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).
When we were posting our Top 25 GMs series, several people asked about the omission of Gabe Paul from our list. Honestly, there were a lot of candidates for the last half of the list, and the arguments for Paul are not difficult to make. His four years in charge of the Yankees (1973-77) constitute one of the more impressive runs a GM has ever had, a period we discuss in our book. Balancing that, Paul had 18 other years running teams without winning a pennant. In the end, he just missed making our list.
Paul was covering high school sports for a Rochester, New York, newspaper when Warren Giles offered him an office job with the Rochester Red Wings, a farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals. Paul eventually became road secretary, and when Giles moved to Cincinnati to run the Reds in 1936, he brought Paul along as public relations director. When Giles became nl president in 1951, Paul replaced him as general manager.
Paul ran the Reds for nine seasons, and only in 1956, when they finished two games behind the Dodgers, did they contend for a pennant. The Reds were not quick to integrate (seventh of eight NL teams), but on Paul’s watch they signed Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, soon their two best players. Paul left after the 1960 season because he feared owner Powel Crosley might move the team. His successor, Bill DeWitt, made a couple of key trades, but when the Reds won the 1961 pennant, they did so predominantly with the team Paul had assembled.
Paul moved first to the expansion Houston Astros and then to Cleveland, where he ran the Indians for twelve years. Like the Reds, the Indians were an also-ran while Paul was there, beset with financial woes that almost caused the team to leave the city. Paul and George Steinbrenner knew each other well in these years, and when in January 1973 Paul had the chance to come to New York, with the promise of a free-spending owner, he did not hesitate.
Paul’s last move with the Indians was a trade that sent Graig Nettles to the Yankees for four prospects, a deal cynics have suggested was made because Paul knew where he was headed. In New York Paul was technically the club president for nine months, until Lee MacPhail resigned at the end of the 1973 season.
The available evidence suggests that Paul was more or less in charge of the Yankees baseball operations for the next four years. From the start Steinbrenner was a hands-on owner who demanded explanations for the moves Paul wanted to make, but it was not until after Paul left that the boss began initiating decisions about trades and signings. Steinbrenner’s public role was thwarted somewhat in November 1974 when Commissioner Kuhn suspended him from baseball for two years after he pled guilty to illegal contributions to President Nixon’s re-election campaign and to coercing his employees to lie the a grand jury. Steinbrenner remained out of the public eye for 15 months, though he and Paul spoke regularly.
So Paul was in charge of the Yankees for four off-seasons, and the Yankees were generally the center of baseball activity. In December 1973 he swapped Lindy McDaniel to the Royals for Lou Piniella, who spent the next decade with the Yankees. In March Paul picked up Elliott Maddox. who had one excellent season in New York before suffering a devastating injury in early 1975. In April Paul traded four pitchers to the Indians for first baseman Chris Chambliss and pitcher Dick Tidrow. The 1974 Yankees won 89 games but were overtaken at the end by the Orioles.
After the 1974 season Paul traded Bobby Murcer, his most popular player, to the Giants for Bobby Bonds, one of the best players in baseball. In December the Yankees landed Catfish Hunter with a record contract after Hunter had been declared a free agent by an arbitrator due to a contractual screw-up by his previous employer, Oakland’s Charlie Finley. Hunter was a one-person free agent class, and the frenzy that greeted his availability showed the players what free agency could mean for the rest of them.
With Hunter and Bonds, the Yankees were considered one of the favorites to win the AL pennant, but injuries to Maddox and Bonds (who played through them) dropped them back to 83 wins.
On December 11, 1975, Paul made two deals that, more than anything, put the Yankees over the top. First he traded pitcher Doc Medich to the Pirates for pitchers Ken Brett and Doc Ellis and second baseman Willie Randolph. Pat Gillick, Paul’s key assistant, had scouted Randolph extensively and coveted him for the Yankees. Paul then traded Bonds to the Angels for outfielder Mickey Rivers and pitcher Ed Figueroa.
In August 1975 Paul had replaced manager Bill Virdon with Billy Martin, and both Paul and Martin wanted speed at the top of the lineup. With Rivers and Randolph, they had their speed, and with big years from Nettles, Thurman Munson and others, the 1976 Yankees ran away with the AL East, ultimately losing the World Series in four games to the great Cincinnati Reds.
After the 1976 season baseball had true free agency for the first time. The rules have changed many times but in the first go-round teams were limited to two free agent signees, unless they lost more themselves. The Yankees wanted Reds pitcher Don Gullett and Oriole second baseman Bobby Grich. They lost Grich to the Angels but instead landed Reggie Jackson, who for the next several years added a big bat and an even bigger personality to New York.
Largely because of the signing of Jackson, the 1977 Yankees, already nearly an entire All-Star team, were a year-long circus filled with rivalries, backbiting, and open hostility. The main players were Steinbrenner, Martin and Jackson, although the latter was hated by basically the entire team. After Jackson and Martin nearly came to blows on national TV during a game in Boston, Steinbrenner demanded that Paul fire Martin on the spot. Paul talked him out of it, believing Martin’s release would leave Jackson in an even worse position with the team. To escape the storm Paul himself disappeared for a while.
Somehow this talented team got through the season, winning a tight division race, beating the Royals in the ALCS, then the Dodgers in the World Series to capture their first title in 15 years. Jackson was the hero, hitting five homers in the series including three in the clincher, finally making him popular in the clubhouse. This would not last, however.
After the season Paul resigned. He built the team, won his first ever championship, but he could take no more. The Yankee GM job became a revolving door for the next dozen years, with Steinbrenner calling all the shots. The team won the 1978 Series and added division titles in 1980 and 1981, but the talent in the organization slowly drained away the rest of the decade without stability in baseball operations. When Steinbrenner was suspended again in 1990 (actually receiving a lifetime ban, rescinded three years later), his lieutenants made several moves to help get the Yankees back on track.
Paul went back to Cleveland and became club president. He had much less success without Steinbrenner’s bankroll, and finally retired after the 1984 season.
(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.