The biggest pigeons in sport are the managers of the 20 major league baseball teams. Compared to a baseball manager, a football coach has job tenure like a supreme-court justice. Of the 20 current managers, only six were in their present jobs two years ago, and if the pattern continues, a solid bet would be that more than half of the 20 will be gone in another two years.
Who hires and fires these men in such a carefree, haphazard way? Why, the general managers, of course, the men who really run the big-league ball clubs. Some own the teams they direct, some have a financial interest, some are merely hired hands themselves. They operate under a cloak of relative obscurity, but they are the ones whose mistakes in planning and execution lead to failure on the field and, almost inevitably, to the departure of the manager who had been hired so optimistically a short time before. What manner of men are they?
Well, handsome and friendly John McHale of the Atlanta Braves became the youngest general manager in baseball late in 1957 when he took over the Tigers at the age of 35, but 21 months and a lot of goodwill and bad trades later, he jumped to the Milwaukee Braves. There he inherited a team, built by John Quinn, that had won two pennants and a World Series, had not been worse than third in six years of Milwaukee residence and had, the year before McHale arrived, drawn 1,971,101 people to the ball park. Six seasons later the Braves were a consistent fifth-place team and attendance had tumbled as low as 555,589. Perhaps the drop in attendance was inevitable in a city as small as Milwaukee, but it was helped by a series of public-relations blunders, including inept trades that did nothing to stop the club's decline as a National League power. Early in 1965 the Braves announced they were moving to Atlanta. McHale's lawn was littered with firecrackers and rotten eggs, and his wife and six children were harassed by obscene phone calls. The Braves were supposed to be stimulated into contention this year by the city of Atlanta, but the stimulation foundered on the reality of inadequate pitching. Four weeks ago McHale made the standard move and fired Manager Bobby Bragan, but then the Braves made a nonstandard move by bringing in help for the general manager. Paul Richards, who previously had been instrumental in developing the White Sox, the Orioles and the Astros, was given control of the farm system, a move many see as an initial step in Richards' taking over as general manager, with McHale remaining as team president. Nice guy John will make an excellent president.
Branch Rickey brought Bob Howsam and his foreclosure smile out of Denver to the St. Louis Cardinals back in 1964 as part of a palace revolution that startled the city of St. Louis and ultimately shocked the entire baseball world. With the Cardinals in fifth place in August of 1964, Owner Gussie Busch asked Bing Devine, then general manager, for his resignation along with that of Business Manager Art Routzong. Howsam, who had twice been named Minor League Executive of the Year, came on from Colorado as the last bullet ever used by troubleshooter Rickey. After St. Louis had won both pennant and World Series, Manager Johnny Keane quit. When Rickey himself also fled in embarrassment, there stood Bob Howsam wearing a World Series ring that really belonged on the finger of Bing Devine. Under Howsam, the Cardinals finished seventh in 1965, and in the fall of the year he daringly traded away three-quarters of his All-Star infield—First Baseman Bill White, Shortstop Dick Groat and Third Baseman Ken Boyer. St. Louis fans were outraged, but Howsam explained his trades by saying that the Cards were entering a rebuilding program concentrating on youth, speed and pitching, and he begged patience. Howsam's new-look Cards came on strong at the end of spring training this year, but in the clear light of May they could be seen in ninth place. Feeling the wall against his back, Howsam traded again. Several teams had offered the Giants left-handed pitchers for Orlando Cepeda, but Howsam got him with Ray Sadecki, at the time of the trade the only Cardinal pitcher with a winning record. He seemed to be reversing his course from youth, speed and pitching, but Cepeda's presence gave the speed a chance to function and made the other hitters harder to pitch around. The Cardinals began to climb toward respectability (they got as high as fourth in July), and the fans and Gussie Busch fell in love with Orlando (Gussie puts his fingers in his mouth and whistles when Cepeda comes to bat). The crowds poured into the new stadium in downtown St. Louis, and before the end of August the Cardinals had set a new home-attendance record. Moreover, each of the four Cardinal farm teams was in first place. After the most unpromising start a general manager ever had, Howsam was sitting pretty. Give him a Houdini medal for escaping early extinction, a round of Budweiser for imagination and a case of Busch Bavarian for sheer guts.
September 11, 1966
In olden, golden days, stolid, unsmiling George Weiss used to sit still and make the trades that insured pennant after pennant for the Yankees. But he grew old, and the Yanks let him out. He went over to the Mets, where he did a bad job of picking players in the expansion draft, and he had to let the New York press and Shea Stadium make his terrible team a gate attraction. He did, however, hire Casey Stengel, who covered the blunders in a fog of words. Give George credit for not stepping on a good thing. And if he retires this winter (to be succeeded by Bing Devine), give him a big wave with a Rod Kanehl banner.
