For some years now a strange mirage has appeared each spring over Detroit's Briggs Stadium, an apparition of a sleek muscular Bengal Tiger fiercely promising its beholders the thrill of a captured American League pennant, or, at least, a roaring good hunt for it.
But come autumn, each year, the mirage has disappeared, leaving in its place a tired, toothless old beast, its stripes tattered, its teeth worn by defeat. No pennant has been dragged triumphantly home to Briggs Stadium. Worse, Detroit's feeble Tiger has not even come close to catching one.
Despite this sorry record of perennial failure, Detroiters crowd their way into Briggs Stadium year after year in such numbers (12½ million in the last decade) and with such enthusiasm that Sam Greene, genial dean of Detroit sportswriters, calls them "uncomprehending loyalists." Their unreasoning faith has been sustained partly because Detroit has always been a pragmatic optimist, a city which declared it could arm the world, could get the job done, could make more cars than ever before. And their faith has been constantly fed and nurtured by expansive statements about the Tigers from the Detroit front office—and from rival baseball men, too, for that matter, and from sportswriters and other theoretically objective observers. This is a Detroit tradition. It was that way when Walter o. Briggs owned the club, when hi son Spike Briggs ran the organization after the old man's death and when the Tiger property was acquired in July 1956 by an 11-man syndicate.
"We want to bring Detroit a pennant as fast as we can!" cried Fred Knorr, then the leader of the syndic cate. But the Tigers finished fifth in 1956. Manager Bucky Harris was fired, and a "take charge" guy, Jack Tighe, was put in his place.
May 17, 1959
"We'll finish second in 1957!" said' Tighe, but the Tigers finished fourth.
"This is a pennant contender!" yowled Detroit in 1958, but the Tigers were eighth in June and Tighe was out. In came Bill Norman, the "minor league Casey Stengel." The Tigers won six straight from the New York Yankees and shot up to second place, but then they subsided and finished fifth.
"This is a solid first-division club," insisted the experts in 1959, and the players themselves agreed. In an informal poll this spring they picked themselves to finish second. They did this with a quiet, professional confidence that was very impressive, so much so that when Associated Press Sportswriter Dave Diles (who contributed substantially to the preparation of this article) picked the Tigers to finish fourth in his preseason predictions he received an indignant phone call from the Tiger publicity man, Neal K. (Doc) Fenkell.
"Dave, how could you pick us so low?" demanded Fenkell.
"Doc, how could I pick you so high?" replied Diles. "Detroit hasn't won a pennant since 1945, it hasn't been in contention since 1950, it's been in the first division only once in the last eight years and then it squeaked in. I think I'm being radical in picking you as high as fourth."
Then the season was on, and the Tigers lost 15 of their first 17 games. A recession still afflicts Detroit, and the working-stiff fans who used to clamor for tickets to the ball park reacted to hard times and bad baseball. Attendance at Briggs Stadium fell off sharply. Advance sales were down.
The 15th defeat was more than the owners could bear. They fired Norman, and hired Jimmie Dykes. Dykes's Tigers promptly beat the New York Yankees in both ends of a double-header before a huge Sunday crowd and went on to win seven games out of eight. Optimism welled up again—as it did during Norman's streak last year. But neither the winning surge, nor the big turnout to see Dykes's debut against the Yankees nor the optimism could hide the fact that the Tigers were in last place, that attendance continued to be off (only 9,783 came to a Sunday double-header a week later) and that there still was trouble in Detroit.
When adversity comes, men look for causes. Now the "uncomprehending loyalists" are asking dark questions about the operation of their Tiger organization. What is wrong?
The prospectus is encouraging: "I have never been identified with failures," thunders John E. Fetzer, chairman of the board, Detroit Baseball Company. "And I sure as hell won't start now. We're in this to make money and to win pennants. We've got a lot of executive talent, and I think we can build a player organization which can rival the Yankees."
Fine words, but the charge has been made and repeated that the Tiger front office has become a cheap operation. It is claimed that penny-pinching economy measures have hurt the vital player-replacement program—the scouting force and the minor league farm system—and that this is a prime reason for Detroit's difficulty.
Figures support the charge.
In 1957 there were 21 names on the scouting staff list. Under former General Manager John McHale, the number was increased in 1958 to 27. In 1959, however, the staff was reduced to 18 full-time scouts, and insiders say the list is padded and that only half a dozen "real" scouts work full time.
