In baseball, a big deal is rarely a big deal.

Superstars frequently get swapped, but seldom for each other.

Usually when the best of the best are bartered, it's because the team couldn't stand or afford them, conditions that rarely bring comparable value. Most times it's because general managers are eager to unload players whose skills are heading downhill at a Bode Miller clip.

In recent years, of course, trades of any kind, but especially the blockbusters that used to fill off-season headlines, have become as rare as 20-game winners or Chase Utley smiles.

That's what makes the three-team swap the Phils, Mariners and Blue Jays completed yesterday - one in which two in-their-prime Cy Young winners, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, changed teams - so unusual.

There have been plenty of deals in which superstars were exchanged for each other, but only rarely when both were in their primes.

Philadelphians might not have seen anything on the order of the Halladay-Lee multi-team deal, although they have witnessed plenty of big names coming and going through the decades.

Dick Allen was shipped to St. Louis in a seven-player swap in 1969 that also included Curt Flood. Ace Rick Wise was dealt there, too, for disgruntled Cardinals lefthander Steve Carlton. And as good as Carlton - and to a lesser extent, Wise - would become, in 1972 neither was of the Lee-Halladay caliber.

And penny-pinching Connie Mack routinely dealt away great A's stars, many with considerable baseball left in them. Unfortunately, Mack seldom got more than has-beens, never-weres and money in return. Hall of Fame lefthander Lefty Grove, for example, went to Boston in 1933 for Bob Kline, Rabbit Warstler, and, most significantly, $125,000.

But occasionally, as was the case yesterday, the names involved in a big deal are compelling enough to make fans both giddy and suspicious. Here are a few:

Dec. 8, 1899 - This 16-player transaction was big in a lot of ways. The Louisville Colonels, displaying the kind of baseball acumen that would fold them a year later, traded three future Hall of Famers (Honus Wagner, Rube Waddell and Fred Clarke), two near-misses (Tommy Leach and Deacon Phillippe) and seven others to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In return, they got future Hall member and 41-game winner (for New York) Jack Chesbro, three others, and the then-astonishing sum of $25,000.

Dec. 20, 1926 - Rogers Hornsby was, by all accounts, a miserable man. But since his combined batting average from 1921 through 1925 was .402, the Cardinals were willing to put up with his misanthropy. But in 1926, when he demanded a bigger contract, Hornsby was, in ownership's eyes, both miserable and greedy. So even though he was just 30, St. Louis dealt perhaps the greatest righthanded bat of all time to the Giants. At least they got another future Hall of Famer from New York, Frankie "the Fordham Flash" Frisch.

April 17, 1960 - Here was a clear case of two stars in their primes. Just two days before the season opener, Cleveland GM Frank "Trader" Lane sent 26-year-old Rocky Colavito, the AL's reigning homer king and the Indians' most popular player, to Detroit. What made it so intriguing was that in return, Lane got the reigning AL batting champ, 29-year-old Harvey Kuenn. Clevelanders hated the deal and still claim it triggered a Bambino-like curse that has caused nearly a half-century of baseball frustration there.

Nov. 29, 1971 - The Houston Astros have made more than their share of awful deals but never one that included as many stars. In this one, they sent Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, and Jack Billingham - three mainstays of the Big Red Machine - and Denis Menke to Cincinnati for slugger Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart. The Reds became a dynasty; the Astros foundered for most of the rest of the decade. And Menke and Stewart later became a Phils coach and scout, respectively.

Dec. 5, 1990 - At the time, Bill James, baseball's Seamhead General, would call this deal one of the fairest and biggest in the game's long history. The Sporting News termed it a "trade for all the ages." Toronto GM Pat Gillick, trying to bust up that team's cliques, sent Fred McGriff (27) and Tony Fernandez (25) to San Diego for phenom Roberto Alomar (22) and Joe Carter (30). The chemistry worked for the Jays. Alomar and Carter would lead them to consecutive World Series titles in 1992-93, including beating the Phillies.

Feb. 15, 2004 - This would be the first trade in which a reigning MVP was included. The Yankees got Alex Rodriguez from the cash-hemmorhaging Texas Rangers for all-star second baseman Alfonso Soriano. The rest is tabloid history.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.