In April 2018, In Pursuit of Pennants will be available in paperback! The University of Nebraska Press is currently taking pre-orders, and I am sure your favorite on-line retailer will have the book at a much lower price when the time comes.
In the meantime, we plan to do some blogging here to get people ready for the launch. Three years ago we counted down the list of the Top 25 GMs in history, one blog post at a time. We have since revised this list, and it will appear in the paperback.
This time we will be counting down the 25 Most Important Dates in Team-Building History. Coming soon! In the meantime, enjoy the holidays.
We have a new post up at the Hardball Times website talking a bit about how a handful of baseball ops departments are looking ahead to 2015. As we say, it is the Golden Age of baseball ops. Give it a read.
John Thorn, MLB’s official historian and long time friend of both Mark and Dan, has a wonderful blog hosted at MLB’s site called “Our Game.” This morning John graciously posted an article we wrote on the history of Baseball Operations, entitled “Baseball Ops: Welcome to the Evolution.” Please give it a read.
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.
When Calvin Griffith formally took over the Washington Senators in late 1955 after the death of his uncle Clark, he became the last of the family owners to act as his own general manager. After more than half a century, many writers have a tendency to wax nostalgic on these owner-operators. In fact, these men, who had no outside source of income, often ran their clubs on a shoestring budget and spent much less on scouting and minor league operations than the wealthier franchises. By the early 1950s some of these teams were spectacularly unsuccessful. Somewhat astonishingly, Griffith proved an exception—at least for a while. During the 1960s the Twins were one of the American League’s best clubs and led the league in attendance over the decade.
The organization that Calvin inherited evolved into an extended family operation. Brothers Sherry, Jimmy and Billy Robertson and brother-in-law Joe Haynes all held down key executive positions within the system. And all had grown up around baseball and were competent at their jobs.
But Griffith was very much in charge and immersed himself in all aspects of the team. Until the travel got to be too much, he personally saw in action nearly all the players receiving large amateur bonuses or acquired by trade. When he felt his managers were not being aggressive enough getting his young phenoms into the lineup, he forced the issue with future stars such as Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and Rod Carew. Another time, when he thought the coaching was subpar, he kept his manager but revamped his on-field staff with expensive, big-name coaches. Because Griffith spent most of his energy concentrating on the baseball side of the operation, he neglected expanding or pursuing additional revenue sources, a shortcoming that exacerbated his lack of non-baseball resources.
Griffith was a unique blend of bluster, naiveté, and baseball smarts. Before formally joining the Senator organization in 1942, he had honed his craft working in the minors as both a manager and front office executive, and by the early 1950s was helping his aging uncle run the team. During his long apprenticeship Griffith had learned the baseball business but could never generalize beyond the lessons of the time and place in which he learned them. Once the environment changed, Griffith was lost. He also remained surprisingly unpolished, which caused further difficulties in the 1970s and 1980s as he was forced to deal with increasingly sophisticated fellow owners, players, agents, and press.
By the late 1950s Washington was finishing last in American League attendance every year, usually by quite a distance. When Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul came calling to entice a move, Griffith was more than ready to listen, and the Senators moved to Minnesota for the 1961 season, causing the AL to put a new expansion team in Washington
The Twins had jumped to fifth in 1960 after three consecutive last place finishes, and the franchise Griffith brought to Minnesota was laden with talent. Many of the players had been signed as amateurs: Harmon Killebrew as a bonus baby (1954), Bob Allison (1955), Jimmie Hall, Jim Kaat (1957), and Rich Rollins (1960). The Senators organization was also at the forefront of signing Latin American–particularly Cuban– players, a talent source that was especially attractive to the Griffiths because it was inexpensive. Legendary scout Joe Cambria helped deliver several extremely talented Cuban ballplayers to the franchise, including Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos, Zoilo Versalles, and Tony Oliva.
Just before the start of the 1960 season, Griffith made a great trade with Bill Veeck and the White Sox. He dealt 32-year-old Roy Sievers for two young players, Earl Battey and Don Mincher, plus $150,000. Over the next five years, as the youngsters matured Griffith shrewdly reinforced his team. He traded for key pitchers Jim Perry and Jim “Mudcat” Grant (forking over about $25,000 in the latter deal) and purchased two veteran relievers, Al Worthington and Johnny Klippstein. Griffith wouldn’t spend beyond his relatively meager means to build a winner, but he wasn’t looking to pull money out of the franchise—he wanted to win and would do everything he could within his financial wherewithal.
In 1965 the Twins won 102 games and the American League pennant. After losing a seven-game World Series to the Dodgers, the young and talented Twins appeared poised for many years of pennant contention. To Griffith’s credit, he had also assembled one of baseball’s more racially mixed teams. Many of the team’s stars were African-Americans or dark-skinned Cubans.
Nevertheless, the Twins failed to capture a winnable American League over the next three years, principally because of a dramatic and unexpected drop-off of some of the team’s top position players. Griffith did his best to compensate, promoting Rod Carew in 1967 and trading for Dean Chance. The Twins won the new AL West in 1969 under manager Billy Martin, but lost to the Orioles in the ALCS. Griffith fired the mercurial Martin, and helped by a 19-year-old Bert Blyleven, the Twins won the division title again the next year.
As the core of the team aged, however, Griffith could not replace his stars. And while he smartly traded for Larry Hisle in 1972 and stole Lyman Bostock as a late round amateur draft pick that same year, Griffith’s scouting and player development machine was only slowly recovering from the death of Haynes in 1967 and Sherry Robertson in 1970.
The team played roughly .500 ball over the five years from 1971 through 1975, but attendance fell off significantly—from third in the league in 1971 to last by 1974–and Griffith lost around $2 million. When free agency came in 1976, Griffith was ill prepared to meet it, both financially and because he had a league leading 22 unsigned players.
In the first few years of free agency the Twins lost Bill Campbell, Eric Solderholm, Larry Hisle, Lyman Bostock, and Tom Burgmeier. Griffith was also forced to trade Blyleven and Carew before they became free agents, though he engineered a nice return for both (including $250,000 in the Blyleven deal). Griffith slashed his payroll to the league’s basement, so when the team flirted at the edges of contention in 1976 and 1977 Griffith could claim a profit. Nonetheless, Griffith had little chance of competing without outside resources, a more enlightened approach to additional revenue sources, or a rebound in attendance.
The opening of the Metrodome in 1982 did little to help. The Twins again finished last at the gate and bottomed out on the field with a record of 60-102. After continued financial struggles and flirting with moving the franchise, Griffith finally gave up and sold the team in 1984. He left behind the nucleus of the 1987 world championship squad, including Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola, Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti, and Greg Gagne.
In September 1978 Griffith’s legacy was marred by his appearance at the Lions Club in Waseca, Minnesota. In what he thought were off the record comments, Griffith disparaged nearly everyone, but most incendiary were his racist comments regarding the reasons for moving the franchise to Minnesota. Griffith may have put together an integrated team, but he was also the product of a franchise and era that for many years had segregated seating in Washington’s Griffith Stadium and was the last team to desegregate its spring training accommodations in Florida.
In his first 15-years at the helm Griffith masterminded the turnaround of one of baseball’s most hapless franchises and oversaw one the American League’s better teams of the 1960s. When Minnesota initially proved to be the financial bonanza he had hoped for, Griffith spent the additional revenues building a pennant winner. He purchased players, included money in trades, and paid top salaries to his stars. But as the economics of the game changed, Griffith had little to fall back on except his baseball intelligence, which left him and the Twins constantly struggling on the field and at the gate.