#1 — Branch Rickey

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.

Jackie Robinson Shaking Branch Rickey's Hand

Had Branch Rickey retired from baseball in 1942, before he ran the Dodgers, before he signed Jackie Robinson, his record as a general manager would still be enough to warrant consideration as the greatest GM in the game’s history.  By that time he had already built one of history’s best organizations, winning six pennants and four World Series while completely revising baseball player development and instruction and inventing the farm system model that is still in place nine decades later.  When you add in his Brooklyn years, both the building of one of baseball’s best and most iconic teams and his historic and courageous act to integrate the game, it is a relatively easy call.   Summarizing Branch Rickey as a general manager is like summarizing Isaac Newton as scientist.  Where do you begin?

By the age of thirty, Rickey had retired from his brief playing career and had received a law degree from the University of Michigan. The practice of law did not take, and by 1913 he was back in baseball, where he remained for the next five decades.  He managed the Browns for two years, then was “kicked upstairs” when a new ownership group came on, becoming something like a general manager in 1916.  A year later he moved cross-town, becoming president of the Cardinals and de facto GM, though the position did not yet formally exist.  In 1919 he appointed himself the field manager and filled both jobs for six years.

Most of history’s best GMs have been blessed with excellent ownership that has provided the necessary resources with limited interference.  Sam Breadon took control of the Cardinals in 1920, and proved to be the best thing that ever happened to Rickey.  After a few years of non-contention, in 1925 Breadon relieved Rickey of his uniform and told him to concentrate on the front office part of his job, player development and scouting.  Rickey was not happy, but history proved it to be a brilliant decision.

Branch Rickey first envisioned an organized “farm system” as a solution to the high cost of buying minor league players. A team could instead sign amateur players (for much less money) and then assume the cost of developing the players on teams under its control.  At first Rickey’s efforts were (at least) bending the rules, which limited the number of players a major league team could control in the minors.  Rickey instead had handshake agreements with many minor league teams that occasionally got the baseball commissioner to take notice. In the early 1930s, after continual lobbying from Breadon and Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert, baseball significantly relaxed their rules on teams’ owning or controlling farm teams, and the Cardinals and Yankees soon had huge farm systems.  And, not coincidentally, the two best teams in baseball.

Soon after Rickey created his system, he realized that he needed a cohesive philosophy of scouting, instruction, and coaching.  The Cardinals were not signing ready-made players; they were signing boys who needed to be taught how to play. Every part of the game—bunting, sliding, run-down plays, and so on—Rickey wanted to be taught consistently throughout the organization. And Rickey wanted the scouting and player-development parts of the system to work hand in hand. As Kevin Kerrane wrote in his classic book on scouting, “Rickey applied scouting insights to teaching, and vice versa.” Rickey became a legendary talent evaluator, able to make decisions quickly on players. Among other things, he valued speed and youth. No sentimentalist, he tried to trade players before they started to decline rather than after. With his huge farm system, he believed he could fill the holes created when he traded his veterans away.

From 1926 to 1946 the Cardinals won nine pennants and six World Series.  Rickey did not have complete control of the club — Breadon hired and fired the managers, for example — and the relationship between the two men had become a bit strained by the early 1940s. When the Dodgers offered an ownership stake and more authority in October 1942, Rickey moved to Brooklyn.

The Dodger team Rickey inherited had just won 104 games.  But make no mistake, this was not Rickey’s sort of team.  Previous executive Larry MacPhail ran his clubs like a man in a hurry, like he needed to win today because he might not be around tomorrow.  As good as the 1942 Dodgers were, only a few good players—notably Pee Wee Reese and Pete Reiser—were in their twenties. But MacPhail had overseen such a dramatic improvement in the Dodgers’ financial position that Rickey had the resources to build the organization that he wanted. He wasted no time getting to work.

Rickey could not do much with the war going on — all his players were in the service — but he worked on building his farm system to be ready.  In 1943 alone the Dodgers signed Rex Barney, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, and Ralph Branca. Over the next couple of years Brooklyn added Carl Erskine and Clem Labine, two other mainstays of Dodger teams to come.

The most important event of Rickey’s career, of course, was the signing of Jackie Robinson in October 1945, the first step on the road to ending the Major Leagues’ decades-long prohibition on dark-skinned players. Rickey has been justifiably praised for this courageous and ethical act and his related decisions to sign other black players in the coming years. But more than that, Rickey dramatically improved his team, and in a short time had dramatically improved the quality of play in the major leagues. When Robinson was signed it effectively opened up a huge new source of talent, the biggest new pool in history. As baseball soon discovered, there were dozens of good players, some of them among the greatest players ever, ready to sign cheaply with the first team that asked them. By the end of the 1940s eleven black players had made their debuts in the Major Leagues, eight of whom ended up playing at least five full Major League seasons. Among them were three Dodgers—Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe—whose extraordinary play helped define an era and one of history’s most beloved teams.

