#18 — Joe L. Brown

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.

Danny Murtaugh and Joe Brown

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.

— 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.


#19 — Lee MacPhail

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.

Mike Burke, Lee MacPhail, Ralph Houk

Lee MacPhail ran two baseball teams — the Orioles (1958-1965) and Yankees (1966-1973) — and did not win a pennant at either stop.  That said, the evidence suggests that he did a great job at both places, dramatically improving organizations that had been in disarray and won championships soon after he had (voluntarily) moved on.  MacPhail spent more than four decades in the game and is perhaps best known today for his tenure as AL president, but his role as a builder of teams should not be forgotten.

The son of a brilliant but combative Hall of Fame baseball executive, Lee MacPhail inherited his father’s intelligence but not his personality. While Larry had a short and somewhat mercurial baseball career colored by occasional triumph and continual controversy, Lee quietly earned the respect and admiration of nearly everyone he met. Lee spent a few years running minor league teams in the Dodger and Yankee organizations, before serving several years as George Weiss’s chief assistant with the Yankees, responsible for one of the most productive farm systems in the game. In late 1958 MacPhail became the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles.

Paul Richards had been serving as both GM and manager in Baltimore, but ownership had tired of his excessive bonuses to players who did not pan out, and the destructive disharmony between Richards and farm director Jim McLaughlin.  The hiring of MacPhail (who kept Richards as manager) lessened the bonuses and led to a general calming of the organization. After another sixth place finish in 1959, the club broke through with an 89-65 record and a second place finish in 1960. A solid group of players from their system – Brooks Robinson, Ron Hansen, Jerry Adair, Milt Pappas, Steve Barber, Chuck Estrada and others – made up a youthful core.

By 1961, both McLaughlin and Richards were gone, and MacPhail promoted Harry Dalton to run the farm system.  Dalton formalized the organizational instruction and what became known as the Oriole Way, and the MacPhail/Dalton organization was soon a model in the game.  In a five-year period beginning in 1959, the Orioles signed Boog Powell, Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mark Belanger, Dave Johnson, Dean Chance, Tom Phoebus, and Andy Etchebarren, along with several other future major leaguers. MacPhail also proved adept at nabbing useful players from other organizations, like Jim Gentile from the Dodgers in 1959, Jackie Brandt from the Giants in 1959, relief pitcher Stu Miller from the Giants in 1962, and pitcher Robin Roberts (who had been released by the Yankees) also in 1962. In early 1963 he acquired Luis Aparicio from the White Sox for four good players: infielders Ron Hansen and Pete Ward, outfielder Dave Nicholson, and veteran relief ace Hoyt Wilhelm. The cost proved to be steep, but Aparicio provided outstanding defense and base running for several years in Baltimore. The 1964 club, with Powell, Aparicio, and Robinson (league MVP) having big years and Steve Barber, Milt Pappas and Wally Bunker anchoring a fine pitching staff, won 97 games, finishing just two games back of the Yankees for the AL pennant. They won 94 more in 1965.

After the 1965 season baseball hired a new commissioner, retired Air Force General William Eckert, a man who knew little about how the baseball business worked. To help ease his transition, the owners enticed MacPhail to accept a new job as Eckert’s assistant. As his last act as the Orioles GM, MacPhail attended the 1965 winter meetings and held talks with Cincinnati on a deal to bring star outfielder Frank Robinson to Baltimore, leaving final approval to his successor, Dalton.  The new GM agreed, and the Orioles went on to win the 1966 World Series and become the winningest team in baseball over the next two decades.  After the 1966 season MacPhail was named the Sporting News Executive of the Year, in recognition of his building of the Orioles and his year hand-holding the commissioner.

MacPhail’s next job was back with the Yankees, who named him their general manager in October 1966. The club had been purchased by CBS in 1964, and fell to sixth place and then tenth (last) place. In response, CBS named Mike Burke club president, and Burke talked MacPhail into running the baseball team. Burke focused on promoting the team (which had become very unpopular), selling tickets, and Yankee Stadium itself. For the most part, Burke left MacPhail alone to run baseball operations, and the latter got to work.  Within a few months he traded Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, and Pedro Ramos; within a few years nearly all of the 1964 champions were gone. Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle were allowed to retire as Yankees, but the rest were sent packing in favor of younger players.

