Pursuing Pennants in 2015

We have a new post up at the Hardball Times website talking a bit about how a handful of baseball ops departments are looking ahead to 2015.  As we say, it is the Golden Age of baseball ops.  Give it a read.




Honorable Mention — Gabe Paul

Along with our countdown of the greatest 25 GMs in history, we plan to write about people who did not make our list (as well as other topics related to baseball operations and front offices). 

George Steinbrenner, Gabe Paul, Billy Martin

When we were posting our Top 25 GMs series, several people asked about the omission of Gabe Paul from our list.  Honestly, there were a lot of candidates for the last half of the list, and the arguments for Paul are not difficult to make.  His four years in charge of the Yankees (1973-77) constitute one of the more impressive runs a GM has ever had, a period we discuss in our book.  Balancing that, Paul had 18 other years running teams without winning a pennant.  In the end, he just missed making our list.

Paul was covering high school sports for a Rochester, New York, newspaper when Warren Giles offered him an office job with the Rochester Red Wings, a farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals. Paul eventually became road secretary, and when Giles moved to Cincinnati to run the Reds in 1936, he brought Paul along as public relations director. When Giles became nl president in 1951, Paul replaced him as general manager.

Paul ran the Reds for nine seasons, and only in 1956, when they finished two games behind the Dodgers, did they contend for a pennant.  The Reds were not quick to integrate (seventh of eight NL teams), but on Paul’s watch they signed Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, soon their two best players. Paul left after the 1960 season because he feared owner Powel Crosley might move the team. His successor, Bill DeWitt, made a couple of key trades, but when the Reds won the 1961 pennant, they did so predominantly with the team Paul had assembled.

Paul moved first to the expansion Houston Astros and then to Cleveland, where he ran the Indians for twelve years. Like the Reds, the Indians were an also-ran while Paul was there, beset with financial woes that almost caused the team to leave the city. Paul and George Steinbrenner knew each other well in these years, and when in January 1973 Paul had the chance to come to New York, with the promise of a free-spending owner, he did not hesitate.

Paul’s last move with the Indians was a trade that sent Graig Nettles to the Yankees for four prospects, a deal cynics have suggested was made because Paul knew where he was headed.  In New York Paul was technically the club president for nine months, until Lee MacPhail resigned at the end of the 1973 season.

The available evidence suggests that Paul was more or less in charge of the Yankees baseball operations for the next four years.  From the start Steinbrenner was a hands-on owner who demanded explanations for the moves Paul wanted to make, but it was not until after Paul left that the boss began initiating decisions about trades and signings.   Steinbrenner’s public role was thwarted somewhat in November 1974 when Commissioner Kuhn suspended him from baseball for two years after he pled guilty to illegal contributions to President Nixon’s re-election campaign and to coercing his employees to lie the a grand jury.  Steinbrenner remained out of the public eye for 15 months, though he and Paul spoke regularly.

So Paul was in charge of the Yankees for four off-seasons, and the Yankees were generally the center of baseball activity.  In December 1973 he swapped Lindy McDaniel to the Royals for Lou Piniella, who spent the next decade with the Yankees.  In March Paul picked up Elliott Maddox. who had one excellent season in New York before suffering a devastating injury in early 1975. In April Paul traded four pitchers to the Indians for first baseman Chris Chambliss and pitcher Dick Tidrow.  The 1974 Yankees won 89 games but were overtaken at the end by the Orioles.

After the 1974 season Paul traded Bobby Murcer, his most popular player, to the Giants for Bobby Bonds, one of the best players in baseball.  In December the Yankees landed Catfish Hunter with a record contract after Hunter had been declared a free agent by an arbitrator due to a contractual screw-up by his previous employer, Oakland’s Charlie Finley.  Hunter was a one-person free agent class, and the frenzy that greeted his availability showed the players what free agency could mean for the rest of them.

With Hunter and Bonds, the Yankees were considered one of the favorites to win the AL pennant, but injuries to Maddox and Bonds (who played through them) dropped them back to 83 wins.

On December 11, 1975, Paul made two deals that, more than anything, put the Yankees over the top.  First he traded pitcher Doc Medich to the Pirates for pitchers Ken Brett and Doc Ellis and second baseman Willie Randolph.  Pat Gillick, Paul’s key assistant, had scouted Randolph extensively and coveted him for the Yankees.  Paul then traded Bonds to the Angels for outfielder Mickey Rivers and pitcher Ed Figueroa.

In August 1975 Paul had replaced manager Bill Virdon with Billy Martin, and both Paul and Martin wanted speed at the top of the lineup.  With Rivers and Randolph, they had their speed, and with big years from Nettles, Thurman Munson and others, the 1976 Yankees ran away with the AL East, ultimately losing the World Series in four games to the great Cincinnati Reds.