"We have more scouts than the Briggs people ever did," President Harvey Hansen argues. But, he admits, "There has been some little adjustment in dollar expenditures."
"They're cutting corners and hurting themselves," insists one Detroit scout. "They can talk budgets, but they've got us down to $100,000 to sign ballplayers for the year. What can you do with that? Everybody is scared to sign anybody unless you are positive the boy will make it. You can't operate that way. You can't be that positive."
As for the farms, in 1957 there were eight teams in the Tiger minor league system. Aware of the training value of the minors for question-mark players, McHale and Rick Ferrell, then director of minor league personnel, added two farm clubs to the system in 1958. But this year the farm system was cut back to seven teams.
Detroit's minor league teams won four pennants in 1958, and yet they made small player contribution to the 1959 Tigers. Charleston, W. Va., the Tigers' top farm team, won its pennant with shopworn veterans like Wayne Terwilliger, Wilmer Shantz, Ron Samford, Milt Boiling, Art Houtteman and Jim Delsing.
Confronted with the accusation that the Detroit front office has shrunk its player-replacement program for the sake of economy, Hansen answers: "We spent twice as much on scouting and the minors in 1958 than the Briggs operation did in any year. We spent a total of $950,000 last year for player replacement, which was $81,000 more than we spent in 1957, and we'll spend $12,000 more this year than in 1958. We're no cheap operation."
Hansen says of the organizational structure of the club: "We have the same kind of corporate charter that General Motors has. The game we put on the field is the same as a production department; our player-replacement system is the same as a sales force. But we must have economies. We don't believe in spending money on bonus babies the way some teams do. We're making changes in our recruiting and development system because we feel that in the past good talent has been lost due to inefficiency. We can do a better job with less size in the system and more quality. It's better to have fewer low-price players and more $5,000-a-year players in the minors."
To some, this sounds like double-talk: the Tigers want quality players in the minors, but they don't intend to spend large sums of money for the bonus player, though the bonus player is the highest quality player available on the open market. But whatever the explanation—economy or efficiency—the working scouts and other personnel in the Detroit system gripe and grumble about being hampered and thwarted by penny-pinching. "Economy" has become a controversial word. It has even been blamed for the departure of the capable young McHale, who left Detroit last winter to become general manager of the affluent Milwaukee Braves.
"No, that's not the reason I left," says McHale, "though it was a factor. The Detroit owners have a tremendous financial investment in that ball club—more than five million dollars—and they have to operate in the manner best guaranteed to protect themselves and insure a return on their money. I don't see how anyone can blame them for what they have done. At the same time, however, the player-procurement program has undoubtedly suffered. They simply cannot afford to spend heavily right now for young players."
The syndicate's investment was actually $5.5 million, $2.2 million of which was paid in cash. The balance was financed through a $2 million loan from the National Bank of Detroit and a $1.3 million purchase money mortgage from the Briggs estate. The bank charges 5% interest, Briggs just under 4%. Briggs requires no principal payments for the first five years, or until 1961. The bank requires annual payments of $400,000, plus interest which will average out to $50,000 a year. In 1958 the owners paid $400,000, plus $100,000 interest, to the bank, and $36,000 interest to Briggs. The bank loan is scheduled to be liquidated the fall of 1961, when principal payments will be started on the Briggs note.
"Our payment timetable is in perfect order," reports John Fetzer.
To make sure they meet the time table and still are able to pay all operating expenses, the Tiger owners have put into effect some stringent economies. The number of ticket sellers has been cut nearly in half; the assistant public relations director left the payroll; the ballplayers are now limited to two towels a day; the free employee-lunch program is restricted. And some oldtime Tigers noticed that when a reunion party for the 1934 World Series team was held in Lakeland, Fla. during spring training, the presence of Mickey Cochrane, Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, Gee Walker, Schoolboy Rowe, Tommy Bridges and all the rest didn't impress the 1959 management to the point of providing free refreshments. What food and beverages there were came from the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce. Even quiet Charlie Gehringer, now a vice-president of the club, shook his head over this Tiger "economy."
