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.
Cedric Tallis had a fairly short career as a general manager, certainly so when making his case as one of the best 25 GMs in history. But his role in turning an expansion team into one of the model franchises in baseball should be recognized. Relatively quickly Tallis assembled the Royals teams that would dominate the AL West throughout the late 1970s. That he was no longer in Kansas City when they broke through was unfortunate for Tallis, but for all practical purposes those great teams were his creation.
When pharmaceutical mogul Ewing Kauffman put together his bid to land an expansion franchise for Kansas City, he invited California Angels front office executive Cedric Tallis to join his group as its general manager. Kauffman recognized Tallis not only as a smart baseball man, but also someone who could be a champion and overseer for the new stadium complex under consideration in Kansas City. Many of the most successful teams of the 1960s operated with a dominant general manager atop the baseball operation, and Kauffman recognized the merit of this model. With the January 11, 1968 announcement awarding an AL franchise to Kauffman, the 53-year-old Tallis had a four-year contract and a new major league team to build.
Between the onset of the amateur draft in 1965 and in the introduction of free agency in 1976, it may have been more difficult to assemble a baseball team than at any point in history. This dearth of freely available talent together with trying to launch an expansion franchise combined to make Tallis’s task highly challenging. But he turned out to be a near perfect choice.
Like many of the best GMs of the 1960s and 1970s, Tallis honed his craft in the minor leagues. After getting out of the army, he finagled a job as a general manager in the class D Georgia-Alabama League, the lowest rung in Organized Baseball. At the time, a minor league GM was responsible for just about everything: finding players, managing the business affairs, and once—in Tallis’s case–helping to contain a pack of unruly fans trying to attack the umpire.
Tallis learned well how to construct an effective organization. In Kansas City he built one of baseball’s largest and most effective collection of scouts. He hired smart people for his front office and farm system and didn’t shy away from the strong-willed. His staff counted a number of future general managers in Sid Thrift, Lou Gorman, Herk Robinson, and John Schuerholz. Tallis created a lively yet demanding environment but let his assistants do their jobs. He willingly accepted input before making the final decision himself.
At the expansion draft Tallis focused almost exclusively on young players. Kauffman had given him the freedom to avoid veteran “name” players who might provide an ephemeral boost at the gate. Tallis’s made his lasting mark on the team, however, with a succession of brilliant trades. With few other avenues for player acquisition at the time, trades took on a heightened importance. Tallis’s deals quickly built up the Royals talent base and rearranged it so that by the early 1970s the team was consistently competitive, and by 1976 it captured the division title with a talent core that would anchor a winning team for many years to come. Five of the starting nine position players on the 1976 division winner came via Tallis’s deal-making: catcher Buck Martinez, first baseman John Mayberry, shortstop Freddie Patek, centerfielder Amos Otis, and designated hitter Hal McRae. None of these players cost Tallis any player that he really needed–it was a remarkable series of deals, yielding four All-Stars and a dependable long term catcher.
Virtually the rest of the 1976 team also arrived under Tallis’s reign: right fielder Al Cowens, third baseman George Brett, ace reliever Mark Littell, and starting pitchers Paul Splittorff, Dennis Leonard, and Doug Bird came from the draft; starter Al Fitzmorris was still around from the 1968 expansion draft; and second baseman Frank White came through the Baseball Academy, one of Kauffman’s innovations. Unfortunately, Tallis was not around to enjoy the years of success. Kauffman was a brilliant and creative owner, but he was also impatient and becoming more concerned with expenses as the 1973 recession deepened. In mid-1974 Kaufman fired Tallis and laid off many of his scouts.
A year later Tallis’s old friend Gabe Paul, president and GM of the Yankees, hired him to watch over the completion and reopening of the remodeled Yankee Stadium and act as his baseball assistant. When Paul resigned after the 1977 world championship season, George Steinbrenner promoted Tallis to GM. This was at the start of Steinbrenner’s micro-management years, however, and Tallis’s authority was circumscribed and ambiguous. The team repeated as world champions, but the Yankees front office became further disjointed and chaotic when Tallis was promoted to executive vice president with Gene Michael named GM.
Eventually, after another division title in 1980 and pennant in 1981, Tallis and Steinbrenner broke up in late 1983 with Tallis becoming the executive director of the Tampa Bay Baseball Group, Tampa area businessmen looking to bring baseball to the region. Several major league teams appeared very close to moving—most notably the White Sox and Rangers–only to pull back at the last instant. The group expected to be short listed in late 1990 for the 1993 National League expansion. The short list did include Tampa but designated a rival ownership entity. Tallis was crushed. He felt betrayed by friends he had known most of his adult life. Shortly after being notified of the decision, he suffered a heart attack and died several months later when hit with a second one.
It’s unfortunate that Tallis never had another chance with an expansion franchise or a losing team. He not only built a competitive team under the most difficult circumstances, but he also had the personality to run an organization. In addition to fashioning creative tension among capable subordinates, Tallis felt comfortable dealing with the press and enjoyed the limelight, key attributes for someone atop a baseball franchise.
His forceful personality manifested itself in his driving. Once while giving a ride to the owner of the Tokyo Giants in Florida, Tallis took off down a two-lane highway, careening past the orange construction cones. The next morning when the owner reluctantly climbed back into Tallis’s car for a lift to the ballpark, he immediately buckled his seat belt—in an era well before this was common practice–and clung to the dashboard with both hands. When surrounded by the Kansas City press who all knew about Tallis’s manic driving habits, he told them, “Mr. Tallis is a kamikaze taxi driver.”
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