Buzzie Bavasi of the Los Angeles Dodgers got Relief Pitcher Phil Regan (12-1 as the season entered its last month) from the Tigers this year for Infielder Dick Tracewski (.231 lifetime batting average). It was only the latest in a series of shrewd manipulations that mark Bavasi as the best general manager in baseball (the most patient, too: he has had the same field manager for 13 seasons). The Dodgers have won more games and attracted bigger crowds the past five years than any other team. All five Dodger farms are currently in the first division, and Bavasi has also helped, inadvertently, to build a strong junior varsity in Washington for his former first baseman, Gil Hodges. Possibly Bavasi's farseeing eye sees Hodges as his manager after Walter Alston retires.
The way the general-manager system works in San Francisco is simple. Vice President Chub Feeney, a cigar-smoking Dartmouth man who is Owner Horace Stoneham's nephew, does all the work a general manager does, and then Horace says, "No." Or "Yes." Whatever it is, Horace has the last word. The method has worked miraculously well in the past, but this season it produced one of the great lemons in baseball-trading history. Manager Herman Franks was all set to trade Orlando Cepeda to the Cubs for left-hander Dick Ellsworth, a solid starting pitcher. Horace said, "No." In May the Giants worked out another Cepeda trade, this one with the Cardinals for left-hander Ray Sadecki, an unsolid starting pitcher. This time Horace said, "Yes." Cepeda's hitting turned St. Louis into a team; Sadecki's pitching won two games for the Giants in 3½ months.
Joe L. Brown of the Pittsburgh Pirates stood at a bar this winter with Ralph Houk, then the Yankee general manager, and the two agreed to make a trade involving Bob Friend. Houk sent a list of players to Brown and from it, after talking to several people (including deposed Yankee Pitching Coach Cot Deal), Joe selected Relief Pitcher Pete Mikkelsen. Friend did nothing for the Yanks and was sold for money to the Mets, who do not need money. Mikkelsen has won eight games for the Pirates and saved nine others. Joe is more handsome and less funny than his comedian father, though he has made some hilarious deals in the past (like trading away Dick Groat in 1962 for Julio Gotay and Don Cardwell). But he has his team fighting for the pennant, and you can't laugh that off.
Bill DeWitt of the Cincinnati Reds made a slight mistake between the closing of last season and the opening of this one. On paper, trading Frank Robinson for a couple of pitchers and an outfielder didn't look too bad, but ugh! Cincinnati has been wallowing most of the year while Robinson, almost certain to be named the American League's Most Valuable Player, is winning a pennant for Baltimore. Bill still feels that maybe next year the trade will look a little better. That's next year. This year DeWitt is making baseball history: only once before has a team traded a man who became an MVP for someone else the next season (that was when high-salaried Rogers Hornsby was sent from the Braves to the Cubs back in 1928).
Give them a chance and the people in Philadelphia would boo a funeral. John Quinn made Milwaukee the strongest team in the league in the 1950s but resigned and moved to the Phillies, who were a chronic last-place club. Quinn shook up the farm system, made an unbelievable number of good trades and developed the Phils into a consistent contender. And still the people boo. Their favorite target nowadays is Manager Gene Mauch, but Quinn stuck with Mauch through a 23-game losing streak in 1961 (which could have got him thrown out of the general managers' union). It would be an upset if Quinn quit on Mauch now.
Only 32, Tal Smith is officially no more than the Director of Personnel for the Houston Astros, but he has many of the duties of a general manager. Almost unknown, Smith has been with the Houston club since its beginnings, and he helped select players for the club in the expansion draft of 1961. He was shunted aside when Paul Richards took over, but Owner Roy Hofheinz kept Smith around as his personal adviser and liaison man with the Astrodome architects. When Richards and Hofheinz had a disagreement and Richards left the Houston organization, Smith filled the vacuum. It's a big vacuum.
Ever since Leo Durocher arrived in Chicago he has been pointing to the future, and dutiful General Manager John Holland has gone and dug up the young bones. The Cubbies are abuilding, and the average age of the team has dropped sharply since Leo's arrival. Owner Phil Wrigley now seems content to let Holland and Durocher do the job which he, Wrigley, kept gumming up in the past. But as long as Leo is manager, Holland will find himself reflecting Leo's views in the front office.
Currently, Calvin Griffith of the Minnesota Twins is generally regarded as the toughest man in baseball to trade with. Other general managers maintain that Calvin places far too high a price on his players. After the team and Calvin and his family (Griffith is surrounded by relatives in the Twins' front office) moved from low-attendance Washington to high-attendance Minnesota in 1961, there was at last enough money in the club treasury to maneuver with. Calvin quickly maneuvered to a pennant in 1965, but the blame for Minnesota's failure to repeat as champions can be traced to Griffith's reluctance to trade for sound defensive infielders. He will have to deal over the winter, but he probably will remain as stubborn and unyielding as ever.
The most spectacular trade in years—in which the Baltimore Orioles got Frank Robinson from Cincinnati—was actually set up by Lee MacPhail just before he left the team to accept baseball's mandate to help new Commissioner William Eckert learn about baseball. But the decision to go ahead with it was made by MacPhail's successor, 38-year-old Harry Dalton, who as farm director had made the Orioles' minor league chain one of the best in the game (four of their six teams are currently in the first division). Then Dalton traded for Relief Pitcher Eddie Fisher to further bolster an already strong relief staff. But the pitching has been sagging and so have the Orioles, and if they lose the World Series because of the pitching, what does Dalton do next?
