati Reds' Tommy Helms in the 7th inning of St. Louis-Cincinnati game 7/21. Helms tried to score from third on a passed ball. Cardinal catcher Joe Torre retrieved the ball, throwing to Carlton dashing in from the mound to cover home.
Helms got into the game, which was played in Anaheim, as a pinch-hitter in the 15th inning and lined into a double play off Catfish Hunter.
“I wasn’t in the starting lineup because we [the National League] still had Bill Mazeroski [at second] and Gene Alley [at shortstop],” Helms said. “There was a lot of good pitching back then and there were 30 strikeouts in the game. Tony Perez hit the home run [in the 15th] and we won 2-1. I made the All-Star team in ’68 and it was a big deal back then because the players picked the teams. It wasn’t a popularity contest like now.
“I had to get a 36-hour pass to play in the All-Star game in 1968. I was at Camp Pendleton [in California] and the game was played in Houston. I got picked up, flew to Houston, played that night and flew out the next morning. I had a pretty good game [1-for-3 with a walk] and during the game Curt Gowdy mentioned that I was on leave from the Marine Corps. When I got back, the guy who was the commanding officer at the base didn’t get mad at me but he said if he had someone important on base that he’d like to know it before anyone else.”
Helms appeared in 137 and 127 games in 1967 and ’68, respectively, because of his military commitment, but still managed more than 1,000 plate appearances during those two years, hitting a career-high .288 in ’68. He wouldn’t return to the All-Star but he still made his presence felt during his final three years with the Reds.
He picked up Gold Gloves in 1970-71 and hit Cincinnati’s first homer at Riverfront Stadium off Atlanta’s Ron Reed on June 30th, 1970. In fact, he hit .324 [12-for-37] during the club’s first homestand at Riverfront, hitting safely in nine of the 10 games played. But the Reds would lose to Baltimore in the World Series that is best remembered for the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson’s outstanding play at third base.
“We just kept watching Brooks Robinson make plays,” Helms said. “They had a heck of a team. We went into the World Series with no pitching and we had a lead in every game. [Jim] Maloney didn’t pitch and Clay Carroll was the only one who pitched good. We had to call up a Milt Wilcox, a rookie. He was like a kid. We just had no pitching.”
Helms had another solid year in 1971 but the Reds dropped to fourth place in National League West. Changes were made that off-season.
Tommy Helms #19 of the Houston Astros in action against the Chicago Cubs during an Major League Baseball game circa 1972 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. Helms played for the Astros from 1972-75. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
THE TRADE AND TIME IN HOUSTON
The eight-player trade that sent Helms to Houston, which occurred on Nov. 29, 1971, was one of the biggest and most significant deals of the decade, if not baseball history. It brought Morgan to the Reds along with Dennis Menke, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham and Ed Armbrister while Helms, Lee May and Jimmy Stewart went to the Astros.
In retrospect, the deal was a bit one-sided if only for what Morgan accomplished with the Reds. Billingham was a workhorse who won 87 games in six years with the Reds, leading the league in innings pitched [293 1/3] in 1973 while Geronimo played a brilliant centerfield for nine seasons and won four Gold Gloves. Stewart spent two forgettable seasons in Houston then retired. May had three good years in Houston before he was dealt to Baltimore, where he helped the O’s reach a World Series in 1979.
Doug Rader, who was a staple in the Houston infield for nearly a decade and a multiple Gold Glove winner himself, lamented the fact that the Astros couldn’t keep some of their more talented players of that era. The Astros traded away a boatload of talent including Mike Cuellar, Rusty Staub, John Mayberry, Morgan, Billingham and Geronimo between 1968 and 1971. While they received some quality in return – Jesus Alou, May and Helms – it wasn’t enough to offset what they gave up or keep them out of the second division.
“Back then ownership was different than it is now,” Rader told Ballnine in 2021. “The people that owned clubs were just trying to make a living. There weren’t huge television and radio revenues that were falling into everyone’s lap and keeping their doors open. Everything revolved around attendance, concessions, parking and the bottom line was always an issue. We were always cutting corners. We weren’t a rag-tag operation but we not first class either.
“You looked at other organizations and saw how differently they were run. There was a great deal of envy when looking at a team like the Dodgers. So, when they traded those guys, you can feel why it happened. It kind of made you feel like a second-class citizen, to be honest with you. You didn’t feel worthy. I know the word swagger is overused but you could see it in other teams and we didn’t have it. It wasn’t the fault of the players or of other organizations. It’s what made them great and we never had that feeling.”
It didn’t help that the club was playing in the Astrodome, which, by all accounts, was a miserable place almost from the moment it opened. From the bad field to the dimensions, it proved to be a problem for many, especially the infielders.
“The infield was horrible,” Helms said. “They might have a rodeo there over the weekend and we came back and they’d to their best to fix it up. It was just a different type of field. They had turf then dirt and the ball would just explode by you. They didn’t have a pad under the turn in Houston and it was like playing on boards. Imagine that the football players [the NFL’s Houston Oilers] had to play there, too. The pitchers liked it though because it was a tough park to hit homeruns.”
Helms started for three seasons in Houston and had seasons that were in line with what he did with the Reds. He was, however, starting to show some wear by 1975, when he appeared in 64 games, his lowest total since 1965. Helms was traded to Pittsburgh on Dec. 12, 1975, for a player-to-be-named later, which turned out to be Art Howe.
The Pirates sold Helms to Oakland in November of 1976 after he hit .276 in 62 games. He was traded back to Pittsburgh the following March and released in June of 1977. Helms signed with the Red Sox and appeared in 21 games before retiring in the spring of ’78.
“I thought I could have played another year but when Boston made the [Dennis] Eckersley trade [in the spring of ‘78] they brought in a bunch of utility and backup players which is what I was. They brought in younger players and I was 36 years old.”
POST PLAYING DAYS
Helms was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 1979 and after spending two seasons as a coach for the Rangers, joined Cincinnati’s staff, spending several years as a coach in addition to two stints as manager when Rose was first suspended and then banned from baseball.
“I didn’t go there to be a manager, I just went to coach, Helms said. “We had a tough lady to work for there in Marge Schott. When Pete got in trouble and bumped into an umpire, I just tried to hold things together. And when he got banned, I just tried to keep things in proper perspective, let’s just finish the year. I still talk to him frequently and would love for him to get into the Hall of Fame.”
Helms managed for part of the 1990 season with Charlotte, the Cubs affiliate in the Double-A Southern League, and in 2000-01 for Atlantic City of the independent Atlantic League. Currently, he does work with the Reds Hall of Fame and has participated in the occasional fantasy camp run by the Reds.