The integration of the Dodgers went relatively smoothly, thanks both to the tremendous care taken by Rickey and his staff, and the ability and character of these three players. Rickey traded away several southern players during and after the 1947 season, but most of these deals were classic Rickey moves that helped the ball club. In December he dealt Dixie Walker, one of the team’s best and most popular players, to the Pirates, a deal many have interpreted as an indication that Rickey wanted Walker off the team. In fact, it was a great baseball trade: Rickey acquired infielder Billy Cox and pitcher Preacher Roe, who played huge roles on the coming teams. Eddie Stanky was dealt the following March, allowing Robinson to move to second base and Gil Hodges to play first, another very solid baseball move.

After losing a pennant playoff in 1946, the Dodgers won NL pennants in 1947 and 1949 and then lost in 1950 on the season’s final weekend. Unlike the prewar teams, by 1950 the Dodgers had several good players in their twenties and more on the way. In late 1950 Rickey began to sense that his position had weakened with his partners and decided to cash in his stake and take a job running the Pittsburgh Pirates. Walter O’Malley bought Rickey’s share and gained control of the club.  The core of talent Rickey left behind won four more pennants and the 1955 World Series.  The acolytes he left, including Buzzie Bavasi and Al Campanis, built on Rickey’s foundation to create and maintain baseball’s model organization for another four decades.

Rickey was 69 years old and taking over a team that needed a slow, patient overhaul.  The Pirates signed a few bonus babies that did not bear fruit, but he slowly began to improve the organization one player at a time.  When owner John Galbreath finally let Rickey go, after five years, the team’s assets included youngsters Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, Bob Friend and Vernon Law.  It would take another five years for the Pirates to win a pennant, but Rickey certainly did his part.

Rickey never really stopped working.  He played a leading role in trying to form the Continental League, a third major league that did not quite get off the ground.  In 1962 the 81-year-old took a job as a senior adviser to Cardinal owner Gussie Busch, which proved awkward for GM Bing Devine and everyone else.  Rickey left after the 1964 championship.

He died a year later, leaving behind an unmatched resume in the game.  As a general manager he dramatically changed how teams find and develop players, and what players are allowed to play the game.  His place as the greatest GM in baseball history is secure.

— Mark

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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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#2 — Pat Gillick

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.

PAT GILLICK

Pat Gillick served as a general manager for four different teams.  At his first stop, in Toronto, he built an expansion team into one of the best organizations in the game (winning 86 or more games for 11 straight seasons), culminating in five division titles and two world championships.  In Baltimore, he worked for an impatient owner who wanted his team to compete right away — Gillick delivered two consecutive ALCS appearances, the Orioles only post-seasons between 1983 and 2012.  In Seattle, he was tasked with trading one of the game’s best players, and then watching another superstar leave as a free agent a year later.  Despite this, his Mariner teams won over 90 games all four of his years at the helm and an all-time record win total 2001.  At his final stop, in Philadelphia, he took over a good team that had not been able to get over the hump and into the playoffs.  Gillick made the post-season in his second year and then won the World Series in 2008, the team’s first in 28 years.  A few days later, he retired.  By succeeding at four distinct challenges without fail and showing a unique ability and keenness for finding talent others might have overlooked, Gillick earned a place among the very best GMs in history.

Gillick’s approach was to first make sure he had great scouts and then to widen his talent search to non-traditional avenues. As Gillick put it: “One needs to fish in many waters.”  In Toronto Gillick and his longtime friend Epy Guerrero were at the forefront of creating an identifiable presence in the Dominican Republic. He also looked for underappreciated opportunities with multi-sport athletes.  His success in the mostly ignored Rule 5 draft of veteran minor leaguers was legendary; no one else even came close to his success and he forced teams to be much smarter about protecting their assets from this draft.  Moreover, Gillick used free agency to perfection in Baltimore and Seattle—in both places he quickly reloaded franchises with little talent left in their minor league systems.  With the latter organization, he also signed the first hitter from Japan to star in the major leagues, Ichiro Suzuki, along with a first-rate reliever, Kaz Sasaki.

Toronto’s head of baseball operations Peter Bavasi brought Gillick—who had been gaining a reputation as a front office savant with the Yankees –over to help build the expansion Blue Jays for their inaugural 1977 season. The next year Bavasi moved up to team president, and Gillick took over as GM. With the Blue Jays he immediately set about building a top-notch scouting staff. Two of his most important hires were Al LaMacchia, a longtime scout for the Phillies and Braves, and Bobby Mattick, who had already signed Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, and Gary Carter by the time he joined the Blue Jays. Both became important voices within the organization.  He joined a minority of teams that shunned the new centralized Major League Scouting Bureau. Gillick was going to assemble his own organization.