After the 1976 season baseball had true free agency for the first time.   The rules have changed many times but in the first go-round teams were limited to two free agent signees, unless they lost more themselves.  The Yankees wanted Reds pitcher Don Gullett and Oriole second baseman Bobby Grich.  They lost Grich to the Angels but instead landed Reggie Jackson, who for the next several years added a big bat and an even bigger personality to New York.

Largely because of the signing of Jackson, the 1977 Yankees, already nearly an entire All-Star team, were a year-long circus filled with rivalries, backbiting, and open hostility.  The main players were Steinbrenner, Martin and Jackson, although the latter was hated by basically the entire team.  After Jackson and Martin nearly came to blows on national TV during a game in Boston, Steinbrenner demanded that Paul fire Martin on the spot.  Paul talked him out of it, believing Martin’s release would leave Jackson in an even worse position with the team.  To escape the storm Paul himself disappeared for a while.

Somehow this talented team got through the season, winning a tight division race, beating the Royals in the ALCS, then the Dodgers in the World Series to capture their first title in 15 years.  Jackson was the hero, hitting five homers in the series including three in the clincher, finally making him popular in the clubhouse.  This would not last, however.

After the season Paul resigned.  He built the team, won his first ever championship, but he could take no more.  The Yankee GM job became a revolving door for the next dozen years, with Steinbrenner calling all the shots.  The team won the 1978 Series and added division titles in 1980 and 1981, but the talent in the organization slowly drained away the rest of the decade without stability in baseball operations.  When Steinbrenner was suspended again in 1990 (actually receiving a lifetime ban, rescinded three years later), his lieutenants made several moves to help get the Yankees back on track.

Paul went back to Cleveland and became club president.  He had much less success without Steinbrenner’s bankroll, and finally retired after the 1984 season.

— Mark

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.


Calvin Griffith

Photo credit: Rick Prescott, BallparkMagic.com

When Calvin Griffith formally took over the Washington Senators in late 1955 after the death of his uncle Clark, he became the last of the family owners to act as his own general manager.  After more than half a century, many writers have a tendency to wax nostalgic on these owner-operators.  In fact, these men, who had no outside source of income, often ran their clubs on a shoestring budget and spent much less on scouting and minor league operations than the wealthier franchises.  By the early 1950s some of these teams were spectacularly unsuccessful.  Somewhat astonishingly, Griffith proved an exception—at least for a while.  During the 1960s the Twins were one of the American League’s best clubs and led the league in attendance over the decade.

The organization that Calvin inherited evolved into an extended family operation. Brothers Sherry, Jimmy and Billy Robertson and brother-in-law Joe Haynes all held down key executive positions within the system.  And all had grown up around baseball and were competent at their jobs.

But Griffith was very much in charge and immersed himself in all aspects of the team.  Until the travel got to be too much, he personally saw in action nearly all the players receiving large amateur bonuses or acquired by trade. When he felt his managers were not being aggressive enough getting his young phenoms into the lineup, he forced the issue with future stars such as Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and Rod Carew.  Another time, when he thought the coaching was subpar, he kept his manager but revamped his on-field staff with expensive, big-name coaches.  Because Griffith spent most of his energy concentrating on the baseball side of the operation, he neglected expanding or pursuing additional revenue sources, a shortcoming that exacerbated his lack of non-baseball resources.

Griffith was a unique blend of bluster, naiveté, and baseball smarts.  Before formally joining the Senator organization in 1942, he had honed his craft working in the minors as both a manager and front office executive, and by the early 1950s was helping his aging uncle run the team.  During his long apprenticeship Griffith had learned the baseball business but could never generalize beyond the lessons of the time and place in which he learned them.  Once the environment changed, Griffith was lost. He also remained surprisingly unpolished, which caused further difficulties in the 1970s and 1980s as he was forced to deal with increasingly sophisticated fellow owners, players, agents, and press.

By the late 1950s Washington was finishing last in American League attendance every year, usually by quite a distance.  When Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul came calling to entice a move, Griffith was more than ready to listen, and the Senators moved to Minnesota for the 1961 season, causing the AL to put a new expansion team in Washington

The Twins had jumped to fifth in 1960 after three consecutive last place finishes, and the franchise Griffith brought to Minnesota was laden with talent.  Many of the players had been signed as amateurs: Harmon Killebrew as a bonus baby (1954), Bob Allison (1955), Jimmie Hall, Jim Kaat (1957), and Rich Rollins (1960). The Senators organization was also at the forefront of signing Latin American–particularly Cuban– players, a talent source that was especially attractive to the Griffiths because it was inexpensive.  Legendary scout Joe Cambria helped deliver several extremely talented Cuban ballplayers to the franchise, including Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos, Zoilo Versalles, and Tony Oliva.

