I suppose if I had been a better ballplayer I might never have become general manager of the New York Yankees and derived all the satisfaction I have from baseball. Back at Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn. some 50 years ago, I fooled around the infield, but I'm afraid I was like that youngster Ring Lardner later relegated to oblivion in one masterful sentence, "Although he was a very poor hitter, he was also a poor fielder." Since my abilities with a bat and a glove were negligible, I was elected manager of the Hillhouse team, which won the state championship—our star was Jumping Joe Dugan, who became a great Yankee third baseman. I can't rightfully say I had any early, built-in ambitions to become a baseball administrator—it simply seemed a shame, I thought, to break up a winning combination, and when we were all graduated I suggested to the boys that they play semipro ball together in the summer of 1912. We called ourselves the Colonials and played sandlot games in and around town. That fall most of us went off to college—I enrolled at Yale—but we got together again the following summer, when, in order to avoid the Sunday ban against baseball in New Haven, we played at Lighthouse Point, an amusement park outside the city.
After my father died I had to quit college and take over the family grocery business in New Haven. This naturally kept me in and around town instead of on campus. There was a lot of hungry talk for good baseball in New Haven in those days, but the local club in the Eastern League wasn't going anywhere, and I saw a fine future for the Colonials. To bolster them I signed up some college stars I had come to know at Yale and elsewhere, and a number of sandlotters in the area. Since Sunday ball was prohibited in New York and in Boston, too, in those days, I was able to induce several top major league stars to play for me. Our attendance was so good that I was able to pay them as much as $800 apiece for an appearance. After the 1915 World Series I got the entire champion Red Sox team to come down. We held them to a 3-3 tie ( Babe Ruth pitched for the Sox, and Ty Cobb played first base for the Colonials, getting eight assists), and the result was a new baseball rule forbidding more than three participants in a World Series from appearing in the same game in any postseason exhibition. On another occasion I got the Phillies and the Giants to play a regularly scheduled National League game at Lighthouse Point during the troublous war years, and the Colonials to this day are the only semipro team that ever played against a big league team in a big league park—the Yankees, at the Polo Grounds. Our receipts from that amounted to a meager $10.42, but I thought that Harry Sparrow, the Yankee business manager who gave me the game, was a veritable god, and the whole prospect of baseball promotion began to fascinate me.
Back in New Haven there was talk about "breaking up the Colonials." We were bringing in so many stars that the New Haven club, even though I had paid them part of the gate in deference to their territorial rights, kept falling deeper into the red. Just before the opening of the 1919 season, when the Eastern League offered me the franchise for $5,000 I took it.
Two of my best friends were Walter Johnson and Ty Cobb. Both of them played for me at Lighthouse Point, and when I took over New Haven they and other major leaguers I had come to know tipped me off on good young prospects. Johnson, with whom I almost was associated years later in the purchase of the Oakland franchise in the Pacific Coast League, was a close and valued friend until his death in 1946, and Cobb remains one today. Recently, while rummaging through my files, I came across a letter Ty sent me from Detroit in May 1919. "Well, I see you have finally entered the fold," he wrote of my fragile franchise purchase, "and I believe you have made a good move if you play the game carefully and don't let your enthusiasm run away with your better judgment. Get college players and young fellows, get a good reliable catcher, pay him good money, and a good second baseman and shortstop, and fill in with hustling young fellows; and have the best pitching staff and the rest is easy. Let me know how you are coming along."
I found two letters from Ty, written from California 40 years later, in 1959. In the first one he saw the handwriting on the wall for the Yankees that season. "George, you cannot win every year, of course you know that, but you and Casey and your organization have won more years than any club ever in baseball," he wrote. "But I have seen the Yanks slump, several consecutive games lost...and the tough job and the badge of merit is when a manager can, after a slump, pull them together and turn right around and run off a number of wins...."
In the second, received after we had lost the pennant, he advised me to take careful stock of our Yankee veterans, especially those who had slumped, and then he went on, in his customary random, jotting style: "Don't trade a tried and proved man on the record of this bad year, you want to get his true worth in a deal, trade him after a good year...he might have been affected by some personal problem, or mental attitude, this is for you to probe and find out, you have several [such veterans], make them open up to you...they will if you explain and pursue."
From seventh to first
It was quickly apparent to me when I went into organized ball that it paid to have a wide circle of friends. My experience as a semipro manager had put me in touch with baseball men all over the East, and what I really had established, without being aware of it, was a kind of private, bird-dog organization of my own—I knew what a kid here looked like, and what another one there might do. The benefits showed almost immediately. The New Haven Profs, after finishing seventh in 1919, my first year, finished first in 1920, and over the next eight years they won two more pennants and finished second twice. During this time I also managed to sell more players to the majors and higher classifications than the rest of the league combined. I take special pride in the fact that in those eight years, in the succeeding three I spent as general manager of the old Baltimore Orioles and in my 29 years with the Yankees as farm director and then general manager, I never again finished in the second division. This, I confess, was a comfortable feeling as the years passed, and those 10 pennants in the last 12, when Casey and I worked so closely together, provided a near-perfect ending.
I've known Casey Stengel almost all my baseball life. Soon after I broke into the Eastern League he became manager at Worcester, which had a tie-up with the Boston Braves, and I was impressed with him from the start. We soon got to be good friends and we'd often sit up half the night, at meetings, talking away—Casey even then did most of the talking and I did most of the listening. As the years went on we continued to see each other frequently, and my respect for his talents grew. I never felt that his so-called clowning, his great sense of fun, interfered with his managing or affected his remarkable ability to size up a situation, to know when and when not to gamble. When the Dodgers fired him as manager in 1936 and he was offered a good minor league job, I advised him against it. "You're a big leaguer now, stick to it," I remember telling him. After sitting it out a year on his Dodger salary, he became the Braves' manager. His material in Boston was as bad as it had been in Brooklyn, only less funny. Seven years later I hired him myself for a minor league managing job at Kansas City, but that was different, of course—he was joining the Yankee organization then! After that he decided he wanted to go to Oakland so he could be on the Coast, where he lived, and while it's true that Del Webb, the Yankee co-owner, watched him out there and liked his work, the decision to bring him to New York in 1949 was mainly mine. I don't think I ever made a better one.
I've often been asked to compare the two great Yankee managers of my time, Joe McCarthy and Stengel. Let me emphasize—they were both great, and I think each was right for his day and for the kind of ball club the Yankees happened to have. McCarthy, throughout his tenure, had an essentially established club. Consequently, he should not be criticized for being basically a percentage manager. With men of the caliber of Gehrig, Dickey, DiMaggio, Rolfe, Crosetti and Gordon around, that's what he had to be. But he believed in making changes when necessary, and he tried to make at least one important shift a year because he thought it perked up the team. He won his pennants fairly easily compared to the number of squeakers Casey won, and he didn't need the kind of patchwork help I sometimes had to provide for Casey, who had to rebuild and refashion his club constantly—I'll come back to that later. Joe seldom complained about anything. Only once I remember, after he had won three pennants in a row in 1943, he harked back to his close third-place finish in 1940, which had been preceded by four successive flags, and remarked that if we had brought up Phil Rizzuto to play shortstop that year instead of a year later he might have won eight in a row. He was undoubtedly right, as the 1940 pennant was lost only a day before the season ended.