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.


#24 — John Quinn

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.

Quinn John

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.

— 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.


#25 — Andy 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.


Andy MacPhail had big shoes to fill.  Both his father Lee and his grandfather Larry are in the Hall of Fame as baseball executives.  When the Minnesota Twins promoted the 33-year-old MacPhail to run the club, they surely took his pedigree into account.  He lived up to his surname, and his surprisingly quick success cemented a wave of extremely young GMs, a couple with similar front office bloodlines.

Coming out of college in 1976 MacPhail knew he wanted a career in a baseball front office and thought he had lined up a position with the Montreal Expos.  Unfortunately, when the American League awarded an expansion franchise to Toronto that spring, creating a second major league team in Canada, the Expos were so dismayed with American League president Lee MacPhail that they rescinded the employment offer to Lee’s son.  Andy quickly rebounded, taking a positon with the Cubs in park operations and player development.  In early 1982, just 28, he joined Houston as assistant to general manager Al Rosen.

New Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad brought in MacPhail as vice president of player personnel in 1985 and one year later made him general manager, at 33 the youngest GM in baseball.  The Twins had been mired in mediocrity or worse for the previous decade and a half; nevertheless the squad MacPhail took over had a number of talented young homegrown players, including Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, and Frank Viola.

MacPhail made several moves to bolster his nucleus with veteran talent, trading for left fielder Dan Gladden and closer Jeff Reardon and signing reliever Juan Berenguer.  The 1987 Twins crept up to 85 wins, but it was enough to win a weak AL West and beat the Tigers in the ALCS.  When the Twins defeated the Cardinals in the 1987 World Series, everyone associated with the team became a regional hero, perhaps because other than the Minneapolis Lakers in the late 1940s and early 1950s (before the NBA was popularly established as a national league), no Minnesota professional team had won a championship in any of the four major sports.  MacPhail was hailed as “Boy Wonder.”

Despite his quick success, MacPhail recognized that lower revenue teams could only compete cyclically and that a team needed a solid crop of low-salaried youngsters and under-appreciated veterans who could ripen concurrently, leaving some payroll available to plug holes with free agents.  Sensing the team was not ready to compete for a title, in 1989 MacPhail traded Viola, the previous year’s Cy Young Award Winner, for several players, most notably pitchers Rick Aguilera and Kevin Tapani.  The Twins fell to last place in 1990, but MacPhail felt his restructured team had enough talent and some payroll flexibility.

Before the 1991 season he signed free agents Mike Pagliarulo, Jack Morris, and Chili Davis, while farm products Chuck Knoblauch and Scott Erickson came through with star-quality seasons.  The team won 95 games, going from last to first in their division, and again prevailed in a seven game World Series.  More than two decades later, these two Twins World Series victories remain Minnesota’s only substantive men’s professional sports championships. During his stint in Minnesota MacPhail was brilliant at managing his payroll, recognizing when he had a team close to contention, and using his payroll capacity to acquire in the right veterans.

MacPhail’s success helped usher in a new era of very young GMs.  Oakland had hired Sandy Alderson in 1983, and Texas had brought in Tom Grieve a year later—both just 35—but after MacPhail the minimum age fell even further.  Dave Dombrowski and Jim Bowden were only 31 and Randy Smith just 29 when hired.  Smith and Bill Bavasi, just 36 when he became a GM, were like MacPhail scions of successful front office executives.  Somewhat surprisingly, other than by Alderson, the analytic revolution that was slowly seeping into baseball before Moneyball was not really embraced by this generation of young GMs.

The Twins remained competitive in 1992, but fell off quickly thereafter as several players left as free agents, the pitching deteriorated, and several younger players performed below expectations.  With rapidly increasing salaries throughout baseball after an arbitrator ruled the owners had been colluding to keep salaries down, MacPhail was becoming increasingly pessimistic on the future of small market clubs. “I can’t make it work anymore,” MacPhail said regarding even his successful cyclic approach to building a competitive team.

After a players strike shut down the final phase of the 1994 baseball season, the Tribune Company hired MacPhail to be president and CEO of the Cubs, one of baseball’s most venerable but long-suffering teams.  As his title implied, MacPhail was responsible for the entire franchise and named Ed Lynch his general manager.  MacPhail intended to build a “development-based” organization while at the same time bringing in veterans to keep Chicago competitive in a weak division.

In mid-2000, after just one playoff appearance in five years, MacPhail jettisoned Lynch and assumed the GM duties himself.  He got the club up to 88 wins in 2001, but the next July MacPhail named Jim Hendry the GM.  In 2003 the Cubs won 88 games and qualified for the playoffs, where the team advanced to the NLCS, before losing a heartbreaking seven game series to the Marlins.  The Cubs would not make the post season again under MacPhail’s reign, and he resigned after a disappointing 66-96 record in 2006.  Certainly the Cubs suffered some bad luck—phenom pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior pitched 200 or more innings only three times between them due to injuries–but the farm system did not deliver as expected and several prospects were traded away with little substantive return.  In contrast, MacPhail was highly successful in the off-field part of his job, as attendance and revenues surged during his 12 years at the helm.