Just before the start of the 1960 season, Griffith made a great trade with Bill Veeck and the White Sox.  He dealt 32-year-old Roy Sievers for two young players, Earl Battey and Don Mincher, plus $150,000.  Over the next five years, as the youngsters matured Griffith shrewdly reinforced his team.  He traded for key pitchers Jim Perry and Jim “Mudcat” Grant (forking over about $25,000 in the latter deal) and purchased two veteran relievers, Al Worthington and Johnny Klippstein. Griffith wouldn’t spend beyond his relatively meager means to build a winner, but he wasn’t looking to pull money out of the franchise—he wanted to win and would do everything he could within his financial wherewithal.

In 1965 the Twins won 102 games and the American League pennant.  After losing a seven-game World Series to the Dodgers, the young and talented Twins appeared poised for many years of pennant contention. To Griffith’s credit, he had also assembled one of baseball’s more racially mixed teams.  Many of the team’s stars were African-Americans or dark-skinned Cubans.

Nevertheless, the Twins failed to capture a winnable American League over the next three years, principally because of a dramatic and unexpected drop-off of some of the team’s top position players.  Griffith did his best to compensate, promoting Rod Carew in 1967 and trading for Dean Chance.  The Twins won the new AL West in 1969 under manager Billy Martin, but lost to the Orioles in the ALCS.  Griffith fired the mercurial Martin, and helped by a 19-year-old Bert Blyleven, the Twins won the division title again the next year.

As the core of the team aged, however, Griffith could not replace his stars.  And while he smartly traded for Larry Hisle in 1972 and stole Lyman Bostock as a late round amateur draft pick that same year, Griffith’s scouting and player development machine was only slowly recovering from the death of Haynes in 1967 and Sherry Robertson in 1970.

The team played roughly .500 ball over the five years from 1971 through 1975, but attendance fell off significantly—from third in the league in 1971 to last by 1974–and Griffith lost around $2 million.  When free agency came in 1976, Griffith was ill prepared to meet it, both financially and because he had a league leading 22 unsigned players.

In the first few years of free agency the Twins lost Bill Campbell, Eric Solderholm, Larry Hisle, Lyman Bostock, and Tom Burgmeier.  Griffith was also forced to trade Blyleven and Carew before they became free agents, though he engineered a nice return for both (including $250,000 in the Blyleven deal). Griffith slashed his payroll to the league’s basement, so when the team flirted at the edges of contention in 1976 and 1977 Griffith could claim a profit. Nonetheless, Griffith had little chance of competing without outside resources, a more enlightened approach to additional revenue sources, or a rebound in attendance.

The opening of the Metrodome in 1982 did little to help. The Twins again finished last at the gate and bottomed out on the field with a record of 60-102.  After continued financial struggles and flirting with moving the franchise, Griffith finally gave up and sold the team in 1984.  He left behind the nucleus of the 1987 world championship squad, including Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola, Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti, and Greg Gagne.

In September 1978 Griffith’s legacy was marred by his appearance at the Lions Club in Waseca, Minnesota.  In what he thought were off the record comments, Griffith disparaged nearly everyone, but most incendiary were his racist comments regarding the reasons for moving the franchise to Minnesota.  Griffith may have put together an integrated team, but he was also the product of a franchise and era that for many years had segregated seating in Washington’s Griffith Stadium and was the last team to desegregate its spring training accommodations in Florida.

In his first 15-years at the helm Griffith masterminded the turnaround of one of baseball’s most hapless franchises and oversaw one the American League’s better teams of the 1960s. When Minnesota initially proved to be the financial bonanza he had hoped for, Griffith spent the additional revenues building a pennant winner.  He purchased players, included money in trades, and paid top salaries to his stars.  But as the economics of the game changed, Griffith had little to fall back on except his baseball intelligence, which left him and the Twins constantly struggling on the field and at the gate.

— Dan

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.


In case you missed it …

The 25 best GMs of all-time.  (Click any name to read more.)

#25 — Andy MacPhail

#24 — John Quinn

#23 — John Hart

#22 — Jim Campbell

#21 — Brian Cashman

#20 — Cedric Tallis

#19 — Lee MacPhail

#18 — Joe L. Brown

#17 — Dan Duquette

#16 — Theo Epstein

#15 — Walt Jocketty

#14 — Brian Sabean

#13 — Al Campanis

#12 — Sandy Alderson

#11 — Billy Beane

#10 — Frank Cashen

#9 — Dave Dombrowski

#8 — Harry Dalton

#7 — Buzzie Bavasi

#6 — John Schuerholz

#5 — George Weiss

#4 — Bob Howsam

#3 — Ed Barrow

#2 — Pat Gillick

#1 — Branch Rickey

#1 — Branch Rickey

This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history.  For an explanation, please see this post.