Along with slowly building up talent throughout the draft, Gillick looked for other avenues to find players.  In the fall of 1977 Gillick began to exploit a little-used “river” when he selected first baseman Willie Upshaw, whom he and Guerrero knew from the Yankees organization, in the Rule 5 draft. This draft allows teams to claim veteran minor leaguers not protected on their club’s 40-man roster, but with the qualification that the selecting team had to keep the player on its major league roster for the entire upcoming season. Over the years Gillick mastered the Rule 5 draft to uncover a number of other valuable contributors, including George Bell, Manny Lee, Jim Gott, and Kelly Gruber.

Gillick was also willing to take risks with multi-sport athletes, accommodating them in ways other teams might not have. In 1977 Gillick drafted multi-sport prep star Danny Ainge in the fifteenth round. Two years later he drafted prep quarterback and baseball catcher Jay Schroeder in the first round, paying a $100,000 bonus and allowing him to play college football at UCLA. In the end, neither panned out but testified to Gillick’s never ending quest for an edge in talent acquisition.

Gillick had known Epy Guerrero, destined to become the Dominican Republic’s greatest scout, at least since 1967 when Gillick was a scout for the Astros and the two signed Cesar Cedeno.  In 1977 Guerrero created a rudimentary baseball school for youngsters. Several years later the Blue Jays began to fund the operation, expand it, and run it year round, establishing a prominent presence in the country, one that provided the team an advantage for a decade or more.

In 1983 the Blue Jays finally passed .500, winning 89 games.  Two years later they won 99, but lost a heartbreaking ALCS to the Royals.  The team continued to win as Gillick integrated a number of young stars–Bell, Tony Fernandez, Tom Henke, Fred McGriff, Duane Ward, John Olerud, David Wells, and Pat Borders—and dealt for Robbie Alomar and Devon White but could not quite capture the pennant.  But Gillick still had one more river to fish in.  With the opening of Skydome and the associated increase in revenues, he could focus on high-level free agents to augment the club. It would take him one more year, but Pat Gillick would prove a master of this strategy.  Gillick also self-imposed a three-year contract limit to prevent getting stuck with aging stars in a long decline phase.

In the 1991-92 offseason Gillick signed 37-year-old Twins pitcher Jack Morris and aging Angels’ slugger Dave Winfield, and the Blue Jays won the World Series.  After the 1992 season, Gillick was faced with seven key Blue Jays becoming free agents: Henke, Winfield, Jimmy Key, David Cone, Joe Carter, Manny Lee, and Candy Maldonado. Of the seven, Gillick re-signed only Carter, but added veterans Dave Stewart to bolster the pitching staff and Paul Molitor to replace Winfield at DH.  Once again, Toronto won the World Series.

After the strike-shortened 1994 season Gillick stepped aside due to some health concerns and simply tiring out after so many years in one place.  A year later he jumped back in as Baltimore’s GM. The team had dropped below .500 in 1995, and owner Peter Angelos wanted to reach the postseason.  Gillick went to work. He diagnosed the Orioles biggest deficiencies at second and third base and the bullpen, and the farm system did not offer much immediate help.

Gillick filled these holes quickly and effectively, while still holding to the three-year contract limit he had used in Toronto. He signed free agents Robbie Alomar, his old Toronto standout, to play second, and B.J. Surhoff to play third. To shore up the bullpen, he signed Randy Myers and Roger McDowell.  Finally, to make up for the loss of departing free agent hurler Kevin Brown, Gillick traded young outfielder Curtis Goodwin for David Wells, another ex-Blue Jay.  The team won the wild card and made it to the ALCS.  In 1997 Baltimore won the East with the AL’s best record and again made it to the ALCS before falling to the Indians in a heartbreaking series.

Gillick left Baltimore after the 1998 season (his friend and manager Davey Johnson had left a year earlier). Once again Gillick returned to the game after a year off, this time with the Seattle Mariners.  With the opening of their new stadium a year earlier, Seattle’s ownership wanted a championship-quality ball club.   Coming off of two sub-.500 seasons, however, a drained farm system and with two of baseball’s biggest stars—Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr—scheduled to become free agents one year later, Gillick had his work cut out for him.  That they could keep neither (though Gillick did get Mike Cameron included with a package of players in trade for Griffey) meant Gillick needed find players outside the system.

