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.
Theo Epstein recently said that “everybody thinks they can be a GM or president of baseball operations. It comes with the territory.” But it was not that long ago that most baseball fans did not know who their team’s general manager was. The GM was considered to be part of ownership — and was often a relative or close friend of the owner — and dressed and acted like a conservative politician. Hardcore fans argued about players, and maybe even the manager. But unless a big trade happened, most of the GM’s work was out of sight. But the job was no less critical than it is today.
Part of a distinguished family of baseball executives (father Bob Quinn, son Bob Quinn, and son-in-law Roland Hemond were all GMs for multiple teams), John Quinn spent 44 years in baseball front offices, including 27 years as general manager for the Braves and Phillies. He had a hand in creating three pennant winners and (famously) nearly a fourth, and started the building of a team that would bring glory to Philadelphia after his departure.
John Quinn worked for his father with both the Red Sox and Braves before succeeding him as Braves GM in early 1945. Bob Quinn was 75, and left to become director of the Hall of Fame. Three years later the Braves won their first pennant in 34 years, and much of the credit went to John Quinn. He had lured one of the game’s best managers, Billy Southworth, away from the Cardinals, and made brilliant trades for Bob Elliott, Jeff Heath and Eddie Stanky. And he deserves a lot of credit for the productive farm system (Warren Spahn, Johnny Sain, Al Dark, Earl Torgeson) because he had served as farm director before taking over the big league club.
The 1948 Braves were not built to last (most of Quinn’s acquisitions were players in their 30s), so while the team slowly drifted away Quinn began to build another team, and it is this team that gets John Quinn on our list. By 1953 the Braves were in Milwaukee, but only one significant contributor to the 1948 pennant winners (Warren Spahn) made the trip west.
The 1945 signing of Jackie Robinson by the Dodgers, and his subsequent extraordinary play, opened up, as a practical matter, the largest collection of untapped talent in baseball history. Quinn’s rebuilding of the Braves in the 1950s can largely be credited to the team’s aggressive pursuit of this talent. The Dodgers and Giants, featuring several African-American stars, dominated the NL in the early 1950s, and the Braves followed a similar path to catch up. These three teams won every NL pennant between 1951 and 1959.
In late 1949 Quinn acquired minor league outfielder Sam Jethroe from the Dodgers and he became the team’s first black player. Jethroe had two excellent seasons, winning the 1950 NL Rookie of the Year award, but he was 33 when he debuted and did not last long. The Braves had more success with younger recruits, signing Bill Bruton, Wes Covington, and a raw 18-year-old named Henry Aaron in the early 1950s, and several more black and Latino players in the years ahead. In the meantime, Quinn’s scouts were also signing players like Eddie Mathews, Del Crandall, and Bob Buhl, and Quinn made great trades for Lew Burdette and Joe Adcock.
The 1956-59 Braves were an excellent team, winning two pennants (and the 1957 World Series) and nearly two more — losing by one game in 1956, and losing a playoff in 1959. Quinn deserves a lot of credit for this team and he got it — he was considered one of the best executives in the game at the time. After the 1958 season, the Yankees tried to lure Quinn to New York to serve as George Weiss’s assistant. This would have been a (temporary) demotion, but the job offered the promise of succeeding the 63-year-old Weiss. Quinn declined, and the man who took the job (Roy Hamey) in fact did succeed Weiss two years later and won three pennants in his three seasons at the helm.
Quinn was interested in a new job because the Braves had hired Birdie Tebbetts to a new position as Vice President, becoming Quinn’s boss, so in early 1959 he left to become VP and general manager of the Phillies. The club had finished last in 1958, and would do so the next three years as well — losing a record 27 straight games in 1961. But Quinn began to put a team together, thanks to some savvy deals. Over a four year period, Quinn acquired Johnny Callison, Tony Taylor, Tony Gonzalez, Don Demeter, Wes Covington, Cookie Rojas, and Jim Bunning, turning the lowly Phillies into a contender. The club won 81 games in 1962, then 87, then 92.
The 1964 Phillies had a 6.5 game lead with 12 to play, before losing 10 in a row and ultimately falling one game short. Much has been a written about manager Gene Mauch, whose long career in the game is overshadowed by the final two weeks of that season. But what of John Quinn? The Phillies collapse presumably had nothing to do with Quinn, who built the team and actively improved it during the season (picking up Frank Thomas, Bobby Shantz and Vic Power late in the summer). Had the Phillies won the World Series, which would have been their first ever, it’s not hard to imagine Quinn being in the Hall of Fame today.
But the Phillies did not win, and in some ways the team never recovered from the collapse. The late 1960s teams were dominated by Dick Allen, the team’s best and most controversial player. Allen was the team’s first African American star, but his frequent injuries and personality troubles got him booed by the home town fans by 1968, and he spent all of the next year lobbying to get out of town. When Quinn finally dealt him, he managed to extract Curt Flood and Tim McCarver from the Cardinals in a deal that became famous not for the players involved but because Flood refused to report to the Phillies. Flood sued baseball, taking his case all the way to the US Supreme Court before losing. The Phillies were not a good team by 1968, and had developed a reputation as a place no one (especially black players like Allen and Flood) wanted to play.
In February 1972 Quinn made his last trade, swapping Rick Wise for Steve Carlton. It was quite a way to go out, as Carlton won four Cy Young Awards in Philadelphia, and helped the team to six post-season appearances in the next 12 years. Many of the players from these great teams — Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Larry Bowa — were in the Phillies system by the time Carlton arrived, but Quinn would not be around when the team finally broke through. He was fired in June 1972, with his team on its way to a last place finish. He died in September 1976, just a couple of weeks before their first post-season appearance in 26 years.
John Quinn served two teams as general manager — each time taking over a struggling franchise. He won three pennants with the Braves and improved the Phillies considerably. His chance at a better place in baseball history might have been lost in September 1964.
(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.