Jackie Robinson Shaking Branch Rickey's Hand

Had Branch Rickey retired from baseball in 1942, before he ran the Dodgers, before he signed Jackie Robinson, his record as a general manager would still be enough to warrant consideration as the greatest GM in the game’s history.  By that time he had already built one of history’s best organizations, winning six pennants and four World Series while completely revising baseball player development and instruction and inventing the farm system model that is still in place nine decades later.  When you add in his Brooklyn years, both the building of one of baseball’s best and most iconic teams and his historic and courageous act to integrate the game, it is a relatively easy call.   Summarizing Branch Rickey as a general manager is like summarizing Isaac Newton as scientist.  Where do you begin?

By the age of thirty, Rickey had retired from his brief playing career and had received a law degree from the University of Michigan. The practice of law did not take, and by 1913 he was back in baseball, where he remained for the next five decades.  He managed the Browns for two years, then was “kicked upstairs” when a new ownership group came on, becoming something like a general manager in 1916.  A year later he moved cross-town, becoming president of the Cardinals and de facto GM, though the position did not yet formally exist.  In 1919 he appointed himself the field manager and filled both jobs for six years.

Most of history’s best GMs have been blessed with excellent ownership that has provided the necessary resources with limited interference.  Sam Breadon took control of the Cardinals in 1920, and proved to be the best thing that ever happened to Rickey.  After a few years of non-contention, in 1925 Breadon relieved Rickey of his uniform and told him to concentrate on the front office part of his job, player development and scouting.  Rickey was not happy, but history proved it to be a brilliant decision.

Branch Rickey first envisioned an organized “farm system” as a solution to the high cost of buying minor league players. A team could instead sign amateur players (for much less money) and then assume the cost of developing the players on teams under its control.  At first Rickey’s efforts were (at least) bending the rules, which limited the number of players a major league team could control in the minors.  Rickey instead had handshake agreements with many minor league teams that occasionally got the baseball commissioner to take notice. In the early 1930s, after continual lobbying from Breadon and Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert, baseball significantly relaxed their rules on teams’ owning or controlling farm teams, and the Cardinals and Yankees soon had huge farm systems.  And, not coincidentally, the two best teams in baseball.

Soon after Rickey created his system, he realized that he needed a cohesive philosophy of scouting, instruction, and coaching.  The Cardinals were not signing ready-made players; they were signing boys who needed to be taught how to play. Every part of the game—bunting, sliding, run-down plays, and so on—Rickey wanted to be taught consistently throughout the organization. And Rickey wanted the scouting and player-development parts of the system to work hand in hand. As Kevin Kerrane wrote in his classic book on scouting, “Rickey applied scouting insights to teaching, and vice versa.” Rickey became a legendary talent evaluator, able to make decisions quickly on players. Among other things, he valued speed and youth. No sentimentalist, he tried to trade players before they started to decline rather than after. With his huge farm system, he believed he could fill the holes created when he traded his veterans away.

From 1926 to 1946 the Cardinals won nine pennants and six World Series.  Rickey did not have complete control of the club — Breadon hired and fired the managers, for example — and the relationship between the two men had become a bit strained by the early 1940s. When the Dodgers offered an ownership stake and more authority in October 1942, Rickey moved to Brooklyn.

The Dodger team Rickey inherited had just won 104 games.  But make no mistake, this was not Rickey’s sort of team.  Previous executive Larry MacPhail ran his clubs like a man in a hurry, like he needed to win today because he might not be around tomorrow.  As good as the 1942 Dodgers were, only a few good players—notably Pee Wee Reese and Pete Reiser—were in their twenties. But MacPhail had overseen such a dramatic improvement in the Dodgers’ financial position that Rickey had the resources to build the organization that he wanted. He wasted no time getting to work.

Rickey could not do much with the war going on — all his players were in the service — but he worked on building his farm system to be ready.  In 1943 alone the Dodgers signed Rex Barney, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, and Ralph Branca. Over the next couple of years Brooklyn added Carl Erskine and Clem Labine, two other mainstays of Dodger teams to come.