Gillick succeeded spectacularly and quickly, transforming the 79-win 1999 team into one that went to the ALCS in 2000 and won an AL record 116 games in 2001.  He turned over nearly the entire squad, masterfully using free agency. Among the key players, John Olerud, Bret Boone, Mark McLemore, Stan Javier, Aaron Sele, Jeff Nelson, Arthur Rhodes, Kazuhiro Sasaki, and Ichiro Suzuki were all signed as free agents in just two off-seasons.  Moreover, the final two players in the list came from Japan, a new river for Gillick to fish in, and Ichiro became the first Japanese non-pitcher to excel in the U.S. major leagues.

Though Gillick had wanted to restock the farm system during his years in Seattle, that goal was secondary to delivering a title. He was hampered by the loss of draft choices from all his free agent signings, another pitfall of relying heavily on a free agency. In fact, the Mariners had only one first round draft choice during his four years at the helm and failed to sign him (John Mayberry Jr.). Gillick’s scouts, however, remained active internationally, and the team signed four impact players for the minor league system during Gillick’s tenure: Shin-Soo Choo, Jose Lopez, Felix Hernandez and Asdrubal Cabrera.

After a couple of years out of baseball, Gillick, now 68, took over as the GM in Philadelphia. In contrast to his three previous stops, the Phillies team he took over was filled with young talent, including Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Brett Myers, and Cole Hamels. Over the next couple of years Gillick bolstered his young nucleus with a couple of veteran hurlers, including former Mariner Jamie Moyer, an excellent bullpen, and Jayson Werth. Moreover, he managed to do this without surrendering any of his key players–the core he inherited in 2005 was all on hand to celebrate the World Series victory in 2008.

With his three-year contract up and his third world championship earned, Gillick decided it was time to retire. He was 71 years old and had succeeded with a fourth organization, a remarkable feat unmatched by any other GM, fully validating his credentials as a master team builder.  Gillick’s obsessive search for the best players, wherever they may have been, allowed him to thrive in the face of diverse challenges.

— Dan

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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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#3 — Ed Barrow

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.

BarrowEd

Before feuding owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston turned to Ed Barrow in 1920, the Yankees had never won a pennant. They won their first in 1921 and during Barrow’s tenure went on to win thirteen more as well as ten World Series. Technically hired as business manager—the GM position hadn’t yet been formalized—Barrow concocted on the fly the modern concept of the general manager.  He had spent his entire adult life mastering just about every executive position in baseball, and now it would carry over to one more.  For the next 24 years in New York he would apply that expertise to building one of the great American sports dynasties.

Before joining the Yankees, Barrow had managed Babe Ruth and the Red Sox to their last World Series championship prior to the “curse.”  As president of the International League in the 1910s he had led the battle against the upstart Federal League, a self-declared major league backed by some of the biggest industrialists of the era. Barrow also spent time as a minor league owner, a minor league manager, and manager of the Detroit Tigers.  He prided himself on having signed Honus Wagner while a minor league owner, the immortal’s last stop before the majors. As a youth Barrow had boxed and was not afraid to mix it up with players or umpires.  He knew just about everyone in baseball and at 52 was ready for a new challenge.

Up to Barrow’s time with the Yankees most teams were run by a team president and the manager.  Barrow grasped the potential of his new role perfectly and became the ideal for this position.  He defined the job early in his tenure, telling manager Miller Huggins, “You’re the manager, and you’re going to get no interference or second guessing from me. Your job is to win, and part of my job is to see that you have the players to win with.  You tell me what you need, and I’ll make the deals—and I’ll take full responsibility for every deal I make.”

The team Barrow inherited had purchased Ruth the year before, and the Babe helped the team to 95 wins and a third place finish.  Over the next few years Barrow went back to his old boss and Huston’s close friend, Boston owner Harry Frazee, and using Ruppert’s money bought all the rest of the Red Sox best players.   Spending over $400,000 Barrow and the Yankee owners purchased Wally Schang, Everett Scott, Joe Dugan, Sam Jones, Joe Bush, Herb Pennock, and Waite Hoyt–the core of the team that would carry the Yankees to their first three pennants and first-ever World Series victory in 1923.

One of the keys to the Yankees long-term success was Barrow’s amassing possibly the greatest assemblage of scouts in baseball history.  After the disastrous 1925 season in which the team fell to 69 – 85, Barrow expanded and reorganized his scouts, creating arguably the first modern scouting department.  He hired “Vinegar” Bill Essick to scout the west and Eddie Herr, a former Detroit Tiger scout, whom he assigned to the Midwest.  Holdovers Bob Gilks and Ed Holly focused on the South and East respectively.  Superscout Paul Krichell remained principally responsible for the colleges, and acted as Barrow’s right hand.  Bob Connery purchased a controlling interest in the St. Paul franchise in the American Association and left the Yankees organization to run the Saints.