Beyond "economy" there are other factors that have hurt the Tigers. One is the way in which Detroit players are overrated by their own management. A team that is fifth or thereabout year in and year out is fifth on merit, as the baseball saying has it, rather than because "something went wrong." And yet the Tigers, as consistent a team as baseball has ever seen (five fifth-place finishes, a fourth and a sixth in the last eight seasons), disappoint their management when they find their level.
The unwarranted optimism in the front office affects the team adversely in two ways. The players, who are a lot more sensitive than their acquired professional exterior would lead you to believe, are hurt by unfair criticism ("They're not trying, they're lazy, they're fat cats") and lose a good deal of their confidence and incentive. The management, busy trying to convince itself and others that it has the best infield, outfield, bench and pitching staff in sight, fails to recognize and repair the team's deficiencies.
It could well be that the inflated evaluation of Tiger personnel and the indifferent and lackadaisical play that Tiger players are often charged with both stem in large part from the lack of centralized authority in the front office. Opinions come from all sides, and decisions are made—or not made—here, there and everywhere. Spike Briggs, who stayed on under the new ownership for a time as general manager, left amid cries of "Who's the boss around here, anyhow?" ("We had been going around and around about organizational charts," Briggs says now, "and I maintained that the general manager should be informed on every important matter. Finally Fetzer said, 'Spike, you shouldn't get so worked up. Baseball is just showmanship, like putting on a TV program.' Well, that was it. If they were thinking that way, I knew it was time for me to get out. I told him it was all right in television to put Perry Como in there when Bing Crosby had a sore throat, but what were we going to do if Harvey Kuenn broke his leg?")
SPIKE, MAC, RICK
After Spike left, McHale was named general manager. He put in a hardworking 20 months and then departed for greener pastures at Milwaukee this past January. Rick Ferrell was named acting general manager on January 26, but the Tiger ownership did not publicly confirm him as the full-fledged general manager until shortly before the season opened. Ferrell is soft-spoken and nonassertive and, despite protests from the Tiger ownership, he has people wondering whether he has actually been given a general manager's authority.
Harry M. Sisson, the executive vice-president, has gone onto the field on days when the weather was uncertain and, with an eye to attendance, decided whether to play or not. When Bill Norman was fired, it was Jimmy Campbell, vice-president and business manager, who accompanied Ferrell to the clubhouse, walked up to Norman and said, "Bill, Rick has something to tell you." Ferrell was left with the chore of taking Norman into a waiting room outside the clubhouse and telling him he was through. The Sisson-Campbell influence in the club is strong, but because Ferrell is general manager and because Hansen now puts in several hours a day at the stadium, the players are understandably confused about who really runs the front office. And, of course, John Fetzer is unquestionably the strong man of the organization. This diffuse leadership is not the image of authority prescribed for the proper operation of a major league club.
But, after all, baseball is a game played by teams of nine men on a field, and if what happens there pleases the fans maybe the economic and organizational problems will right themselves or be forgotten. "If we were winning ball games," says Harry Sisson with shattering logic, "people wouldn't be so concerned about the front office."
Jimmie Dykes, the new manager, has no strong misgivings. He thinks he'll make the first division. He needs a few more runs, and a little better pitching. "But the horses are there," says Jim. Frank Lane of Cleveland and Bill Veeck of Chicago agree, and this at a time when Detroit was still a solid last-place club.
More significantly, the ownership group seems to be coming to the realization that while baseball may be a business it is a business like no other. It was under the "prudent man rule" that the legal counsel to the Briggs estate advised the Briggs heirs against keeping the ownership of the Tigers. It was not considered a sound investment, even though the Tigers had averaged a $118,634 annual profit in the years 1938-1951. Some of those years were awfully good, but some were awfully bad.
But the ownership group plunged in, money first. Now nearing the end of their third year in control, they have met their loan and interest payments right on schedule, but they also have a team that will make the first division only after a real struggle; a front office which does not yet convey the impression of authority; a weakened player-replacement program, which bodes ill for the future improvement of the club on the field; and a disenchanted following, which bodes ill for the future of the club financially.
The problems of the Detroit organization have been apparent to other major league clubs for some time. Now Detroit's owners seem to be learning them, too, the hard way. For all his talk of business parallels in baseball, Harvey Hansen honestly admits, "If there's one thing I've learned in my two and a half years here, it is that you have to let professionals run the game."