Little by little, talented players began to arrive. Mel Stottlemyre was the one youngster from the 1964 team that lasted into the 1970s, providing the team a decade of solid pitching. Outfielder Roy White debuted in 1965 and took a couple of years to begin to hit, but by 1968 he was an underrated star. Left-handed pitcher Fritz Peterson came up in 1966, Stan Bahnsen won 17 games and the Rookie of the Year Award in 1968, Bobby Murcer joined the lineup in 1969, and Thurman Munson in 1970. After another rough year in 1967, the Yankees won 83 games in 1968, then 93 in 1970. Although MacPhail’s conservative approach to rebuilding the team (before the quicker fix of free agency) required time and patience, he thought it was close to paying off.

MacPhail made his best two deals in 1972, acquiring relief pitcher Sparky Lyle from Boston just before the season, and third baseman Graig Nettles just after. The Yankees were in their first division race in eight years that September, before falling short in a tight four-team battle. With Lyle and Nettles added to Stottlemyre, Peterson, White, Munson, and Murcer, many observers considered the Yankees one of baseball’s best teams heading into 1973. Before the season started, CBS sold the club to a group led by Cleveland shipbuilder George Steinbrenner, the man destined to be the dominant force in the front office for the next 35 years. Burke resigned a few months later, and MacPhail followed at the end of the season. The Yankees were in first place much of the summer, but a brutal August left them far behind the Orioles.

MacPhail did not win in New York, but he improved the organization considerably in his seven years in charge, and left a lot of talent for Steinbrenner and new GM Gabe Paul. During the years between the start of the amateur draft (1965) and the advent of free agency (1976) the Yankees could not rely on money or prestige. Building the team took patience, and the Yankees were vastly improved from the 10th place club MacPhail and Burke inherited.

MacPhail spent ten years as AL president, then two more as the owners’ chief negotiator with the player’s union.  He finally retired in 1985, ending an impressive career in the game.  His two stints as general manager deserve their due.

— 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.


#20 — Cedric Tallis

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.”

— 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.


Charles Oscar Finley

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).  This guy does not qualify for our Top 25, because we chose to not include people who also owned the team.  Had we not made this (somewhat arbitrary) decision, he would certainly have been included.


In his early years owning the Kansas City Athletics, there seemed to be no promotion beneath the dignity of Charles Oscar Finley.  Cow-milking contests, greased pig contests, mechanical rabbits handing balls to the umpire, a mule (named “Charlie O.), colored bases and foul poles, dozens more … Finley seemed to have an idea like this every day.  But none of it worked.  He had terrible attendance in Kansas City (worse than it was before he arrived, and much worse than the Royals had after the A’s moved to Oakland) and he had terrible attendance in Oakland with great teams.  After he sold the club, the very next year Oakland crushed their previous attendance high despite missing a third of the season to the player’s strike.

But while Finley was distracting us with all the nonsense, angering his fellow owners, managers, and players, he also built a great team.  And give the rascal his due — he did most of the work himself — he decided who to draft, made trades, designed the uniforms, suggested lineups, wrote the yearbook copy, made out song lists for the organist.  Not every day, but often enough.  He employed general managers in the KC years, but after the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968 he dispensed with most of the front office other than his wife, cousin and other assorted relatives.  By the time he was winning the World Series, he was the biggest star of the team, the center of attention, on the cover of national magazines.

Finley’s teams won almost entirely with players that his organization signed and developed.  The Athletics were built precisely the way we imagine that a great team ought to be built: they signed or drafted dozens of quality players, sifted through them for a few years until several developed, made a couple of key trades to redistribute the talent, and provided depth with veteran role players.  It worked splendidly, and likely would have continued to work splendidly had the game’s labor system not changed.  Once the players had to be treated on nearly equal ground, Finley’s abrasive and domineering style was no longer successful.  For this, Finley has himself to blame, for no one did more to incite the player revolution than he.