Over the next few years Barrow continued to fine-tune his scouting staff.  He brought in Gene McCann to help in the East and Johnny Nee to take over the South.  Several years later the Yankees added the last of their legendary scouts, hiring Joe Devine to help out in the West.  Like Barrow’s existing scouts, all three had spent time as minor league managers, a well-mined source for scouts.

Once Frazee’s stable of stars ran out and the other major league teams were under little pressure to sell off their talent during the roaring twenties, Barrow needed another talent source to restock his team. At the time, prior to the inception of the farm system, the minor leagues were run independently and major league clubs purchased or drafted (hopefully) major league-ready players.  Barrow’s scouts out-hustled and out-scouted the competition, identifying the top minor league players and cajoling their owners into selling.  Over the next decade the Yankees purchased several future Hall of Famers along with many valuable contributors.

The signing of Hall of Fame second baseman Tony Lazzeri typifies Barrow’s process. Barrow often dispatched his scouts to review prospects on short notice, and Krichell joked that every telegram from Barrow started with “immediately” or “at once.” Lazzeri was tearing up the Pacific Coast League, and Krichell traveled to Salt Lake City to scout him, liking what he saw.  Although several teams showed some reservation because Lazzeri was epileptic, Krichell recommended Lazzeri to Barrow despite his price tag of $50,000 and five players–a huge outlay for the time.  Given the cost, Barrow dispatched Holly to confirm Krichell’s judgment and practically ordered ex-scout Connery, now in St. Paul and no longer a Yankees employee, to also validate Krichell assessment.

When the team next won the World Series in 1927, many of the key players—catcher Pat Collins, second baseman Lazzeri, shortstop Mark Koenig, outfielders Bob Meusel and Earl Combs, and pitcher Wilcy Moore—were all purchases from the minor leagues. Barrow’s crack team of scouts continued identifying and purchasing the best players over the next couple of years, including Bill Dickey, Frank Crosetti, and Lefty Gomez.

With the onset of the Depression in the early 1930s, the minors looked for financial assistance from the majors.  In response the majors changed the roster rules to make investing in and controlling in minor league franchises worthwhile.  Ruppert quickly grasped the impact of this rule change, ordered Barrow to establish a farm system, and hired George Weiss to run it.  To stock what would quickly become the best minor league system in the league, Barrow redirected his scouts to spend more time chasing top amateurs. Of course, the scouts did not completely forgo the high, independent minors, and in 1934 the Yankees purchased Joe DiMaggio for $25,000 and five players, a discount price because of his reportedly bum knee.

Landing the best amateurs required wits, money, salesmanship, and hustle.  The Yankee scouts became renowned for selling the benefits of the Yankee organization to prospective signees, and directed by Barrow, quickly proved their mettle in unearthing amateur talent. In 1937, for example, when the Yankees easily won the pennant and World Series, their top farm team in Newark won more than 70% of its games.  This minor league team, often considered one of the greatest ever, was led by many future major league players and stars acquired by the Yankees scouts.

The Yankees won four consecutive World Series from 1936 to 1939.  During this great run Barrow and manager Joe McCarthy successfully integrated the products of their farm system onto a championship squad, a gutsy but long-term, high-yield approach. By 1939, many of the key players, such as Joe Gordon, Red Rolfe, Charlie Keller, Atley Donald, Marius Russo, and Johnny Murphy, had been signed as amateurs and graduated from the Yankees farm system.

When Ruppert died in 1939, Barrow took over as team president but still ran the team as the de facto GM. In early 1945 the Ruppert trust, needing money to pay its taxes, sold the Yankees to a triumvirate of Larry MacPhail, Del Webb, and Dan Topping. Barrow disliked the flashy MacPhail and unsuccessfully tried to interest his hunting buddy and Boston owner Tom Yawkey in purchasing the club. After the sale the new ownership kicked the 76-year-old Barrow upstairs with a title of chairman of the board, but it was a purely symbolic position.

The team he was forced to sell had a culture and infrastructure in place that would help carry it to another two decades of greatness. As one of the first and most successful men ever to embrace the role of general manager, he helped fashion a position that encompassed the oversight of both the scouting staff and the farm system.  That he not only shaped the role, but excelled at it, allowed him to bequeath an organization that would be the envy of baseball for many years to come.

— 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.

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#4 — Bob Howsam

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.

howsam

Bob Howsam considered himself the last of a breed. A protégé of Branch Rickey, who believed in scouting, player development, and the art of making a deal, Howsam built one of history’s greatest teams, the 1970s Cincinnati Reds, a ballclub that reflected that same Rickey-like approach. And he did so at a time when a general manager could not outspend his competition on amateur players around the country, or invest heavily in free agents.  Between the advent of the amateur draft (1965) and free agency (1976) Howsam had to rely on the smarts and talent evaluation of his staff and himself.   Howsam had all this plus confidence, and he loved working in the game played under these rules.

