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.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have won three World Series in the past 89 years, and all three of them were substantially built by the same man. Joe L. Brown replaced a legend, but carved out a great legacy in Pittsburgh for 21 seasons.
Today, hundreds of bright young men (and a few women) without any playing experience descend on baseball’s winter meetings looking for a job, many hoping to eventually become a big league general manager. Since the advent of Moneyball and the application of analytics, a front office position has become a highly sought after opportunity. It has not always been this way. Until recently, front offices were much smaller and the road to becoming a general manager was much more haphazard. Joe L. Brown may have been the first to consciously and successfully aspire to be a general manager at a young age.
While a student at UCLA in the late 1930s, Brown told his dad he wanted to run a baseball team. His father, the famous comedian Joe E. Brown, tried to discourage his son, telling him there were only 19 top executive jobs in baseball: sixteen general managers, two league presidents, and one commissioner. Nevertheless, the well-connected elder Brown hooked his son up with Harry Grabiner, an executive with the White Sox, who gave Brown a position as assistant business manager for Class D club in Lubbock, Texas, about as entry level as one could get.
The personable Brown slowly worked his way up the baseball ladder. After World War II he was hired by the Pirates organization to run one of their farm clubs. When Pittsburgh decided to replace Branch Rickey in late 1955 after four consecutive last place finishes, owner John Galbreath turned to the 37-year-old Brown.
Despite the futility at the major league level, Rickey and his scouts left a fairly well-stocked farm system. Brown brilliantly restructured the talent on hand: keeping the key players, trading others to fill holes, and continuing to work his scouts for new ones. When the Pirates finished second in 1958, with their first winning record in 10 years, Brown was named the Executive of the Year by The Sporting News. Two years later they won the World Series. This club included several players who were in the system when Brown took over — right fielder Roberto Clemente, second baseman Bill Mazeroski, shortstop Dick Groat and hurlers Vern Law and Bob Friend — but all of them had to further develop under Brown’s reign. Moreover, he recognized these players as future stars and didn’t trade them despite several opportunities. Brown filled in around these stars by acquiring several major contributors: catcher Smoky Burgess, third baseman Don Hoak, center fielder Bill Virdon, and pitchers Harvey Haddix and Vinegar Bend Mizell.
The Pirates fell all the way to sixth after their championship season with principally the same lineup and pitching rotation. Several players regressed, but a principal factor was that National League at this time was as strong as any league has ever been. Well in front of the dysfunctional American League in signing African Americans, the NL was filled with competitive teams and great ballplayers. To remain in contention Brown relied on both trades and his development staff — the latter more successfully than the former.
Brown had inherited Howie Haak, one of Latin America’s most successful scouts, when he took over the club, and Pittsburgh’s farm system continued its productive run under Brown’s leadership. With the continued influx of young talent, such as Willie Stargell, Gene Alley, Bob Bailey, and Steve Blass, a great trade for Matty Alou, and an MVP season from Clemente, the 1966 team finished only three games back, and Brown felt the team was only a couple players short of breaking through. He traded Bailey for speedy infielder Maury Wills, but when the team regressed in 1967 he traded some quality prospects for veteran hurler Jim Bunning. This time injuries (and Bunning’s off year) kept them out of contention.
Help, though, was on the way. The farm system delivered another generation of Pirate stars and valuable regulars, many of them African American and Latino. The first wave, broadly speaking, included Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen, Richie Hebner, Dock Ellis, Bob Moose, Bob Robertson, Bruce Kison, Rennie Stennett, and Freddie Patek. Brown and manager Danny Murtaugh successfully integrated these youngsters into their existing nucleus, winning the NL East in 1970 before losing in the NLCS. The next year Pirates won the World Series, the second under Brown’s tenure. On September 1, 1971 the Pirates started the first all-black (African-American or dark-skinned Latino) lineup. And while it was the 1979 team that came to be associated with the hit song “We are Family”, Al Oliver remembered: “The ‘Family’ originated in the early ‘70s, we just didn’t have a song, but ‘family’ is something we always talked about, starting with our general manager Joe Brown.”
During the first half of the 1970s, talent continued to flow into the organization, and the team kept winning. Players such as Dave Parker, Milt May, Craig Reynolds, Willie Randolph, Richie Zisk, Frank Taveras, John Candelaria, Kent Tekulve, and Omar Moreno joined the major league team or were used for trades. Beginning in 1970 the Pirates won five of the next six division titles. After the team fell back to second in 1976, the fifty-eight-year-old Brown decided to retire to California after 21 years at the helm. The talent accumulated under his watch would carry the team to several more excellent seasons, including its 1979 World Series victory. He made a brief return in 1985 at the behest of the Galbreath family to steady the Pirates ship in the midst of drug scandals, low attendance, and on-field struggles.
When it came to hiring a manager, Brown always came back to Murtaugh. Murtaugh had managed for Brown in New Orleans, and the general manager promoted him to be the Pirates skipper in 1957 after firing Bobby Bragan. Murtaugh retired after the 1964 season for health reasons, but returned several times after Brown let other managers go, and was at the helm of both the 1960 and 1971 World Champions. Brown liked trading, but was never again as successful as he was when he assembled the 1960 squad. By not shying away from African American and Latin American players, though, his scouting and developmental system produced a generation of ballplayers that would make the Pirates one of the top clubs of the 1970s.
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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.