Finley bought the struggling Kansas City A’s in late 1960.  After a few years of impatience, in 1964 the A’s outscouted and outspent their competition, signing Jim Hunter, John Odom, Dave Duncan, and Joe Rudi.  With the advent of the draft in 1965, the A’s nabbed Rick Monday, Sal Bando, Gene Tenace, Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue in the first three years.  By 1968 they were in Oakland, and by 1969 all of these guys were in the major leagues and contending.

Meanwhile, with his baseball club gradually improving, Finley worked equally hard to keep them from getting his money.  He went through very public and openly hostile holdouts with Reggie Jackson (in 1970) and Vida Blue (1972), both times using humiliation and degradation to get his stars to come to terms.  In both cases, commissioner Bowie Kuhn, rarely considered friendly to the interests of players, intervened to get things settled.  Finley’s attitude toward his players is perhaps best summarized in something he once told writer Bill Libby: “We have not won a pennant, but we will win one, we will win more than one with these players who are like my own sons, and I am only sad when they will not accept my counsel, the counsel of a man who is older and wiser than they.”

Led by Blue, the A’s won 101 games in 1971 and the division by 16 games.  The team fell short in the playoffs, but the core of this team remained nearly intact for five straight division titles.  Bando, Campaneris, Green, Jackson and Rudi held down five of the eight regular lineup spots.  Hunter, Blue and Fingers starred on the pitcher’s mound.

Finley made two great trades that solidified the dynasty.  After the 1971 season he traded Rick Monday to the Cubs for left-handed pitcher Ken Holtzman.  A year later, now realizing that he needed a center fielder, Finley traded Bob Locker to the Cubs for Billy North.  North anchored center field for the A’s for the next several seasons.

With his great young team in place, Finley constantly tinkered with the depth of his club, making trade after trade, either to fill in the gaps or because he liked making deals.  Finley imported a steady stream of veterans to play a role during the five-year string of division titles — Denny McLain, Orlando Cepeda, Billy Williams, all three Alou brothers, etc. He outworked the other general managers during most of his twenty-year career as owner, but he pushed himself even harder once he realized how good his team had become.  In 1972 alone he made 19 trades, many of them during the season.  After the team won the World Series, The Sporting News named Finley its “Man of the Year.”

The team won again in 1973 and 1974, with more unseemly player drama.  Finley took over the 1973 World Series when, after reserve infielder Mike Andrews misplayed a couple of balls in the second game, Finley demanded that Andrews fake an injury to get himself off the team.  Finley was roundly criticized, but it didn’t really seem to faze him.  After their Series triumph manager Dick Williams resigned, and the jealous players dreamed of leaving themselves.  They would not have to wait long.

Catfish Hunter was the first to get out when Finley mishandled the payment terms in Hunter’s contract, and an arbitrator freed the star pitcher after the 1974 season.  Hunter signed a record contract with Yankees a couple of weeks later.  In December 1975 the same arbitrator ruled against baseball in the Messersmith case, putting an end to the effects of baseball’s reserve clause, which had bound a player to his team in perpetuity.

Finley’s great team was effectively finished by this decision.  His woefully underpaid players hated him and had seen their teammate Hunter go on to happiness and wealth in another city, leaving little doubt what they were going to do with their freedom.  Finley traded Jackson and Ken Holtzman during spring training in 1976.  Sal Bando, Gene Tenace, Bert Campaneris, Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi (along with Jackson, now an Oriole) became free agents that fall.  By 1977 the Athletics were in last place, behind even the first-year Seattle Mariners.

In June 1976, Finley (who was usually one step ahead of his fellow owners) attempted to make the best of a bad situation by selling Blue to the Yankees and Fingers and Rudi to the Red Sox for a total of $3.5 million.  Because he was about to lose all three at the end of the year anyway, it seemed like a wise idea.  Bowie Kuhn voided the sales, claiming they were not “in the best interests of baseball.”  Finley unsuccessfully sued Kuhn for restraint of trade.  Even with the passage of time, it is hard to find justification for Kuhn’s action, other than trying to destroy Finley.

In 1980 Finley sold the club, just as it was about to get back on its feet again.  A’s scouts had signed Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas, Mike Norris and others over the past few years, and got back to the playoffs in 1981.