In 1948 Howsam cobbled together family money to purchase the Denver Bears, a team he ran for the next 13 years, winning a few league titles, setting attendance records, and winning two minor league Executive of the Year awards.  In the early 1950s his Single-A team affiliated with the Pirates, allowing to work with and befriend Branch Rickey.  In the late 1950s Denver was the Yankees Triple-A club, allowing him to work with George Weiss.  Howsam credited both men for his later success — he learned talent evaluation (especially youth and speed) from Rickey, and business and organization from Weiss.

By the late 1950s Howsam had reason to feel that he had conquered minor-league baseball. To that end, he spent a couple of years on two unrelated efforts—bringing professional football and major league baseball teams to Denver. Howsam was one of the leaders behind the Continental League, a proposed rival to the American and National Leagues that planned to open in 1961 — Howsam would have run the Denver club.  In football he owned the inaugural Denver Broncos of the AFL. The club finished just 4-9-1 in 1960, and reportedly lost $1 million for Howsam and his family. At the end of the season Howsam sold his business, which meant he lost not only the Broncos, but the Bears and his stadium. He and a friend spent the next three years selling mutual funds.

In August 1964 baseball called him back, somewhat unexpectedly.  The St. Louis Cardinals were in the midst of a disappointing season and owner Gussie Busch surprisingly fired his general manager, Bing Devine. Busch had employed Branch Rickey as a senior adviser, and most observers felt that Rickey had undermined Devine, publicly questioning many of the trades he had made.  In any event, Rickey now recommended Howsam, his protégé, who became the GM.  As fate would have it, the Cardinals rallied (aided by the Phillies collapse) and won the World Series.  This was awkward for Howsam, who obviously had nothing to do with the team’s success, but instead had to deal with resentment for the firing of Devine (who was named Executive of the Year a few months after getting axed).  After the series victory, manager Johnny Keane resigned, and Busch let Rickey go.

Despite the circus he walked into, and the fact that his team was a champion, Howsam was confident enough in his abilities that he overhauled the front office considerably, keeping only people he trusted and believed in.  After the 1965 club fell to seventh place, Howsam traded three aging regulars — Bill White, Dick Groat, and Ken Boyer — very popular players who Howsam correctly believed were near the end of the road.  In early 1966 he acquired Orlando Cepeda from the Giants, and after the season picked up Roger Maris from the Yankees. Maris and Cepeda became the number three and four hitters for the club that won the next two pennants and the 1967 World Series. But by that time, Howsam had moved on to Cincinnati.

The Reds had been purchased by a group of local businessman who bought the club primarily to keep it in the city.  They did not know anything about how to run a team, and hired Howsam and gave him a three-year contract, more money, and complete power.  Unlike most GMs then or later, Howsam ran the entire operation in Cincinnati with very little interference from his bosses.

He inherited a fair bit of talent in Cincinnati. Though the Reds had fallen to 78-84 in 1966, their worst finish since 1960, the farm system had recently produced Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Lee May, and in 1967 would offer up Johnny Bench. Several of Howsam’s early deals were to trade veterans who were blocking his talented youngsters.  Like Rickey, he did not want to have to pay veteran salaries to reserve players, who would likely resent having lost their job.

More than anything, Howsam was a master deal-maker.  He had an organization of talent evaluators he believed in, and every fall he held multi-day meetings to go over every player in his organization, and in other team’s organizations.  He asked his staff not only for frank assessments of his own team, but also for detailed information on how players on other teams might be valued by their management.  When he called a GM to make a deal, he wanted to know before dialing the phone what players his counterpart undervalued. Like Rickey, he looked to trade his players when he sensed decline was coming.  In late 1968 he traded star center fielder Vada Pinson to the Cardinals for a player he believed could be Pinson’s equal, only seven years younger, in Bobby Tolan.  In the same deal he got Wayne Granger, who became the Reds primary relief pitcher.  Howsam made lots of deals, and he almost always got the younger player.

In Howsam’s first three years in charge, the Reds won 87, 83, and 89 games, respectively, finishing only four games out in 1969. After that season Howsam replaced manager Dave Bristol, whom he had inherited, with 35-year-old Sparky Anderson, who had five years of minor-league experience. The choice was met with derision, but Anderson proved to be one of history’s greatest skippers. In his first season the Reds finished 102-60, losing the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles. The Reds had acquired the nickname “The Big Red Machine,” and were led by offensive stars Bench, Rose, May, Perez, and Tolan.

