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.
Sandy Alderson’s three pennants and one World Series championship, while a first-rate achievement, may not be quite enough to justify his ranking at number twelve. But Alderson’s place in history is enhanced by two considerations: he was the first modern GM to actively introduce analytics, though rudimentary by current standards, into a team’s decision making, and he was the first young executive of the modern era hired to run a major league team’s baseball operations without coming from a baseball background.
After Alderson had his success in Oakland baseball front offices would never again be the same. Before Alderson, general managers had been hired after a long apprenticeship in the game (unless they were related to the owners). Alderson was different: he was Ivy League educated and an attorney. The Haas family saw Alderson’s potential and put him in charge of the teams as a 35 year old after only two years in baseball. His success changed the conventional wisdom of what was considered necessary in a general manager. Today there are many young, top-level front office executives sprinkled throughout the game with high-test degrees and little previous baseball experience.
Alderson went to Dartmouth, served in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer, and graduated from Harvard Law School. He was working at a law firm where he got to know Roy Eisenhardt, Walter Haas’s son-in-law, who became team president when the Haas family bought the Oakland Athletics in 1980. A year later Eisenhardt brought Alderson aboard as general counsel. In September 1983 the team gave Alderson the general manager’s duties.
At the time, after the penurious final years of Charles Finley’s ownership and the manic administration of Billy Martin (who served as both manager and GM), the A’s organization was in disarray. Alderson quickly set about rebuilding the scouting and minor league organizations. For personnel decisions he not only relied on experienced baseball men such as Bill Rigney, but also canvassed the growing body of objective baseball research, predominantly that by Bill James, that was generally scorned within the game. As an outsider Alderson was not burdened with baseball’s traditional biases and used James’s ideas to his advantage, particularly by understanding the importance of on-base percentage and power.
When manager Tony LaRussa was fired by the White Sox in mid-1986, Alderson snapped him up. LaRussa was, and remains, decidedly old school. Alderson, though, was not afraid to have strong subordinates, and would often “defer to success” when his alternative ideas may not have meshed with LaRussa’s.
In the meantime, Alderson slowly assembled a true powerhouse. From the farm system the A’s introduced Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Walt Weiss, who won consecutive Rookie of the Year Awards from 1986 through 1988, plus Terry Steinbach. Astute trades brought in Dennis Eckersley, Bob Welch, and Storm Davis. Dave Stewart and Dave Henderson were both shrewd free agent signings. After a .500 finish in 1987, the A’s won 104 games and breezed through the ALCS before being stunned in the World Series by the Dodgers. The fine tuning continued throughout 1989, as Alderson added free agent hurler Mike Moore and dealt for speedy on-base machine Rickey Henderson (whom he had traded five years earlier) at the trading deadline. This time the A’s rolled through the postseason, sweeping the earthquake interrupted World Series over the Giants. The team dominated the AL again in 1990 before being upset in the World Series.
For a little while it looked like it might go on forever. The A’s drew close to three million fans in 1990, second in the league, and in 1991 they had the AL’s highest payroll. Alderson used the team’s prosperity to lock up Canseco for a record contract and drafted phenom pitcher Todd Van Poppel when other clubs shied away from his record contact demands. Alderson had also masterfully acquired a number of extra early draft picks that he used on high-profile hurlers. In 1992 the team won 96 games before losing in the ALCS.
But then it all came to a crashing halt. In 1993 the team fell to last place as the star pitchers aged with little to fill in behind them; McGwire was injured much of the year; and Ruben Sierra, the centerpiece of a Canseco trade in 1992, failed to live up to expectations, as did the ballyhooed pitching prospects. As the team bottomed out in the standings, attendance plummeted as well. Maintaining a multi-year run is surprisingly difficult–injuries, bad drafts, and just bad luck can quickly derail an apparent juggernaut. Nevertheless, as sudden as its end might have been, the A’s 1988 to 1992 run remains highly impressive.
Walter Haas died in 1995, and the new owners were less willing to aggressively spend on players, necessitating Alderson trading McGwire in 1997. He finally moved on after the 1998 season, joining the commissioner’s office, leaving behind Billy Beane to run the front office and a decent nucleus of youngsters, such as Jason Giambi, Ben Grieve, Scott Speizio, Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder.
After six years as the number three man at MLB, battling with umpires, overseeing the administration of major league rules and draft-pick bonuses, and exploring international issues, Alderson joined San Diego as team president in 2005. Owner John Moores wanted an improved approach in the Dominican Republic and the draft, the latter flaw highlighted by the disastrous selection of Matt Bush as the first overall pick in 2004.
Alderson did not clean house, leaving general manager Kevin Towers and his team in place. But he was not satisfied. He implemented a more systematic approach to management and bolstered the front office by bringing in Grady Fuson, a colleague from his Oakland days, and Paul DePodesta, the analytically inclined, recently deposed GM of the Dodgers, who reported directly to Alderson. Under Alderson the team began to operate more analytically, and in first draft under his regime the team selected college players through the first 14 rounds, a notorious Moneyball strategy. For the first few years things went well. The team won a division title in 2005 (albeit at 82-80) and then won at least 88 games the next two seasons. The team fell back to only 63 wins in 2008 amid reports of dysfunction in the front office. In early 2009 Moores sold a controlling interest in the Padres to Jeff Moorad, who let Alderson go.
After spending some time back in the commissioner’s office, in October 2010 the Mets gave Alderson another shot running a team, but once again he would be operating with limited resources. The team’s owners, battered financially in the Bernie Madoff scandal, hired Alderson to build a winner on a reduced budget. The club he inherited was coming off two sub-.500 seasons despite a $134 million payroll, the fifth highest in baseball. By 2013, the payroll was cut in half to $69 million, 25th highest. As of 2014 the club had inched up to 79 wins, and the future seemed to include several good young pitchers and position players. Still, Alderson is yet to get the Mets back to .500. Several years into his tenure Alderson described his mission: “One is stockpiling talent. The second is clearing payroll, and the third has been to be as competitive as possible—without compromising one and two.”
So far the jury is out on number one; he succeeded on number two; and has fallen short on number three. But Alderson recently had his contract extended through 2017 and will go on trying. “The beauty of this game is that there are no absolutes,” Alderson once said. “It’s all nuances and anticipation, not like football which is all force and vectors. The one thing I’ve learned is that you get in trouble if you don’t have a healthy respect for the subtleties, for the things you can’t control.” When he had full control and a competitive budget Alderson built a great team in Oakland. Both the fact of his successes and the nature of his methods forever changed baseball front offices.
(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.