The most important event of Rickey’s career, of course, was the signing of Jackie Robinson in October 1945, the first step on the road to ending the Major Leagues’ decades-long prohibition on dark-skinned players. Rickey has been justifiably praised for this courageous and ethical act and his related decisions to sign other black players in the coming years. But more than that, Rickey dramatically improved his team, and in a short time had dramatically improved the quality of play in the major leagues. When Robinson was signed it effectively opened up a huge new source of talent, the biggest new pool in history. As baseball soon discovered, there were dozens of good players, some of them among the greatest players ever, ready to sign cheaply with the first team that asked them. By the end of the 1940s eleven black players had made their debuts in the Major Leagues, eight of whom ended up playing at least five full Major League seasons. Among them were three Dodgers—Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe—whose extraordinary play helped define an era and one of history’s most beloved teams.

The integration of the Dodgers went relatively smoothly, thanks both to the tremendous care taken by Rickey and his staff, and the ability and character of these three players. Rickey traded away several southern players during and after the 1947 season, but most of these deals were classic Rickey moves that helped the ball club. In December he dealt Dixie Walker, one of the team’s best and most popular players, to the Pirates, a deal many have interpreted as an indication that Rickey wanted Walker off the team. In fact, it was a great baseball trade: Rickey acquired infielder Billy Cox and pitcher Preacher Roe, who played huge roles on the coming teams. Eddie Stanky was dealt the following March, allowing Robinson to move to second base and Gil Hodges to play first, another very solid baseball move.

After losing a pennant playoff in 1946, the Dodgers won NL pennants in 1947 and 1949 and then lost in 1950 on the season’s final weekend. Unlike the prewar teams, by 1950 the Dodgers had several good players in their twenties and more on the way. In late 1950 Rickey began to sense that his position had weakened with his partners and decided to cash in his stake and take a job running the Pittsburgh Pirates. Walter O’Malley bought Rickey’s share and gained control of the club.  The core of talent Rickey left behind won four more pennants and the 1955 World Series.  The acolytes he left, including Buzzie Bavasi and Al Campanis, built on Rickey’s foundation to create and maintain baseball’s model organization for another four decades.

Rickey was 69 years old and taking over a team that needed a slow, patient overhaul.  The Pirates signed a few bonus babies that did not bear fruit, but he slowly began to improve the organization one player at a time.  When owner John Galbreath finally let Rickey go, after five years, the team’s assets included youngsters Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, Bob Friend and Vernon Law.  It would take another five years for the Pirates to win a pennant, but Rickey certainly did his part.

Rickey never really stopped working.  He played a leading role in trying to form the Continental League, a third major league that did not quite get off the ground.  In 1962 the 81-year-old took a job as a senior adviser to Cardinal owner Gussie Busch, which proved awkward for GM Bing Devine and everyone else.  Rickey left after the 1964 championship.

He died a year later, leaving behind an unmatched resume in the game.  As a general manager he dramatically changed how teams find and develop players, and what players are allowed to play the game.  His place as the greatest GM in baseball history is secure.

— Mark

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.


#2 — Pat Gillick

This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history.  For an explanation, please see this post.


Pat Gillick served as a general manager for four different teams.  At his first stop, in Toronto, he built an expansion team into one of the best organizations in the game (winning 86 or more games for 11 straight seasons), culminating in five division titles and two world championships.  In Baltimore, he worked for an impatient owner who wanted his team to compete right away — Gillick delivered two consecutive ALCS appearances, the Orioles only post-seasons between 1983 and 2012.  In Seattle, he was tasked with trading one of the game’s best players, and then watching another superstar leave as a free agent a year later.  Despite this, his Mariner teams won over 90 games all four of his years at the helm and an all-time record win total 2001.  At his final stop, in Philadelphia, he took over a good team that had not been able to get over the hump and into the playoffs.  Gillick made the post-season in his second year and then won the World Series in 2008, the team’s first in 28 years.  A few days later, he retired.  By succeeding at four distinct challenges without fail and showing a unique ability and keenness for finding talent others might have overlooked, Gillick earned a place among the very best GMs in history.

Gillick’s approach was to first make sure he had great scouts and then to widen his talent search to non-traditional avenues. As Gillick put it: “One needs to fish in many waters.”  In Toronto Gillick and his longtime friend Epy Guerrero were at the forefront of creating an identifiable presence in the Dominican Republic. He also looked for underappreciated opportunities with multi-sport athletes.  His success in the mostly ignored Rule 5 draft of veteran minor leaguers was legendary; no one else even came close to his success and he forced teams to be much smarter about protecting their assets from this draft.  Moreover, Gillick used free agency to perfection in Baltimore and Seattle—in both places he quickly reloaded franchises with little talent left in their minor league systems.  With the latter organization, he also signed the first hitter from Japan to star in the major leagues, Ichiro Suzuki, along with a first-rate reliever, Kaz Sasaki.