Finley is a challenge for historians.  He seems to have been disliked by everyone, and his style could only work at a time when the players had no ability to choose their employer.  But he built a heck of a team and won five consecutive division titles and three World Series.  His record as a team builder cannot be denied.

— 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.


#21 — Brian Cashman

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.


Of all the successful general managers in history, few are more of a challenge to assess than Brian Cashman.  We could see an argument that he should rate much higher — after all, the Yankees have won six pennants and four championships in his 17 years as general manager, a record very few can match.  On the other hand, he had some advantages: he started with a great team (he won titles his first three seasons), his ownership provided him enormous financial resources (peaking with a payroll 60% more than the second highest team), and there are countless stories of his decisions being overridden by his bosses, at times calling into question who was running the show.

Cashman took over the Yankees in February 1998.  At the time, his team had five great homegrown talents — Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte — all but Williams near the start of their careers and not yet earning free market salaries.  His first team won 114 games, the most in league history.  This excellent (and, for a time, relatively underpaid) core helped allow him to acquire or sign stars or superstars seemingly every year — Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, Johnny Damon, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, and more — in order to keep winning.

As time went on, the lack of new homegrown talent led to an increasingly high payroll (not enough value was coming from pre-free agency players) so that by 2014 the team had an old and mediocre roster and Cashman seemed finally to have hit his budget limit. But this was 16 years into the job.  For many years Cashman’s acquisitions, when added to his nucleus, preserved the Yankees as one of the best teams in baseball.

The problem is not that Cashman has not done a fine job — he obviously has.  It’s that no one else in history has ever had a job like it.  There is really no one to compare him to.  Moreover, the complex Yankee front office, with key executives split between New York and Tampa and overseen for the first decade by an active, engaged George Steinbrenner, makes apportioning credit or blame somewhat problematic.  Nevertheless, Cashman was clearly the point man for trades and free agent signings and should be evaluated on his results.

The key to the Yankees undeniable success during much of Cashman’s tenure, certainly for the first decade, was the talent he inherited.  Jeter and Rivera put together Hall of Fame careers, while Williams, Posada and Pettitte were close to that level and contributed for many years.  The great 1998 Yankees were built mainly by Gene Michael (the GM from 1991 to 1995) and Bob Watson (1996-97), who between them held onto the prospects (something the Yankees had not done, to their detriment, in the 1980s).  Michael also made great deals for Paul O’Neill, David Cone, and Tino Martinez, while Watson signed David Wells and acquired Scott Brosius.

So Cashman started with a young core surrounded by veterans.  As the veterans aged out, he generally went out to the market to find replacements.  After losing the 2001 World Series, the Yankees lost O’Neill, Brosius, Martinez, and Chuck Knoblauch from their starting lineup, either via retirement or free agency, but Cashman acquired Jason Giambi (the best hitter on the market), Robin Ventura, Raul Mondesi, and Rondell White.  Like most GMs, Cashman had good luck when he signed the high end guys, which he often did, and less luck with the non-stars.  Once he had to pay his homegrown guys market rate (Jeter made $750,000 in 1998, but $10 million two years later), the team payroll took off.

The Yankees also had less luck with developing talent during the Cashman years, partly because his free agent spending cost the team a lot of high draft picks.  He acquired 22-year-old Alfonso Soriano from Japan in 1998 and the second baseman gave them three excellent seasons (2001-2003) before being used to acquire Alex Rodriguez in 2004.  There was also some bad luck — Nick Johnson was a very highly rated hitting prospect who could not stay healthy.  After losing the 2003 Series with a 101-win team, Cashman signed Gary Sheffield and traded for Rodriguez.   The 2004 team won 101 again, before losing an historic seven game LCS to the Red Sox.

By the mid-2000s, the Yankees spending was far outstripping the competition.  While their 2001 payroll was $109 million, essentially the same as the Red Sox, by 2004 they were up to $182 million (compared with Boston’s second highest $125 million).   The next year they were up to $205 million, $84 million more than Boston.  At this point the Yankees leveled off and other teams began to catch up.   Helping considerably, the Yankees introduced a new star in 2005 when Robinson Cano forced his way into the lineup at second base.  A player as good as Cano, probably on his way to the Hall of Fame, can make up for a lot of bad drafts.