In 1971 a number of Reds had off-years, and the team fell to 79-83 and a tie for fourth. Howsam and Anderson determined that they needed more team speed to return to the top. In December 1971, Howsam pulled off his most famous deal, trading Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms, and utilityman Jimmie Stewart to the Astros for second baseman Joe Morgan, infielder Denis Menke, outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister, and pitcher Jack Billingham. Billingham and Geronimo were key members of the upcoming teams, while Morgan, an unappreciated star in Houston, became the best player in baseball. Howsam also added outfielder George Foster and pitcher Tom Hall through trades in 1971.

It was the Morgan trade that turned the Reds from a good team to one of the best teams ever.  Over the next five years (1972-76) the Reds won 502 games, four division titles and two World Series.  They had the best record in baseball three times, and the year they did not make the post-season, 1974, their 98 wins were surpassed in the game only by the Dodgers, who were in their division.  The team was upset in the 1972 World Series by the A’s, and in the 1973 NLCS by the Mets, before finally breaking through with back to back titles in 1975 and 1976.  By this time the Reds featured several players drafted by Howsam’s scouts and developed in his system — Ken Griffey, Dave Concepcion, Don Gullett, Rawly Eastwick — and key Howsam trade acquistions — Morgan, Geronimo, Billingham, Foster, Fred Norman, Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon.

During this time, an era of increasing facial hair in the culture and in baseball, the Reds stood out for their short hair and clean shaven faces. Howsam had very conservative views about the baseball and his players. He was insistent that they wear their uniform a certain way—not too baggy, socks visible up nearly to the knee, low stirrups, black shoes—and the uniforms were clean and pressed each day. While the Cardinals’ players had chafed at Howsam’s old-fashioned sensibilities, the Reds players, starting with the leaders like Rose and Bench, went along. One notable exception was Ross Grimsley, a young star pitcher, who was traded to the Orioles in 1973. To Howsam, looking and performing as a team was part of the formula for success.

The 1976 Reds swept the Yankees in the World Series, their second straight, the crowning achievement of Howsam’s career. He later said that he felt some sadness knowing that no team would ever be put together the way his team had been. Howsam was referring to the onset of free agency in baseball, which would take place in the upcoming offseason for the first time. Howsam was one of baseball’s most vocal hawks on labor matters, speaking out for holding the line during the 1972 strike and the 1976 lockout.

The Reds lost star pitcher Don Gullett to free agency that fall, and lost several other free agents in the coming years, foremost among them Rose and Morgan. After the 1977 season Howsam resigned, taking a position as vice chairman of the board.  Despite the free agency losses, the club Howsam built contended for four more years.

Midway through the 1983 season Howsam returned as general manager, a position he held for two years. Howsam’s biggest move was to reacquire Rose in August 1984 and make him player-manager. Rose helped turn the Reds around—beginning in 1985, they finished second for four straight seasons. Howsam retired, as planned, effective July 1, 1985.

Although Howsam’s work in St. Louis is underappreciated (his on-the-fly rebuild is a big reason for the 1967 and 1968 pennants), his efforts to build the Big Red Machine, to take a good team and turn it into a legendary one, is what he is most famous for.  But still, he is not appreciated enough.  He is not in the Hall of Fame, for one thing.  He built and presided over an incredible team, a team filled with some of baseball’s most iconic players, at one of the most competitive periods in baseball history and in its strongest league.  With an amateur draft and no free agency, the GMs of the time had to rely on talent evaluation and their own genius.  No one ever did it better than Robert Lee Howsam.

— Mark

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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 — George Weiss

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.

Weiss

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.

— Dan

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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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#6 — John Schuerholz

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.

Schuerholz

John Schuerholz spent 26 seasons as a big league GM, winning 16 division titles, six pennants and two World Series. In Kansas City he oversaw that franchise’s only World Series. After moving to Atlanta he took over a team that had lost more than 90 games for four consecutive years and won the next 14 division titles (excepting the truncated 1994 strike season) and five pennants.  Schuerholz displayed an uncanny knack for retooling his team, knowing which holes could be filled by integrating prospects and which needed outside solutions.

A Baltimore native, Schuerholz left his junior high school teaching position to join the Orioles front office in 1966. Two years later he became an administrative assistant with the expansion Royals and worked his way up to farm director in 1975, and Vice President of Player Personnel in 1979.  Finally, in October 1981 the Royals named him GM, promoting incumbent Joe Burke to president.

The Kansas City team he inherited had won the AL pennant in 1980, but slipped below .500 in the strike-shortened 1981 season.  In one of his first moves he hoped to fill a couple of needs for his mostly veteran team by swapping several young players for Vida Blue and outfielder Jerry Martin. The team rebounded to 90 wins in 1982, but Blue and Martin proved a distraction in 1983, as a cocaine investigation dogged them and other players.  After the season those two, along with stars Willie Wilson and Willie Mays Aikens, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to three months in prison.