Toronto’s head of baseball operations Peter Bavasi brought Gillick—who had been gaining a reputation as a front office savant with the Yankees –over to help build the expansion Blue Jays for their inaugural 1977 season. The next year Bavasi moved up to team president, and Gillick took over as GM. With the Blue Jays he immediately set about building a top-notch scouting staff. Two of his most important hires were Al LaMacchia, a longtime scout for the Phillies and Braves, and Bobby Mattick, who had already signed Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, and Gary Carter by the time he joined the Blue Jays. Both became important voices within the organization.  He joined a minority of teams that shunned the new centralized Major League Scouting Bureau. Gillick was going to assemble his own organization.

Along with slowly building up talent throughout the draft, Gillick looked for other avenues to find players.  In the fall of 1977 Gillick began to exploit a little-used “river” when he selected first baseman Willie Upshaw, whom he and Guerrero knew from the Yankees organization, in the Rule 5 draft. This draft allows teams to claim veteran minor leaguers not protected on their club’s 40-man roster, but with the qualification that the selecting team had to keep the player on its major league roster for the entire upcoming season. Over the years Gillick mastered the Rule 5 draft to uncover a number of other valuable contributors, including George Bell, Manny Lee, Jim Gott, and Kelly Gruber.

Gillick was also willing to take risks with multi-sport athletes, accommodating them in ways other teams might not have. In 1977 Gillick drafted multi-sport prep star Danny Ainge in the fifteenth round. Two years later he drafted prep quarterback and baseball catcher Jay Schroeder in the first round, paying a $100,000 bonus and allowing him to play college football at UCLA. In the end, neither panned out but testified to Gillick’s never ending quest for an edge in talent acquisition.

Gillick had known Epy Guerrero, destined to become the Dominican Republic’s greatest scout, at least since 1967 when Gillick was a scout for the Astros and the two signed Cesar Cedeno.  In 1977 Guerrero created a rudimentary baseball school for youngsters. Several years later the Blue Jays began to fund the operation, expand it, and run it year round, establishing a prominent presence in the country, one that provided the team an advantage for a decade or more.

In 1983 the Blue Jays finally passed .500, winning 89 games.  Two years later they won 99, but lost a heartbreaking ALCS to the Royals.  The team continued to win as Gillick integrated a number of young stars–Bell, Tony Fernandez, Tom Henke, Fred McGriff, Duane Ward, John Olerud, David Wells, and Pat Borders—and dealt for Robbie Alomar and Devon White but could not quite capture the pennant.  But Gillick still had one more river to fish in.  With the opening of Skydome and the associated increase in revenues, he could focus on high-level free agents to augment the club. It would take him one more year, but Pat Gillick would prove a master of this strategy.  Gillick also self-imposed a three-year contract limit to prevent getting stuck with aging stars in a long decline phase.

In the 1991-92 offseason Gillick signed 37-year-old Twins pitcher Jack Morris and aging Angels’ slugger Dave Winfield, and the Blue Jays won the World Series.  After the 1992 season, Gillick was faced with seven key Blue Jays becoming free agents: Henke, Winfield, Jimmy Key, David Cone, Joe Carter, Manny Lee, and Candy Maldonado. Of the seven, Gillick re-signed only Carter, but added veterans Dave Stewart to bolster the pitching staff and Paul Molitor to replace Winfield at DH.  Once again, Toronto won the World Series.

After the strike-shortened 1994 season Gillick stepped aside due to some health concerns and simply tiring out after so many years in one place.  A year later he jumped back in as Baltimore’s GM. The team had dropped below .500 in 1995, and owner Peter Angelos wanted to reach the postseason.  Gillick went to work. He diagnosed the Orioles biggest deficiencies at second and third base and the bullpen, and the farm system did not offer much immediate help.

Gillick filled these holes quickly and effectively, while still holding to the three-year contract limit he had used in Toronto. He signed free agents Robbie Alomar, his old Toronto standout, to play second, and B.J. Surhoff to play third. To shore up the bullpen, he signed Randy Myers and Roger McDowell.  Finally, to make up for the loss of departing free agent hurler Kevin Brown, Gillick traded young outfielder Curtis Goodwin for David Wells, another ex-Blue Jay.  The team won the wild card and made it to the ALCS.  In 1997 Baltimore won the East with the AL’s best record and again made it to the ALCS before falling to the Indians in a heartbreaking series.

Gillick left Baltimore after the 1998 season (his friend and manager Davey Johnson had left a year earlier). Once again Gillick returned to the game after a year off, this time with the Seattle Mariners.  With the opening of their new stadium a year earlier, Seattle’s ownership wanted a championship-quality ball club.   Coming off of two sub-.500 seasons, however, a drained farm system and with two of baseball’s biggest stars—Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr—scheduled to become free agents one year later, Gillick had his work cut out for him.  That they could keep neither (though Gillick did get Mike Cameron included with a package of players in trade for Griffey) meant Gillick needed find players outside the system.