After nine straight division titles, the Yankees finally finished second in 2007 and then missed the playoffs in 2008.  The team had gotten quite old and had holes everywhere.  Cashman went back out to the market and signed the best pitcher (Sabathia) and best hitter (Teixeira), while also picking up Nick Swisher and A.J. Burnett.  Suddenly the Yankees were back in business — Sabathia and Teixeira had great seasons, as did many of their holdover stars, and they waltzed to a 103-victory season and a World Series title.

Although this veteran team hung on for a few more years, winning three more division titles, by 2013 the Yankees were old, expensive (a record $228 million payroll), and no longer contending.  Rodriguez signed a 10-year extension after the 2007 season, a contract the Yankees soon regretted.  Sabathia had three great seasons before he began to struggle with effectiveness and health.  Teixeira battled injuries, Rivera and Jeter retired.  Cashman got a lot of value out of all of these players, but to get them he needed to keeping paying them past the time (except for Rivera) that they were contributing, and the Yankees paid the price in the early 2010s.

As of this writing, it appears that Cashman is passing on the free market this off-season.  It will be difficult to improve the team without increasing the budget, since they already have $180M committed to just 10 players in 2016.  The team has the money, and a GM that has proven adept at finding players to give it to. Still just 47, Cashman likely has a long career ahead of him.

— 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.


#22 — Jim Campbell

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.


Jim Campbell was decidedly old school.  He believed in building teams through scouting and development.  He displayed loyalty to his players and staff, who he expected to work hard and show appreciation for their opportunity. To those he respected he would be generous and loyal.  On those principles his Detroit Tigers won the 1968 World Series. He distained marketing and give-away days; to Campbell, winning should be enough.  And when the environment shifted, he remained a throwback.  He never reconciled himself to the players union or free agency.  Nevertheless, he was one of the few general managers who built a World Series champion in the 1980s without changing his approach.

Campbell joined the Tigers organization in 1949 as business manager of their club in Thomasville, Georgia, the bottom rung of the minor leagues. As with many future GMs coming up at the time, the minor leagues proved a fertile training ground. While Campbell was moving up—he was named farm director in 1956 and director of minor league personnel and scouting in 1961—the Tigers cycled through five general managers in seven years.

When John Fetzer took control of the Tigers’ ownership group 1961 he began searching for the long-term general manager he felt the club needed. Baseball GMs in those days often had tremendous power, presiding over the entire organization—the stadium ushers, ticket sellers, the public relations staff. Fetzer later said that he thought Campbell was “ten years away” from taking on such a job, but the more he searched, the more he was intrigued by the 38-year-old executive. Fetzer also recognized that Campbell’s scouting and development organization had been doing its job well during the years of management turmoil.

From 1957 to 1962 the Tigers’ scouts signed a number of amateur free agents who would become the core of their squad. Of the top sixteen players on the eventual 1968 world championship team (the nine position players with at least 100 games, six pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched, and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Gates Brown), eleven were originally signed during this six-year time frame: infielders Dick McAuliffe, Ray Oyler, and Don Wert; outfielders Jim Northrup, Gates Brown, Willie Horton, and Mickey Stanley; catcher Bill Freehan; and pitchers Mickey Lolich, Pat Dobson, and John Hiller.

After the 1962 season, Fetzer put Campbell in charge. At Fetzer’s behest, one of Campbell’s first tasks was to find non-segregated spring training accommodations.  Campbell successfully negotiated with politicians and business leaders in Lakeland, Florida to create a more tolerant environment for the players. Once in charge Campbell began to integrate the system’s young players onto the roster of what was already a pretty good team and resisted the urge to trade prospects for veteran stopgap solutions. He also continued to find players, landing Denny McLain in the now-extinct first year player draft. As the prospects were introduced to the majors, the team jelled under manager Charlie Dressen, but in 1966 the organization suffered tragedy when both Dressen and his successor Bob Swift left the team for health reasons and died before the end of the year.