MacPhail was not unemployed for long; in mid-2007 Orioles owner Peter Angelos brought him aboard as president of baseball operations, acting as a general manager with considerable authority.  Baltimore had fallen on hard times since consecutive ALCS trips in the late 1990s, winning fewer than 80 games every year from 1998 to 2007, but MacPhail again hoped to create a “top echelon scouting and development franchise.”  When the farm system appeared to be more efficient at developing pitching, MacPhail’s strategy evolved to “buy the bats and grow the arms.”

Unfortunately, many of the young hurlers never progressed as hoped, and the Orioles lost over 90 games every season through 2011, after which MacPhail resigned.  The next year Baltimore was baseball’s surprise team; they won 93 games and made the playoffs, mostly with a team built by MacPhail.  Although he wasn’t around to enjoy it, MacPhail’s farm system and savvy trades for the likes of Adam Jones, Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy, and Chris Davis left the Orioles with a solid talent base.

— 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.


Intro: The Best 25 GMs in Baseball History

Over the next several weeks we will be counting down the top 25 general managers in baseball history—as we see them anyway.  Because of the disparity in resources and opportunities available among the various front offices over the years, and the evolving nature of the job itself, evaluating general managers is largely a subjective exercise.

The most common approach to assess general managers objectively has largely been based on wins per payroll dollar. This is interesting and can be informative, but the goal is to win, not necessarily to win cheaply.  Moreover, regardless of the money available, the challenge of building a team is highly dependent on what kind of team you start with.  Brian Cashman (Yankees) and Joe Garagiola, Jr. (Diamondbacks) each had their first GM season in 1998.  Cashman was handed one of history’s greatest teams, while Garagiola had a first year expansion team.  Comparing their performances is not easy.  How should we apportion credit (or blame) for teams that have the stamp of previous GMs?  Gene Michael collected most of the players Cashman built around—how much credit should he receive for the Yankees success after he was no longer in charge?

So what did we look at in our rankings?  First and foremost obviously is winning: how successful were the general manager’s teams and how consistently were they good.  Constraints and resources need to be taken into account: how much freedom and authority did ownership give the GM to make decisions, build a front office, and select his on-field staff, and what were his financial restrictions?  Context, too, is important.  The challenge of staying on top is very different than building or rebuilding a struggling franchise.  Specific direction from ownership also matters.  Was the GM given a win now directive? If so, winning right away gets more weight than restocking the farm system. In other cases success over the longer term may receive more emphasis. Moreover, in some eras the competition may be unusually weak or strong, making the job either more or less challenging.

Much like with players, the very best GMs were able to oversee a team through an extended run of success, or to build a team more than once (possibly after switching teams).  We give some extra credit for innovation, such as being at the forefront of a trend or being one of first to figure out how to take advantage of a structural change in the game.

Almost all GMs have records that are a mix of good and bad seasons, good and bad trades.  And the trades are often judged post-facto, by how well the players performed after the trade even if those performances could not have been expected.  There is a lot of luck in baseball, and we are aware that an ill-timed injury, or a key hit in a playoff series, can have a big impact on a GM’s reputation.  In our rankings we have tried to strike a balance between acknowledging the impact of good fortune and giving due respect to what actually happened.

A couple of notes on eligibility.  The GM role was created about 1920 — before then the players were signed or acquired either by the owner or manager.  For the purposes of this exercise, we are not considering GMs who were also owners or managers of the team.  If we did, John McGraw (a manager in charge of the New York Giants roster for 30 years) and Barney Dreyfuss (who owned the Pirates for 32 years and built several champions himself) would each be in the top 10.   Also, note that we are ranking the men (so far, they are all men) who have run what we now call “baseball operations”, regardless of the person’s actual title.  Theo Epstein is the President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs, while Jed Hoyer is the GM.  For our purposes, we are crediting (or blaming) Epstein for the Cubs performance, since he is in charge.

Also, we (somewhat arbitrarily) decided to require that the candidates start their GM career by 2003, allowing for 12 years of service.  John Mozeliak, Andrew Friedman, Jon Daniels and others have had impressive starts to their likely long front office careers, but we did not want to get too far ahead of their stories.

In the end this is meant to be fun.  Each general manager’s challenge is unique to the time, place, environment, and ownership he reports to.  We hope our career summations help illustrate aspects of how baseball’s top general managers met these challenges and provide context for their tenure.

Oh, we almost forgot.  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.


Coming next week …

Beginning next week (Monday, January 12) Dan and I are going to be counting down the top 25 general managers in history.  One GM per day (Monday through Friday) for 25 days.  We will explain our criteria in this space as well.  Although we give these rankings a fair bit of thought, we primarily hope to provoke discussion about the role of the GM through the years, and shine a light on a lot of people who did a great job building teams over the years.

— Mark