Gillick succeeded spectacularly and quickly, transforming the 79-win 1999 team into one that went to the ALCS in 2000 and won an AL record 116 games in 2001.  He turned over nearly the entire squad, masterfully using free agency. Among the key players, John Olerud, Bret Boone, Mark McLemore, Stan Javier, Aaron Sele, Jeff Nelson, Arthur Rhodes, Kazuhiro Sasaki, and Ichiro Suzuki were all signed as free agents in just two off-seasons.  Moreover, the final two players in the list came from Japan, a new river for Gillick to fish in, and Ichiro became the first Japanese non-pitcher to excel in the U.S. major leagues.

Though Gillick had wanted to restock the farm system during his years in Seattle, that goal was secondary to delivering a title. He was hampered by the loss of draft choices from all his free agent signings, another pitfall of relying heavily on a free agency. In fact, the Mariners had only one first round draft choice during his four years at the helm and failed to sign him (John Mayberry Jr.). Gillick’s scouts, however, remained active internationally, and the team signed four impact players for the minor league system during Gillick’s tenure: Shin-Soo Choo, Jose Lopez, Felix Hernandez and Asdrubal Cabrera.

After a couple of years out of baseball, Gillick, now 68, took over as the GM in Philadelphia. In contrast to his three previous stops, the Phillies team he took over was filled with young talent, including Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Brett Myers, and Cole Hamels. Over the next couple of years Gillick bolstered his young nucleus with a couple of veteran hurlers, including former Mariner Jamie Moyer, an excellent bullpen, and Jayson Werth. Moreover, he managed to do this without surrendering any of his key players–the core he inherited in 2005 was all on hand to celebrate the World Series victory in 2008.

With his three-year contract up and his third world championship earned, Gillick decided it was time to retire. He was 71 years old and had succeeded with a fourth organization, a remarkable feat unmatched by any other GM, fully validating his credentials as a master team builder.  Gillick’s obsessive search for the best players, wherever they may have been, allowed him to thrive in the face of diverse challenges.

— Dan

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To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.


#3 — Ed Barrow

This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history.  For an explanation, please see this post.


Before feuding owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston turned to Ed Barrow in 1920, the Yankees had never won a pennant. They won their first in 1921 and during Barrow’s tenure went on to win thirteen more as well as ten World Series. Technically hired as business manager—the GM position hadn’t yet been formalized—Barrow concocted on the fly the modern concept of the general manager.  He had spent his entire adult life mastering just about every executive position in baseball, and now it would carry over to one more.  For the next 24 years in New York he would apply that expertise to building one of the great American sports dynasties.

Before joining the Yankees, Barrow had managed Babe Ruth and the Red Sox to their last World Series championship prior to the “curse.”  As president of the International League in the 1910s he had led the battle against the upstart Federal League, a self-declared major league backed by some of the biggest industrialists of the era. Barrow also spent time as a minor league owner, a minor league manager, and manager of the Detroit Tigers.  He prided himself on having signed Honus Wagner while a minor league owner, the immortal’s last stop before the majors. As a youth Barrow had boxed and was not afraid to mix it up with players or umpires.  He knew just about everyone in baseball and at 52 was ready for a new challenge.

Up to Barrow’s time with the Yankees most teams were run by a team president and the manager.  Barrow grasped the potential of his new role perfectly and became the ideal for this position.  He defined the job early in his tenure, telling manager Miller Huggins, “You’re the manager, and you’re going to get no interference or second guessing from me. Your job is to win, and part of my job is to see that you have the players to win with.  You tell me what you need, and I’ll make the deals—and I’ll take full responsibility for every deal I make.”

The team Barrow inherited had purchased Ruth the year before, and the Babe helped the team to 95 wins and a third place finish.  Over the next few years Barrow went back to his old boss and Huston’s close friend, Boston owner Harry Frazee, and using Ruppert’s money bought all the rest of the Red Sox best players.   Spending over $400,000 Barrow and the Yankee owners purchased Wally Schang, Everett Scott, Joe Dugan, Sam Jones, Joe Bush, Herb Pennock, and Waite Hoyt–the core of the team that would carry the Yankees to their first three pennants and first-ever World Series victory in 1923.