To skipper the team for 1967 Campbell hired Yankees scout Mayo Smith, who, on the surface, did not seem a particularly inspired choice. The Tigers remained in the pennant race until the final day of the 1967 season, ultimately finishing a game behind the surprising Red Sox. Campbell essentially stood pat over the 1967–1968 winter, believing that with some of his injured stars for a full season the team could win. He was right, and in 1968 the Tigers won the World Series for the first time since 1945.  After years of contention, Campbell’s homegrown ball club had finally come together.

Though the core of the 1968 team was already middle-aged, the Tigers continued to contend over the next several years.  After the 1970 season Campbell traded the increasingly troubled McLain for Joe Coleman, Eddie Brinkman and Aurelio Rodriguez, among others, bolstering his squad for another run.  Under new manager Billy Martin, the team won 91 games in 1971 and a division title the next year, mainly with the same, now-aging core.  In fact, the Tigers of this era had the most stable roster in baseball history. Nine Tigers—Gates Brown, Norm Cash, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, Dick McAuliffe, Jim Northrup, and Mickey Stanley—were together for the entire decade of 1964 to 1973, easily a record.

As these players aged, Campbell proved unable to replace them, principally because the Tigers were much less adept in the early years of the draft than they had been in the previous era of amateur free agents.  Because a team was limited by its draft position, its scouts could no longer sign as many top amateurs as the ownership would afford or they could hustle. Campbell overrated his drafted prospects and by 1975 the team bottomed out at 102 losses.  Martin had been fired two years earlier when Campbell could no longer tolerate his off-field baggage.

Despite the team’s struggles Campbell disdained the opportunities presented by the introduction of free agency in 1976, signing no significant free agent for many years.  Fortunately, the team’s scouting department hit another hot streak, drafting Lance Parrish in 1974; Lou Whitaker in 1975; Alan Trammell, Dan Petry, and Jack Morris in 1976; Kirk Gibson in 1978; and Howard Johnson in 1979.  As these players matured together, Campbell had another great young nucleus to build around.  And once again he filled in masterfully: he snapped up manager Sparky Anderson and traded for Chet Lemon, Aurelio Lopez, and Willie Hernandez, among others.  After a second place finish at 90-72 in 1983, the club was sold to Domino’s Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, and Campbell became the Tigers president and CEO, relinquishing the general manager position to Bill Lajoie.

Lajoie added a couple of stopgap free agents (Milt Wilcox and Darrell Evans) and the team Campbell had built broke through with a historic season in 1984, winning 104 games and cruising to the World Series championship, one of the few built in the era without the considerable influence of free agent signings.  Campbell presided over one more division championship in 1987, but was let go in 1992 as the team was again being sold.

In 21 years as the Tigers GM Campbell built two world championship teams and finished over .500 16 times.  Though the second half of his tenure offered a new way to source talent, Campbell remained a throwback and built a champion without materially relying on free agents.

— 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.


#23 — John Hart

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.

Hart John

For the 32 seasons before John Hart was promoted to general manager in September 1991, the Cleveland Indians never finished closer than 11 games from first in a full season.  And they certainly didn’t appear to be making progress; in 1991 the team lost 105 games, finished last in the league in runs and ninth in runs allowed, and drew the fewest fans in the league for the third year in row.  Hart had his work cut out for him.

Cleveland had brought Hart to the big leagues after several years managing in the Orioles minor league system.  When the Indians fired manager Doc Edwards late in the 1989 season, the team named Hart, then the third base coach, to finish out the final 19 games.  Hart moved to the front office after the season, working closely with GM Hank Peters, and was instrumental in acquiring Carlos Baerga.

Hart got the top job two years later, and made the most of the talent he inherited.  He smartly recognized that Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Charles Nagy, Sandy Alomar and Baerga could form the basis of a pretty good team, and held on to all of them.  He bolstered his nucleus with some great trades, picking up Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Paul Sorrento, and Jose Mesa, and veteran free agent signings, including Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez, and Orel Hershiser.

The team began making steady progress, winning 76 games Hart’s first two years.  In the strike shortened 1994 season the Indians were in second place at 66-47 when the season ended.  The next year they romped through the regular season, finishing 100-44, at .694 the fourth highest winning percentage of any team since World War II.  The Indians won their first two playoff series and the pennant before dropping a close six game World Series to the Braves, three losses coming by only one run.  Hart was recognized for his efforts by winning the Sporting News Executive of the Year Award in both 1994 and 1995.

