#7 — Buzzie Bavasi

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.

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Buzzie Bavasi and Walter O’Malley

Buzzie Bavasi masterfully presided over a Dodger team that won eight pennants (plus twice lost pennant playoffs) and four World Series titles.  He was an organization man in an unparalleled organization, filled with talented men like owner Walter O’Malley, farm director Fresco Thompson, scouting director Al Campanis, manager Walter Alston, the game’s best scouts and instructors and many of its best players.  But O’Malley hired Bavasi to run the Dodgers and generally left him alone to do so for 18 years.  He would not regret it. “[Bavasi] learned [baseball] under Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey,” Jim Murray once wrote. “That was like learning war under Genghis Kahn and Machiavelli. And Bavasi never knew what it was to work under a dilettante owner, some millionaire who wanted a ball club instead of a yacht.”

Bavasi grew up in a wealthy family in Scarsdale, earned a business degree from DePauw University, and took a job working for MacPhail in 1939.  He spent the next decade (save for two years in the army) working in the Dodger system, eventually running their Triple-A club in Montreal.  After the 1950 season, Rickey (who had taken over the team in 1942) left the Dodgers for the Pirates, and O’Malley (now in complete control) made Bavasi the new general manager (though he did not get that title for several years).

Rickey left behind a great team, a group that would win four pennants in Bavasi’s first six years — Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcombe, Gil Hodges and others — players who would later be known as “The Boys of Summer.”  Bavasi did not have to add core players, but he did quite a bit of maintenance to keep the team running at peak performance.  He acquired Andy Pafko during the 1951 season, which ended with a playoff loss to the Giants.  The same year he purchased Joe Black and Jim Gilliam from the Baltimore Elite Giants — Black gave them one great year, and Gilliam a decade of solid play.

After the 1953 season, Bavasi hired manager Walter Alston, who filled the position for 23 years.  Having lost World Series in 1952 and 1953, Brooklyn finally won its first (and only) title in 1955, led by heroes (and recent signees) Sandy Amoros and Johnny Podres.  The next year Bavasi acquired Sal Maglie in May, and Maglie finished 13-5 with a 2.87 ERA and helped get them back to the Series again.

After the 1957 season the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, a move which also acts as a useful historical divide for the team and for Bavasi.  While it is fair to consider Bavasi the capable caretaker of Branch Rickey’s old team in Brooklyn, that is no longer true by the late 1950s.  All of the old “Boys of Summer” were gone or fading, and the team’s continued success in LA should be credited to Bavasi and his organization, and to a masterfully rebuilt team.

The new Dodgers including Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Tommy Davis, signed while the team was still in Brooklyn, but the Dodger scouts (and O’Malley’s bankroll) really went to work once they relocated to LA, landing Ron Fairly, Willie Davis, Frank Howard and more.  The 1959 Dodgers won a surprising championship with a blend of the past, future, and a few short term solutions, though without star performances.  For his efforts Bavasi took home the Executive of the Year award, but he did not rest on his success — by 1961 Howard, Fairly and both Davises had joined the lineup.

From 1962 through 1966 the Dodgers won three pennants (losing a playoff for another), and two World Series.  The key to most of these teams were the power pitching of Koufax and Drysdale, and a good offense led by the young players, plus Maury Wills, who also joined the lineup in 1960.  It was a remarkable team, and no one deserves more credit for it than Buzzie Bavasi.  One man who appreciated him was his boss.  “The wheels are always turning in Buzzie’s head,” O’Malley once said. “He’ll work for you 24 hours a day. This is because the man doesn’t sleep.”

As good as the Dodgers were, Bavasi is perhaps underappreciated because he made fewer trades than his contemporaries. “Why play poker,” he said, “when you’re the only one in the game with any money?”  The Dodgers developed their own talent, and Bavasi was rarely called upon to find more.   In fact, several times every year Bavasi sold players to other teams, and his trades usually included cash sent his way.  This income, often well over $100K per year, was reinvested in the organization.

After 18 years as GM, Bavasi longed to get into ownership, which in 1968 caused him to buy into the new San Diego franchise and take control as president and GM.  This proved to be a mistake.  The principal owner of the Padres, C. Arnoldt Smith, a multimillionaire businessman and close friend of President Nixon, was immediately beset with financial difficulties — including the collapse of his United States National Bank, at the time the largest bank failure in US history.  Smith later spent time in prison for embezzlement.

For the first four years Bavasi had to run a team with no money.  In late 1972 Bavasi turned the GM duties over to his son, Peter, while remaining as president.  In 1974 Smith, facing financial and legal problems, sold the Padres to Ray Kroc, and the team began to improve.  Dave Winfield, drafted in 1973, joined the lineup immediately and became their best player.  Randy Jones was a star pitcher for a couple of years.  Kroc was willing to spend money — Buzzie was apparently the high bidder before Catfish Hunter signed with the Yankees as a free agent at the end of the 1974 season.  He stayed aggressive when wholesale free agency started in 1976, landing Gene Tenace and Rollie Fingers.   In 1977 Bavasi left the Padres to become president of the California Angels, assuming the GM duties when Harry Dalton left after the season.

The Angels had some talent when Bavasi arrived, but he enhanced things considerably.  Within a few months he had traded for Brian Downing and signed Lyman Bostock.  The 1978 team won 87 games, the most in club history.  After the season Bavasi traded for Dan Ford and Rod Carew, and in 1979 the team won its first division title.  Bavasi brought in more talent in the coming years, landing Fred Lynn, Rick Burleson, Doug DeCinces, Bob Boone and Reggie Jackson, enough to cop another division crown in 1982.  Both teams lost in the LCS.  Bavasi ran the Angels until 1984 when he finally retired.

Although he had some success in Anaheim, Bavasi’s place in history rests with his 18 years running the Dodgers.  The Dodgers had a strong organization before he became GM, but Bavasi unquestionably made it stronger and led the club to some of its greatest successes, including four of the six World Series titles the franchise has won in its history.

— 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.

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5 thoughts on “#7 — Buzzie Bavasi

  1. Bavasi was a great GM–But he didnt sign Roberto Clemente when he could have–He made Koufax retire when he would have pitched at least 2 more years and he didnt beef up the offense when Koufax and Drysdale were at there best—2 to 3 more titles would have been won—-61-62-67–All would have been won and iF Koufax would have been used a little bit less he would have pitched ALL of 1964 (where he still went 19-5) they would have won in 1964—Soo 1961-62-63-64-65-66 and 67 all would have been Dodger Titles! Now also what could have been—1947–49-(-51!)-52-53-55-56 and 1959 That would have been 15 titles from 1947 to 1967———WOW—-1968 could have been possible with added offense and Koufax also!

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  2. There is no way Bavasi “made” Koufax retire. Koufax wanted out to save his arm for something a little more important than the Dodgers or baseball, LIFE. He even said in his retirement press conference that he was worried about all of the cortisone and the toll on his body. If anything, Buzzie would have kept ol’ Sandy doing 40 starts per year forever.

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  3. “[Bavasi] learned [baseball] under Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey,” Jim Murray once wrote. “That was like learning war under Genghis Kahn and Machiavelli.” Jim Murray was spectacular.

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  4. Bavasi’s tenure with the Angels includes one terrible quote, “Nolan Ryan can be replaced by two 8-7 pitchers.”

    He certainly made some good moves though, especially trading for Downing.

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