One of the keys to the Yankees long-term success was Barrow’s amassing possibly the greatest assemblage of scouts in baseball history.  After the disastrous 1925 season in which the team fell to 69 – 85, Barrow expanded and reorganized his scouts, creating arguably the first modern scouting department.  He hired “Vinegar” Bill Essick to scout the west and Eddie Herr, a former Detroit Tiger scout, whom he assigned to the Midwest.  Holdovers Bob Gilks and Ed Holly focused on the South and East respectively.  Superscout Paul Krichell remained principally responsible for the colleges, and acted as Barrow’s right hand.  Bob Connery purchased a controlling interest in the St. Paul franchise in the American Association and left the Yankees organization to run the Saints.

Over the next few years Barrow continued to fine-tune his scouting staff.  He brought in Gene McCann to help in the East and Johnny Nee to take over the South.  Several years later the Yankees added the last of their legendary scouts, hiring Joe Devine to help out in the West.  Like Barrow’s existing scouts, all three had spent time as minor league managers, a well-mined source for scouts.

Once Frazee’s stable of stars ran out and the other major league teams were under little pressure to sell off their talent during the roaring twenties, Barrow needed another talent source to restock his team. At the time, prior to the inception of the farm system, the minor leagues were run independently and major league clubs purchased or drafted (hopefully) major league-ready players.  Barrow’s scouts out-hustled and out-scouted the competition, identifying the top minor league players and cajoling their owners into selling.  Over the next decade the Yankees purchased several future Hall of Famers along with many valuable contributors.

The signing of Hall of Fame second baseman Tony Lazzeri typifies Barrow’s process. Barrow often dispatched his scouts to review prospects on short notice, and Krichell joked that every telegram from Barrow started with “immediately” or “at once.” Lazzeri was tearing up the Pacific Coast League, and Krichell traveled to Salt Lake City to scout him, liking what he saw.  Although several teams showed some reservation because Lazzeri was epileptic, Krichell recommended Lazzeri to Barrow despite his price tag of $50,000 and five players–a huge outlay for the time.  Given the cost, Barrow dispatched Holly to confirm Krichell’s judgment and practically ordered ex-scout Connery, now in St. Paul and no longer a Yankees employee, to also validate Krichell assessment.

When the team next won the World Series in 1927, many of the key players—catcher Pat Collins, second baseman Lazzeri, shortstop Mark Koenig, outfielders Bob Meusel and Earl Combs, and pitcher Wilcy Moore—were all purchases from the minor leagues. Barrow’s crack team of scouts continued identifying and purchasing the best players over the next couple of years, including Bill Dickey, Frank Crosetti, and Lefty Gomez.

With the onset of the Depression in the early 1930s, the minors looked for financial assistance from the majors.  In response the majors changed the roster rules to make investing in and controlling in minor league franchises worthwhile.  Ruppert quickly grasped the impact of this rule change, ordered Barrow to establish a farm system, and hired George Weiss to run it.  To stock what would quickly become the best minor league system in the league, Barrow redirected his scouts to spend more time chasing top amateurs. Of course, the scouts did not completely forgo the high, independent minors, and in 1934 the Yankees purchased Joe DiMaggio for $25,000 and five players, a discount price because of his reportedly bum knee.

Landing the best amateurs required wits, money, salesmanship, and hustle.  The Yankee scouts became renowned for selling the benefits of the Yankee organization to prospective signees, and directed by Barrow, quickly proved their mettle in unearthing amateur talent. In 1937, for example, when the Yankees easily won the pennant and World Series, their top farm team in Newark won more than 70% of its games.  This minor league team, often considered one of the greatest ever, was led by many future major league players and stars acquired by the Yankees scouts.

The Yankees won four consecutive World Series from 1936 to 1939.  During this great run Barrow and manager Joe McCarthy successfully integrated the products of their farm system onto a championship squad, a gutsy but long-term, high-yield approach. By 1939, many of the key players, such as Joe Gordon, Red Rolfe, Charlie Keller, Atley Donald, Marius Russo, and Johnny Murphy, had been signed as amateurs and graduated from the Yankees farm system.

When Ruppert died in 1939, Barrow took over as team president but still ran the team as the de facto GM. In early 1945 the Ruppert trust, needing money to pay its taxes, sold the Yankees to a triumvirate of Larry MacPhail, Del Webb, and Dan Topping. Barrow disliked the flashy MacPhail and unsuccessfully tried to interest his hunting buddy and Boston owner Tom Yawkey in purchasing the club. After the sale the new ownership kicked the 76-year-old Barrow upstairs with a title of chairman of the board, but it was a purely symbolic position.

The team he was forced to sell had a culture and infrastructure in place that would help carry it to another two decades of greatness. As one of the first and most successful men ever to embrace the role of general manager, he helped fashion a position that encompassed the oversight of both the scouting staff and the farm system.  That he not only shaped the role, but excelled at it, allowed him to bequeath an organization that would be the envy of baseball for many years to come.

— Dan

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.