As Hart’s team was jelling in the early 1990s, he considered ways to bring some payroll stability and predictability to the team’s finances.  Salaries were escalating dramatically through both arbitration and free agency.  Hart crafted a strategy to approach his young players years in advance of free agency and offer long term contract extensions to buy out the uncertainty of future salary increases.  Hart first offered such deals to Baerga and Alomar, both represented by high-profile agent Scott Boras.  The agent advised against the extensions, but both players chose to sign.  With these two young leaders in the fold, Hart successfully did the same with Belle, Lofton, and Nagy. This strategy has gained adherents over the years, and it is now common to see teams, particularly those in smaller markets, negotiate long term extensions with players who were already under the team’s control for several more years.

Hart gained another advantage a few years into his tenure.  A new ballpark, now known as Progressive Field, opened in 1994 to critical and popular acclaim.  The team soon began a streak of 455 straight sellouts and jumped to second in the league in attendance.  The new revenues allowed Hart the freedom to chase higher priced free agents and he generally spent his money well.

From 1995 through 2001, the Indians claimed six of seven division titles, making it back to the World Series in 1997, when they lost a heartbreaking Game Seven to the Marlins.  To sustain the team’s competitiveness Hart continued to make some solid moves, adding David Justice and Marquis Grissom by trade, Roberto Alomar as a free agent, and Bartolo Colon, an amateur free agent signing from the Dominican Republic.

Less successfully, Hart used many of his best prospects in an attempt to plug holes by trading for veterans.  In these years Hart dealt such players as Sean Casey, Danny Graves, Jeromy Burnitz, Brian Giles, and Richie Sexson, often in order to acquire a veteran player who proved less productive than the player he gave up.  A comparison to the Atlanta Braves of the same period is instructive.  The 1994 Braves were the best team in baseball and handed starting jobs to two rookies: Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez.  Within a couple of years, Chipper and Andruw Jones also claimed key roles on the team.  This on-the-fly rebuild allowed Atlanta continued success into the 2000s, whereas the Indians fell back.

At the end of the 2001 season, after an extraordinary decade in charge, Hart resigned, and planned to take a year off to recharge his batteries.  But when Texas owner Tom Hicks offered Hart a three-year contract at $2 million per year, possibly making him the highest priced GM in the game, he accepted the new challenge.  Hicks had lavished the largest contract in baseball history on Alex Rodriguez the previous season only to finish 73-89.  Hart believed the team was closer to contention than it appeared and signed free agents Chan Ho Park and Juan Gonzalez to expensive contracts.  Both players nosedived, and the team again struggled.

Hart recommitted the team to the younger players and the farm system, but success remained elusive, and in 2003, despite the success of youngsters Mark Teixeira, Michael Young and Hank Blalock, the team continued to tread water.  Moreover, Hicks’s investment firm was running into financial difficulties, boosting the appeal of a younger, cheaper team.  After the season Hart swapped Alex Rodriguez for Alfonso Soriano to free up payroll.  The team jumped to 89 wins in 2004 but still missed the playoffs.  The gains were fleeting, however, and in 2005 the team fell back to 79 wins with a payroll that had dropped to ninth in the league from second in 2003. Hicks and Hart agreed after the season that the GM would step down, signing a long agreement to keep him with the Rangers as a senior advisor.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Hart will get another shot at team building.  In November 2013 Atlanta president John Schuerholz hired Hart, a close friend, as a senior advisor for the Braves.  Like the Indians many years before, the Braves intended to lock a couple of their young stars up to long term contracts.  Soon after Schuerholz dismissed Frank Wren late in the 2014 season, he and Hart agreed the latter would become president of baseball operations and assume the general manager’s duties.

Mark Shapiro, his successor in Cleveland, once said, “One of John’s greatest attributes in Cleveland was his own personal gut feeling for talent evaluation.”  It will be interesting to see how Hart does in the more corporate, dynamic, and complex front office world of 2015.  He was one of the best in the game during his Cleveland years, and Braves fans are hoping that he can recapture some of that magic.

— 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.