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.
George Weiss presided over the greatest sustained run of excellence in baseball history. Under Weiss’s leadership, from 1948 through 1960 the New York Yankees won ten pennants and seven World Series in a thirteen year span. After a slip to third in 1959 Weiss retooled his squad and returned to the top the following season. For this accomplishment The Sporting News named Weiss Executive the Year, the fourth time Weiss had been so honored, more than anyone else in the history of award. For Weiss it was a particularly satisfying honor because the Yankees owners had just forced him out of his position as GM, citing his advanced age of 65. The team Weiss had built went on to win the next four pennants as well, giving the Yankees an incredible fourteen in sixteen years.
Promoted to general manager after the 1947 World Series, the Yankees were already established as baseballs preeminent organization. In the aftermath of the war, however, the existing pecking order was as open as it had been for many years for new leadership. It is to Weiss’s credit that he quickly re-embarked the Yankees on one of the great runs in American sports history.
Weiss succeeded because he understood the importance of creating a strong organization, and he ran it smartly and efficiently. He was not afraid to have strong, intelligent men in subordinate roles. As top assistants Weiss at various times had Bill Dewitt, a one-time baseball owner, and Lee MacPhail, a future great GM and American League president whose father Larry once went on a tirade against Weiss. He also included his entire front office staff in decisions. “The entire organization bears down all the time. Every day, 12 months a year,” Weiss once said. “There’s a restaurant in New York which advertises that it threw away the key when it opened for business. That’s the picture I carry of the Yankees.” In today’s world of 24-hour sports channels and football coaches sleeping in their office, this may seem unremarkable. But in the 1950s, with family ownership and sportsmen owners, Weiss’s professional approach was groundbreaking.
Weiss successfully ran minor league franchises until the Yankees hired him to build and run their fledgling farm system in early 1932, and he quickly turned it into the league’s preeminent operation. A Baseball Digest study in May 1958 looked at which teams had originally signed the active major league players. Of the 318 regulars and top reserves (approximately 20 per team) 43 had originally been signed by the Yankees, nearly one-seventh of the total.
The Yankees were landing quality as well as quantity. All-time greats Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford graduated to the Yankees early in Weiss’s tenure as general manager. Yogi Berra was called up just prior to Weiss’s promotion while he still ran the farm system. That these three were among the best half-dozen players in the league begins to explain the Yankees on-going dominance. Weiss and his crack scouts also filled in around their stars with capable regulars, constantly looking to improve at all positions.
From the end of World War II until the introduction of the amateur draft in 1965, teams stocked their farm systems by signing amateur talent. Weiss and the Yankees, as one of the wealthier franchises naturally competed for many of these players. They paid some top prices for the era, notably $65,000 for Andy Carey, but didn’t differentiate themselves solely with their checkbook. Weiss believed his scouts could out hustle their competitors and dig up amateurs others might miss or not fully recognize their potential. They proved him right: Mantle, Berra, Ford plus future stars such as Bill Skowron, Gil McDougald, Hank Bauer, Bobby Richardson, and Tony Kubek all cost less than $7,000.
The Yankees farm system proved much more successful at developing position players than pitchers. Other than Ford and Vic Raschi, most of the top Yankees pitching during Weiss’s tenure came through trades. The farm system’s surplus of talent and Weiss’s trading acumen allowed the Yankees to pick up most of their top pitchers from other organizations. Valuable hurlers Eddie Lopat, Allie Reynolds and Bob Turley, among others, came via the trade route. Weiss trusted his great scouts to be able to recognize pitchers of ability often struggling with poor won-loss records on second-division teams. He would then acquire these hurlers by surrendering prospects and occasionally cash.
Weiss became a master of the mid-season trade, often using his cash and prospects to add a valuable veteran for the stretch drive. Late in the 1949 season Weiss purchased aging veteran Johnny Mize, who still had a couple of good years left, for $40,000. Other midseason acquisitions included Johnny Sain, Johnny Hopp, Ewell Blackwell, Harry Simpson, and Ryne Duren. Weiss found another source of talent in the Kansas City Athletics. Other than the deal that brought Roger Maris to New York, however, the trades were not nearly as one-sided as often remembered. Kansas City needed to find players somewhere and the World Champion Yankees had good ones.
To some degree, the legacy of all post war general managers and owners is determined by their response to integration. Weiss and the Yankees have been rightly criticized for their slow reaction to bringing in black players. The team’s first black player, Elston Howard, did not appear with the Yankees until 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Brooklyn. Weiss was certainly not alone in either baseball or American society in his embarrassing resistance to integrate. Ten of the sixteen teams still had no black players as late as September 1953. Moreover, most teams did not integrate solely due to a sense of responsibility or morality. Teams signed black players because they wanted to win, and once Robinson had broken down the door and played so well, integration was the best (and cheapest) way to find top talent. The Yankees, uniquely, continued to win without aggressively signing black talent.
Weiss had a reputation as a tough negotiator with his players, which in fact made him little different from most other front office executives. In this era before free agency a player was effectively bound to his team for life, or until the team wanted to trade or release him. With no alternative employment within baseball, the players had little leverage to earn their market value. Relative to the rest of baseball the Yankees paid respectable salaries. For example in 1954, one of the few years the Yankees failed to win the pennant, the team paid a league high $674,622 in player salaries. Pennant winning Cleveland was second at $592,660; the rest of the league ranged from $357,329 to $450,796. In other words, the Yankees had a payroll 50 percent greater than all but one team.
After the Yankees let him go after the 1960 World Series, Weiss still had one act remaining in his baseball career, eagerly jumping into all the challenges and headaches of building the expansion New York Mets organization from scratch. The problem of landing good players turned out to be much more difficult than Weiss imagined. Very few players of major league ability were made available through expansion draft. And with no minor league system, the Mets had no players on hand to trade. Thus, to stock his organization with talent Weiss was limited to trying to make one-sided trades, finding serviceable major league players through waivers, and signing amateur free agents and waiting for them to develop. The lack of talent quickly became apparent, and for their first several years the Mets were the laughingstock of baseball. The team lost an all-time record 120 games in its inaugural season and saw little improvement on the field over the next few years. But by the time Weiss retired after the 1966 season, he had assembled the front office infrastructure that would create the “miracle” 1969 World Series champion and remain a consistent pennant contender thereafter.
Given the Yankees remarkable run with Weiss at the helm, we could have ranked him even higher than we did. The main reason we left him here is because we felt his efforts were considerably aided by the underwhelming, uncommitted and financially compromised competition in the AL in the 1950s. Among the seven teams Weiss competed with, the under-capitalized Browns, Athletics and Senators had no chance at the pennant and no hope of rebuilding with better players. The Chicago White Sox were still run by the Comiskey family, which had not won a pennant since the Black Sox scandal of 1919. In Detroit, the Tigers had deteriorated since the death of Frank Navin in 1945. Only Cleveland and Boston offered any realistic competition to the Yankees, and the Red Sox wasted much of Tom Yawkey’s money on untried bonus players. Weiss did his job exceptionally well, even considering his weak competition, and is certainly worthy of his top five placement.
For a supposedly unemotional man, Weiss was surprisingly sentimental about his baseball career. In his stately old home in Greenwich, Weiss had what he called his “Baseball Room.” Filled with all sorts of memorabilia, including original player contracts and personalized mementoes from baseball greats Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson though Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, the room reflected Weiss’s life. He had spent his entire adult life in baseball with few hobbies. During that time he had helped build and then presided over arguably the greatest sustained run of greatness in American sports history. The mementos and memories were well earned.
(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.