Twenty six years ago today the Detroit Tigers traded left fielder Steve Kemp to the White Sox for Chet Lemon. It was the quintessential Jim Campbell Winter Meetings trade.
Kemp made too much money and former GM Campbell didn’t like players who held out (Rusty Staub) or won in arbitration (Kemp, again). Campbell also liked to trade players who, like Kemp and Ron LeFlore in 1979, were entering their walk year.
On Nov. 27, 1981, the Tigers and White Sox swapped outfielders both who were former top selections in the amateur draft (Lemon by Oakland in 1972, Kemp number-one overall by Detroit in 1976), were roughly the same age and who had put together similar careers to that point.
While many Tigers fans might remember Lemon as an All-Star centerfielder who hit sixth or seventh in Sparky‘s lineup, in his first season in Detroit he batted leadoff 49 times and played 93 games right field. (By early July, Lou Whitaker took over the leadoff spot for good.) It wasn’t until 1983 that he switched positions with Kirk Gibson and became the regular centerfielder…until Gary Pettis arrived in 1988. Lemon finished his first season as a Tiger with a .266 average, 19 HR and just 52 RBI in 125 games.
Lemon hit 142 homers for the Tigers in his nine seasons in Detroit and proved to be a rather durable player averaging 134 games played over that span. (Note: There’s no record of the number of rallies Lemon killed in Detroit but would it be far-fetched to think the total to be in the triple digits?)
Steve Kemp was no slouch during his five years patrolling left field at Tiger Stadium. He produced a .284 average, 89 home runs (lowered a bit with his nine homers in the strike-shortened 1981 season), and averaged 84 RBI and 23 doubles. He also displayed a keen eye at the plate averaging 75 walks — including 97 in 1978.
In his only season in Chicago, Kemp had a career year batting .286 with 19 HR and 98 RBI in 160 games. As I noted, Lemon also hit 19 home runs in 1982 but drove in nearly half the number of runs.
After the ’82 season Kemp cashed in on a free-agent contract with the New York Yankees but he, like so many other mid-’80s free agents, flopped in the Bronx. In 1983, Kemp hit .241 with just 12 home runs in 109 games. After the ’84 season he was traded with Tim Foli and cash to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Dale Berra, Alfonso Pulido and Jay Buhner.
An eye injury, suffered when Kemp was hit by a batted ball in batting practice, shortened his career in the mid-1980s. He last played in the majors in 1988 when he played in 16 games for the Texas Rangers, hitting just .222 in 36 at bats. His career batting average in 11 seasons was .278 — five points higher than Lemon’s.
When Jim Campbell pulled the trigger on the Kemp-for-Lemon deal he probably had no idea that Kemp would flame out and that Chet the Jet would play more than 1,100 games in the outfield for Detroit.
Still, he had to like the odds that the trade would work out better than LeFlore for Dan Schatzeder.
As frustrating a player as Chester Earl Lemon could be, he was nothing if not reliable during some fun summers for Tigers fans.