The biggest mistake that Gabe Paul of the Cleveland Indians made was going along one year too long with his old friend, Manager Birdie Tebbetts. Birdie has definite theories on pitchers, and he stuck with them even when the staff became a shambles of grumbling and confusion. Gabe paid the price of loyalty, though he was doing it on a short bankroll. He also had to try to build up attendance in a town that seems disenchanted with baseball, and Gabe had a lot of his own money invested in the Indians. Birdie agreed to retire, and Paul was able to sell his interest to Vernon Stouffer, a man who will keep the team in Cleveland and also keep Gabe on as general manager. Paul will always be remembered as the man who brought Rocky Colavito back to the Indians, just as Frank Lane is remembered there as the man who traded him away. The Colavito trade was costly because Paul had to give up Tommy John, John Romano and Tommie Agee for him, but it was a brave trade; because of it, attendance rose nearly 300,000 and saved the franchise for Cleveland until Paul could come up with a buyer who could afford to keep the team there.
Who messed up the Boston Red Sox the most? It seems to be a tie between Tom Yawkey, for his role as The Overindulgent Owner, and former Manager and General Manager Mike Higgins, for his role as The Bad Trademaker. Now rookie General Manager Haywood Sullivan, 35, is shaking up the club, and attendance is up in Boston. Even though the Sox have spent most of the season in last place, the team shows fair promise, and three of its five farm clubs are in the first division.
As for the New York Yankees, who is the general manager? Dan Topping Jr.? Let's skip this and get on to more serious matters.
Ed Short of the Chicago White Sox is a man of butterscotch shirts and magenta slacks who sits each day in the press box at Comiskey Park reading the out-of-town papers for stray bits of baseball information. He rose from White Sox statistician to general manager and has worked for Chuck Comiskey, Frank Lane, Hank Greenberg, Bill Veeck and Arthur Allyn. Some say that he also worked for Al Lopez when Lopez was the team's field manager and guiding genius. After Lopez retired, he and Short tried to convince Owner Arthur Allyn to hire Mayo Smith as manager, but Allyn balked, and Eddie Stanky was the compromise selection. This year Short did not get the second baseman he needed in April until June, when he traded Eddie Fisher for Baltimore's Jerry Adair. Short tends to overrate the Sox pitching staff, which, while good, isn't good enough to carry a basically punchless team. Even though he wanted to stop playing it because the fans didn't seem to respond to it, Short still stands respectfully for The Star-Spangled Banner.
Fred Haney of California has done an outstanding job of building the expansion-club Angels into a contender. A former manager should be entitled to the second guess, but Haney does not interfere with his manager, Bill Rigney. Instead, he spends his time developing young players and picking up established ones at bargain prices. His blue eyes are constantly poring over baseball's waiver lists in search of an old player who can be rehabilitated. This year, retreads Jack Sanford (37) and Lou Burdette (39) have a combined record of 20-6 for the Angels, and Rick Reichardt (23) was the best young player in the league before he underwent surgery.
Charlie Finley had three general managers in his first five years at Kansas City, if you are willing to include Insurance Man Pat Friday. Now he has Ed Lopat, and have you noticed how quiet Finley has been this year? Amazing. No donkey-riding, no moving the team to Louisville, no bus-burnings. Could it be that Lopat has convinced Charlie that winning is the thing? Lopat got three hustling young defensive outfielders for the A's this year in Jim Gosger, Danny Cater and Joe Nossek—just the kind that help a young pitching staff. The A's are currently the youngest team in the American League, and five—count 'em, five—of their six farm clubs are in the first division. Even his worst enemy will admit that when it comes to signing young players the toughest man to beat is Charlie O. In any case, to Eddie Lopat, who rendered unto the American League almost a full year of Finleyan silence, give anything he wishes.
The Detroit Tigers have had a perennial reputation as the dark horse of the American League. This season, under Manager Charlie Dressen, they were supposed to be the real thing, but Charlie's death and the serious illness of his replacement, Bob Swift, have turned 1966 into a bewildering year for the Tigers. General Manager Jim Campbell, a friendly man, is now confronted with the problem of finding a manager who, like Dressen, can handle pitchers and control this sometimes difficult ball club. If Jim finds the right man, his future is bright. If he does not, his name in Detroit will be as popular as Edsel.
Most of the trading done by George Selkirk of the Washington Senators has been with the Dodgers, and one of his first moves was to get former Dodger Gil Hodges as his manager. The team, though still a member in good standing of the league's Underprivileged Class, has definitely improved the last three years. Selkirk is one of the few men ever to get the best of Buzzie Bavasi in a trade—Pete Richert, Phil Ortega, Frank Howard, Dick Nen and Ken McMullen have meant a lot more to the Senators the past two seasons than John Kennedy and Claude Osteen have to the Dodgers. Score Selkirk good on trades, bad on farm teams (only one minor league club is in the first division) and awful on income: the Senators will draw only about 650,000 people this year.