Rather than try to rebuild his aging rotation with veterans, in 1984 Schuerholz introduced a trio of young starters: Bret Saberhagen (20), Mark Gubicza (21), and Danny Jackson (22).  For 1985 he acquired veteran catcher Jim Sundberg to help his young staff acclimate, and in conjunction with offensive mainstays George Brett, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Steve Balboni and Lonnie Smith (the last two great trade acquisitions by Schuerholz), Kansas City won the franchise’s first and so far only World Series.

Over the remainder of the 1980s, the Royals remained at the margin of the division race but could not capture another title.  The team made some astute draft picks, such as Bo Jackson, but Schuerholz also made what he considered his worst deal, swapping David Cone for Ed Hearn, and some suspect free agent signings towards the end of the decade.  By this time the Royals executive suite was becoming a little unwieldy; the two owners were not in complete agreement, and Burke remained tangentially involved as well.

In October 1990 Schuerholz joined the Atlanta Braves as GM with full authority over baseball operations.  He inherited a franchise coming off a last place finish that had not been relevant for some time.  Nevertheless, the team had a solid core of young pitchers: John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery, plus outfielders Ron Gant and David Justice.  As he had back in Kansas City, Schuerholz went to work to support his young hurlers, acquiring four solid defensive players: Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard, Terry Pendleton, and Otis Nixon.  Pendleton had a great hitting season and won the league MVP, and the Braves won their first pennant since 1958 before losing in the World Series.  With pretty much the same line up the team captured the flag the next year but again fell short in the World Series.

Schuerholz was not typically a participant in the big name free agent auctions, but prior to the 1993 season, the Braves rocked the baseball world by signing free-agent Greg Maddux, the 26-year-old ace of the Chicago Cubs, to bolster a pitching staff that was already the envy of the league.  Maddux responded with the second of his four straight Cy Young awards.

The Braves could not have maintained their success for a decade without a continual influx of talent.  The team that won the World Series in 1995 was much different than the one that had lost four years earlier: five of the eight position players, two starting pitchers, most of the bench and all of the bullpen had turned over.  When the Braves lost the World Series in 1999, five of the eight position players, two starters, and all of the bench and bullpen were different from the champions of 1995.

Schuerholz made several impressive trades to keep his team competitive, but more importantly he continually addressed aging and ineffective players with internal solutions (if available) as opposed trading his prospects for aging veterans. Good teams are often reluctant to give significant roles to untested players.  The Braves of the early 1990s had several veteran journeymen that needed replacing within a few years.  What set the Braves apart from other great teams of the past generation is their willingness to give regular roles to the jewels of their farm system.  When Terry Pendleton or Ron Gant needed replacing, Schuerholz did not trade his young talent for veteran solutions.  In 1994 the Braves gave starting positions to Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko, and within two years both Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones were key players.  Later still, Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles and Adam LaRoche claimed jobs.

Schuerholz often liked to note that the Braves on average turned over ten players on their roster every year.  “One of the key responsibilities we have as general managers is managing change effectively,” he said.  “I think it’s true in any business.  We exist in an environment where change occurs in a bizarre fashion at a bizarre pace.  We have to keep our antennas up and keep our minds open.  We have to understand that change in inevitable, especially in our business, where we rely on human beings to perform physically, and we have to be able to manage the changes that are required in an effective manner.”

A comparison to the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s under general manager John Hart (now Schuerholz’s GM in Atlanta) is instructive.  Hart built a great team in Cleveland that blossomed in 1994-96, but as holes emerged he seemed reluctant to fill them from within the organization.  Over the next few years he dealt such players as Sean Casey, Danny Graves, Jeromy Burnitz, Albie Lopez, Brian Giles, and Richie Sexon, often acquiring a veteran player who proved less productive than a possible internal solution.

One of the reasons the Braves magnificent run eventually ended is because the farm system could not continue to produce stars the way it had in the mid-1990s, putting additional pressure on Schuerholz’s trades and free agent signings. Nevertheless, even in 2002 and 2003, twelve years after Schuerholz’s first division title the team was still winning 101 games a year.

After the 2007 season Schuerholz was named team president, and he promoted Frank Wren to GM.  After a few mediocre years, the Braves returned to the postseason in 2010, making it again in 2012 and 2013.  After missing the playoffs in 2014 Schuerholz dismissed Wren and made Hart the GM.

The Atlanta Braves from 1991 to 2005 enjoyed one of the most impressive runs of success by a franchise in baseball history.  The team has been underrated because they navigated through the post-season unscathed only once, but Schuerholz’s maneuvering that kept this team at the top for fourteen years is truly remarkable. When added to his legacy in Kansas City, Schuerholz clearly merits a ranking among the best ten general managers ever.

— Dan

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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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#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.

quote_bavasi
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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