The NL Rookie of the Year Award in 1966 as a third baseman, Helms became one of the best second basemen of the 1960s. The excellent fielder led the NL in fielding percentage and double plays three times. Noted more as a hit-and-run man than a power hitter, he hit the first HR by a Red at Riverfront Stadium. Helms went to Houston with Lee May in the blockbuster November 1971 trade that brought Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham, and Cesar Geronimo to Cincinnati.
A longtime Reds coach, Helms filled in for manager Pete Rose during Rose's 30-day suspension in 1988 and replaced him after Rose was banned in 1989.
Helms was born in Charlotte, NC and signed as a free agent with the Cincinnati Reds at age 18. He played in their minor league organization from 1959 to 1965, mostly as a shortstop. He hit .292 in the minors, getting as high as .340 for Macon in 1962. He served in the U.S. Marines starting in October 1963.
Tommy had a brief cup of coffee (two games) in 1964, and then was up with the team for 21 games in 1965 - during which he hit .381, on September 1 during a double header Helms goes 4-4 with two triples. Tommy had a problem, though, in that the Reds' second baseman was Pete Rose, who was the same age as Tommy. As a result, Helms made the team in 1966 as a third baseman, and won the Rookie of the Year Award. In 1967 manager Dave Bristol moved Rose to left field and Tommy became the second baseman.
In 1967, the Reds shuffled their line-up—moving budding superstar Tony Pérez to third, Helms to second, and shifting Pete Rose from second base to left field. As a second baseman, Helms was a member of the National League All Star Team in 1967 and 1968, and won the National League Gold Glove award in 1970 and 1971. The Reds moved to Riverfront Stadium in June, 1970, and Helms hit the first Cincinnati Reds home run on July 1. During his Gold Glove season of 1971, Helms set a Cincinnati Reds record with turning 130 double plays, which still stood at the close of the 2009 baseball season.
On November 29, 1971, Helms was part of a blockbuster trade that brought Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Ed Armbrister and Jack Billingham from the Houston Astros for Helms, Lee May and Jimmy Stewart. After four seasons in Houston, Helms was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to the start of the 1976 season. He was purchased by the Oakland A's following the season, and actually traded back to the Pirates, along with Chris Batton and Phil Garner for Tony Armas, Doug Bair, Dave Giusti, Rick Langford, Doc Medich and Mitchell Page during Spring training the following season.
Shortly after reacquiring him, the Pirates released Helms. He signed with the Boston Red Sox for the remainder of the 1977 season, serving primarily as a designated hitter before calling it a career. During his fourteen years in a major league uniform, Helms struck only 301 times in a almost 5,000 at bats. Former Cincinnati Reds closer Clay Carroll was once asked, "Who would you want at second base when the game was on line?" He promptly responded, "Two words, Tommy Helms."
Helms served on Pete Rose's coaching staff when he was named manager of the Reds in 1984. On April 30, 1988, during a home game against the New York Mets, and following a call by umpire Dave Pallone which allowed the Mets' eventual winning run to score in the 6-5 game, Rose argued vehemently and made physical contact with the umpire, noticeably pushing him. Rose claimed that Pallone had scratched him in the face during the argument, which provoked the push. Regardless, National League president A. Bartlett Giamatti suspended Rose for 30 days. Helms served as manager of the Reds during Rose's suspension and led the team to a 12-15 record.
On August 24, 1989, following accusations that he had gambled on baseball, Rose voluntarily accepted a permanent place on baseball’s ineligible list, and Helms again replaced Rose as Reds manager. The Reds went 16-21 under Helms. He was replaced at the end of the season by Lou Piniella.
- Tommy Helms